DENVER - After everything went their way on Saturday, the Denver Broncos might believe Santa Claus exists. Before the Broncos beat the Oakland Raiders 22-3, they got two gifts: Kansas City beat San Diego and Buffalo upset Cincinnati.
The Chargers’ loss gave Denver its first AFC West title since 1998. Denver clinched a first-round playoff bye with the win and Cincinnati’s loss. The Broncos improved to 12-3. Cincinnati is 11-4 and Denver holds the tiebreaker over the Bengals because of a better record in AFC games. Denver’s first playoff game will be on the weekend of Jan. 14-15 and it will be the first at Invesco Field at Mile High. “It was sure nice to get a Christmas present like that, that’s for sure,” Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. Since the Broncos clinched the second seed in the AFC playoffs, they have the option of resting some starters in their regular-season finale next Saturday at San Diego. The Chargers’ loss at Kansas City eliminated them from the playoff race. Shanahan said he heard about Cincinnati’s loss before Denver’s game started, but the players were not informed. The scores of the Chargers loss and the Bengals loss were shown on the stadium’s video board after Denver’s first possession, but many players claimed they didn’t hear about their good fortune until later in the game. The Broncos had to win to clinch the first-round bye, and they dominated the Raiders in front of 76,212 excited fans. Denver got a field goal on its first drive, forced Oakland to punt, and then quarterback Jake Plummer scored on a 1-yard run to give Denver a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Plummer was sharp in the first half. He completed 15 of 18 passes for 209 yards before halftime, often finding wide open receivers on crossing routes. Ashley Lelie had six catches for 110 yards and Rod Smith had five catches for 91 yards. “We knew, like every other team, they were going to load the box and try to stop the run,” Lelie said. “We tried to flip the script on them and attack them in the passing game.” “From game film we saw they had a tough time covering the shallow crosses,” said Plummer, who finished 19 of 29 for 268 yards and an interception. “We moved the ball well there in the first half.” Denver scored with 2:17 remaining in the first half on a 2-yard run by Mike Anderson, who passed the 1,000-yard mark for the season with 46 yards against Oakland. Anderson left the game with a twisted ankle, but he’ll have three weeks before the next meaningful game. The Broncos botched the extra point but led 16-0. Oakland had a chance to make the game competitive but quarterback Kerry Collins gave Denver an easy interception late in the first half. On third down and 2 at Denver’s 4-yard line, Collins was pressured and threw a pass right to Broncos safety Nick Ferguson. The Broncos led 16-0 at the half. “I took off and I was really trying to throw it away,” Collins said. “I just didn’t get it high enough.” The Broncos got only two field goals in the second half but the defense held the Raiders to three points. Oakland finally scored in the fourth quarter on a 43-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski, but it was contested. Shanahan, who was fired by Raiders owner Al Davis four games into the 1989 season, called a timeout to put some pressure on Janikowski. “That’s what Shanahan does,” Raiders safety Stuart Schweigert said. “He hates the Raiders. It’s on the same line as that reverse they ran at the end of the game in Oakland this year. The reverse was unnecessary and they could have just ran out the clock by running it up the gut like they did today.” Denver reached a few milestones Saturday. The AFC West championship is the Broncos’ first since John Elway was the team’s quarterback. The Broncos finished with an 8-0 home record for the fifth time in team history. Despite the historic day, there wasn’t much celebration. A few players wore hats and T-shirts celebrating the division championship, but the Broncos had a nonchalant approach to winning the AFC West. “I didn’t see a real big celebration in here, and I’m kind of glad,” John Lynch said. “That tells you that while this was one of our goals, it was one goal on our way to an ultimate goal. You never know how a team is going to respond. I’ve been places where you hang from the rafters when you do this.” Shanahan wouldn’t discuss whether he would play Denver’s key starters next week, and the players wanted to enjoy the win before thinking ahead. “I’m going to enjoy Christmas Eve tonight and Christmas,” Plummer said, “and see what happens next week.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 476-4891 or email@example.com TAKING SOME TIME OFF Mike Anderson tied an NFL record Saturday when he topped the 1,000-yard mark five years after the previous season he reached the milestone. Of the five players to run for 1,000 yards five years apart, Anderson is the only one to do so for the same franchise. MIKE ANDERSON 2000 — 1,487 with Broncos 2005 — 1,014 with Broncos GARY BROWN 1993 — 1,002 with Oilers 1998 — 1,063 with Giants EARNEST BYNER 1985 — 1,002 with Browns 1990 — 1,219 with Redskins OTTIS ANDERSON 1984 — 1,174 with Cardinals 1989 — 1,023 with Giants MIKE GARRETT 1967 — 1,087 with Chiefs (AFL) 1972 — 1,031 with Chargers