And the game, seemingly wrapped up after Gill Byrd's second interception set up John Carney's 37-yard field goal with 6:35 remaining, was back in the hands of John Elway with a little more than three minutes left.
Elway, who has made a living with 31 fourth-quarter comebacks in his 10-year NFL career, couldn't do it again yesterday at Jack Murphy Stadium. One play after Bieniemy's fumble was recovered by Broncos safety Dennis Smith at the San Diego 34, TC Elway was intercepted by Tony Blaylock in the end zone.
The interception, the third off Elway by the NFL's second-best defense, sealed a 24-21 victory for the Chargers. It was the third straight win for San Diego after starting the season 0-4 under first-year coach Bobby Ross. The defeat was the second in the past three games for Denver.
"I didn't want to get to the point where Elway did one of those two-minute things," said Chargers cornerback Blaylock. "I was on the opposing end in Cleveland a couple of times, and I didn't want him to do it again."
Asked what he thought after Bieniemy fumbled, Ross, the former Maryland and Georgia Tech coach, said: "I felt like we were still in the football game. I tried to convey that to my team. Sure enough, we got the ball back on the very next play. Even if they had scored, I thought we had a chance to win the ballgame."
Though Ross never had witnessed Elway's late-game magic firsthand, he knew about the history of these two teams. Four of those comebacks had been at the expense of the Chargers. Just before the fumble, Elway had taken the Broncos on a six-play, 65-yard, 92-second drive that had cut San Diego's lead to three.
Trying to hit Mark Jackson, who minutes before caught a 28-yard touchdown pass against Blaylock, Elway went for the kill. This time, Blaylock came down with the ball, and with one foot clearly out of bounds. It was ruled that Blaylock had been forced out of bounds on contact by Jackson.
"There was no contact," said Jackson.
Said Blaylock, "The officials made the right call."
Said Elway, "He made a great play."
Blaylock's late heroics against Elway were partly the result of his watching tapes of the Denver quarterback last week with Byrd, who has gained a reputation for intercepting his old college rival. Yesterday's interceptions were the eighth and ninth by Byrd against Elway, the most by any defensive back.
"I can't explain it, but I'm glad I've been successful," said Byrd, who in four years at San Jose State never intercepted Elway when he played at Stanford. "You have to concentrate against him, and maybe that's why I do well, because I really raise my level of concentration for him."
San Diego quarterback Stan Humphries raised the level of his game against Elway. The former Washington Redskins backup played his best game since being traded to the Chargers during the preseason. Humphries was 20 of 27 for 349 yards -- the first time he went over 300 yards in his career -- with two touchdowns. He also ran for a touchdown.
Denver .. 0 7 0 14 21
San Diego 7 0 14 3 24