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Sports Then and Now

Classic Rewind: Broncos Block Chargers Chance at Victory

Posted on October 15, 2009 by Dean Hybl

Each week, Sports Then and Now picks one NFL matchup and looks through the history books to find an intriguing past meeting between the two teams. We recap the game and hopefully help reintroduce (or introduce for you younger readers) you to some of the greats (and in some cases not so greats) from the history of professional football.

As two original members of the AFL, the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers twice annually on the field since 1960 and will face off for the 100th time when they meet November 22nd in Denver. Since 1977, the two teams have been the most dominant squads in the AFC West, combining for 19 of the last 32 division titles. Denver has won 10 titles, while the Chargers have claimed the division crown nine times, including each of the last three years.

There have been some high-scoring meetings between the two teams.

In just the second-ever meeting between the teams in 1960, Jack Kemp threw three touchdowns and the Los Angeles Chargers scored the final 14 points of the game to win 41-33. In that game, Gene Mingo of the Broncos kicked four field goals, scored a rushing touchdown and returned four kickoffs for 99 yards.

In 1963 the two teams took turns running up the score. Denver defeated San Diego 50-34 on October 6 and then the Chargers returned the favor with a 58-20 beat-down of the Broncos on December 22.

Perhaps one of the most exciting games in the series occurred in 2000 when the then-winless Chargers used three touchdown passes from Ryan Leaf to grab a 37-24 lead before Gus Frerotte tossed two touchdown passes in the final five minutes to lift the Broncos to a 38-37 victory.

Our pick for the Classic Rewind is a 1985 battle that features a pair of Hall of Fame quarterbacks in John Elway and Dan Fouts. Neither quarterback had a career day, but they both made the big plays down the stretch. The overtime battle finished with a dramatic twist that helped propel one team toward future success and the other toward a long period of futility.

The Matchup: San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos

Series Record: The Broncos and Charger have met 98 times with Denver holding a 53-44-1 advantage. Suprisingly, despite losing nine more games to Denver than they have won, San Diego has actually out-scored the Broncos 2,100 to 2,074.

The Game: November 17, 1985, Mile High Stadium, Denver

Team Records: San Diego 5-5, Denver 7-3

Overview: The San Diego Chargers were coming off consecutive wins over the Broncos (30-10) and Los Angeles Raiders (40-34) and were looking to close within a game of the Broncos in the AFC West. Denver entered the game leading the Los Angeles Raiders by one game and the Chargers by two in the division. The Broncos were coming off an emotional 17-16 Monday Night Football victory over the San Francisco 49ers and were looking to avenge their earlier loss to the Chargers.

Coaches: San Diego – Don Coryell (8th year in SD; 13th overall); Denver – Dan Reeves (5th year)

Dan Fouts made his sixth and final Pro Bowl appearance for the Chargers in 1985.

Dan Fouts made his sixth and final Pro Bowl appearance for the Chargers in 1985.

Notable Chargers: Dan Fouts (qb), Tim Spencer (rb), Lionel James (rb), Gary Anderson (rb), Kellen Winslow (te), Wes Chandler (wr), Charlie Joiner (wr), Jim Lachey (ot), Ed White (g), Billy Ray Smith (lb), Woodrow Lowe (lb), Gil Byrd (db), Bob Thomas (k)

Notable Broncos: John Elway (qb), Sammy Winder (rb), Gene Lang (rb), Gerald Willhite (wr), Vance Johnson (wr), Steve Watson (wr), James Wright (te), Clarence Kay (te), Bill Bryan (c), Rulon Jones (de), Karl Mecklenburg (lb), Tom Jackson (lb), Louis Wright (cb), Dennis Smith (ss), Steve Foley (fs), Rich Karlis (k)

Interesting Notes: This game featured two head coaches that arguably belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Don Coryell was an offensive innovator during his tenure with the Charger and St. Louis Cardinals. Dan Reeves was successful in three coaching stops, leading Denver to three Super Bowl appearances and also reaching the Super Bowl with the Atlanta Falcons… San Diego tight end Kellen Winslow was playing in only his fourth game of the season after also having missed nine games in 1984 due to a serious knee injury.

The Game: The Mile High Stadium crowd had not even had time to site down when San Diego rookie Gary Anderson took the opening kickoff 98 yards to give the Chargers an early 7-0 advantage.

However, it didn’t take long for John Elway to respond as the Broncos scored later in the quarter on a four-yard touchdown pass from Elway to Steve Watson.

John Elway

Steve Watson caught many big passes from John Elway during his career, including the first Denver touchdown in the win over the Chargers.

San Diego had a chance to put more points on the board in the opening quarter, but a 47-yard field goal attempt by Bob Thomas was blocked.

The Chargers did manage to score in the second period as the lone score of the quarter was a six-yard touchdown pass from Dan Fouts to Lionel James to give the Chargers a 14-7 halftime advantage.

Though growing a little long in tooth by 1985, the Chargers still possessed their high-flying “Air Coryell” offense. They finished first in the NFL in passing offense despite having a 34-year old quarterback and a 38 year-old receiver in Charley Joiner. Wes Chandler would lead the team in receiving and earn a spot in the Pro Bowl, but the Broncos were able to neutralize his speed. He caught only two passes for 28 yards while Joiner had only three catches for 32 yards.

The receiving weapon for the Chargers against Denver proved to be the 5-foot-six inch Lionel James. In his second season in the league, James would go on to rush for more than 500 yards and catch passes for more than 1,000 yards. Against Denver, he rushed 15 times for 64 yards and caught a game-high 11 passes for 93 yards.

In addition to James, Fouts also found Kellen Winslow four times for 64 yards. Fouts ended the game completing 23 of 45 passes for 245 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

On the other side of the field, third-year pro John Elway was also having a solid, but unspectacular game. He completed 28 of 50 passes for 261 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

In somewhat of a surprise considering that the Denver defense was higher regarded than their San Diego counterparts, the Chargers sacked Elway three times while Fouts was never dropped.

The Chargers maintained their lead until early in the fourth period when Gene Lang scored on a two-yard run to tie the game. On their next possession, Lang gave Denver the lead with a four-yard touchdown run. Lang finished the contest with 51 yards rushing and 45 yards receiving.

San Diego responded with a 36-yard field goal by Bob Thomas to cut Denver’s lead to 21-17. Fouts and the Chargers then took the lead on a two-yard run by Tim Spencer.

John Elway could only watch helplessly from the sideline as Dennis Smith and Louis Wright turned an apparent loss into a Denver victory.

John Elway could only watch helplessly from the sideline as Dennis Smith and Louis Wright turned an apparent loss into a Denver victory.

Elway and the Broncos were able to drive down the field and Rich Karlis converted a 34-yard field goal to send the game into overtime.

In overtime, Fouts and the Chargers moved the ball quickly downfield and it looked like Elway and the Broncos would never get a chance to touch the football.

As it turns out, Elway’s services would not be needed.

San Diego reached the Denver 24-yard line before the drive stalled. Bob Thomas set up for a 41-yard field goal only to have it blocked by Dennis Smith. However, the seemingly game-saving play was negated by a timeout that Denver had mistakenly called prior to the kick.

Thomas then lined up for a second attempt at a game-winning field goal. Amazingly, Smith again broke free for the block and this time Louis Wright scooped up the ball and ran 60-yards the other way to snatch away the victory from a shocked San Diego squad.

The Mile High Stadium crowd thundered their approval as the Broncos came away with an improbable 30-24 victory.

Post Script: The 98-yard kickoff return by Gary Anderson was the only kickoff return touchdown in the 143 returns of his career.

The winning touchdown by Louis Wright was the fourth and final touchdown of his career. Before his return, the last time the Broncos returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown was when John Bramlett did it against the Chargers on Dec. 27, 1966.

The Chargers would lose another close game 37-35 to the Houston Oilers the following week. They won their next three games, but lost their final contest to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs for the third straight year.

The following season San Diego opened the season with a 1-7 record and Al Saunders replaced Coryell as the head coach with the team finishing with a 4-12 record.

Charlie Joiner retired following the 1986 season and Kellen Winslow and Dan Fouts each followed in 1987.  All three were later reunited in the Hall of Fame.

While San Diego stumbled in the following years, the Broncos continued their climb to the top of the AFC. They finished 11-5 in 1985, but did not earn a playoff bid as the Raiders won their last six games to edge the Broncos by a game. They also lost the wild card tiebreaker to the New England Patriots and New York Jets.

The following season, Denver made the first of what would be a series of three Super Bowl appearances in a four-year stretch. They also won the AFC West four times in the next six years. San Diego didn’t again claim the division title until 1992.

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