Charlie Joiner had 12 stitches over his right eye, a bruised hip and a "head-splitting headache." He said he felt as if he had gone 15 rounds in a boxing ring. But he was smiling through the pain, and the champagne.
"It feels great.I love it," said the veteran wide receiver in the bubbly, victorious San Diego Charger locker room Monday night. Despite a physical beating that put him out of the game several times, Joiner caught the 32-yard touchdown pass from record-setting quarterback Dan Fouts early in the third quarter that propelled the Chargers to a 17-7 triumph over the Denver Broncos and their first AFC West Division championship.
The success was remarkable for the pass-happy Chargers because they played much of the game without their two All-Pro receivers.
John (J.J.) Jefferson wore a flak jacket under his jersey to protect his severely bruised ribs, but he never saw action.
Joiner spent as much time in the dressing room getting treatment for various wounds as he did on the field. But he kept coming back -- wildly cheered by the boisterous crowd of 51,906 spectators at San Diego stadium every time he reappeared -- and caught three passes for 58 yards. That put the 5-11, 183-pound battler from Grambling over 1,000 yards in a season for the second time in his 11-year pro career.
"I was very proud of the way our guys hung in there," said Coach Don Coryell, architect of the sophisticated passing offense, after his men had ushered him into a celebratory shower, fully clothed.
"You figure with out two big guns, J. J. and Joiner, out of the game, it would have been easy to fold our tents. But we didn't. We had to make great plays and we made them."
Now the Chargers (12-4) have two weeks to heal before their playoff appearance since 1965, when they ruled the West in the old American Football League.As division champs, they earned a first-round bye and the home field advantage against conference opponents in the playoffs.
Meanwhile the 10-6 Broncos -- dethroned as AFC West champs after two years and victims of two consecutive regular season defeats for the first time in Red Miller's three-year regime as head coach -- will play the Houston Oilers (11-5) in a wild-card game at the Astrodome Sunday.
If the Oilers win, they will come to San Diego to play the Chargers the following week. If the Broncos beat the Oilers, the Chargers would entertain the Miami Dolphins in the AFC semifinals because, under the complicated playoff rules, a wild-card team cannot play an opponent from its division until the conference final.
Jefferson, a swift 6-1, 198-pound second-year man from Arizona State, said his painful ribs are improving daily. "I could have played next week, but I'm glad I don't have to," he said. "I felt it would be better for me not to play this game. . . . I thought I could help the team more by staying on the sidelines and leading the cheers."
When Jefferson and Joiner were both out, San Diego's two wide receivers were four year man Larry Burton and John Floyd, a rookie from Northeast Louisiana who is nicknamed Pink after the rock group Pink Floyd. Burton caught two passes for 30 yards, Floyd three for 37 yards.
Missing his favorite targets, Fouts turned largely to Bob Klein, 6-5, 237-pound tight end, and 11-year veteran from Southern Cal with big-game experience from his playoff days with the Los Angeles Rams. Klein caught four passes for 69 yards.
But it was Joiner who made the most important reception on the Chargers' first possession of the second half.
After Fouts had passed for seven yards to running back Clarence Williams (50 yards in 16 carries, 36 yards on five receptions), and Williams had dashed around left end for 13 yards, Fouts faked a handoff, pumped downfield, delayed, and then lofted a perfect spiral to Joiner, who had gotten behind Denver cornerback Steve Foley.
"It was a slant-go pattern and the fake was so good I saw both the cornerman and the safety freeze," explained Joiner, whose catch not only provided the go-ahead points but assured Fouts a new single-season National Football League passing record.
Fouts, 28, revered in Charger-crazy San Diego as the "Bearded Bomber," needed 156 yards to break the old NFL record of 4,007 yards set by Joe Namath of the New York Jets in 14 games in 1967.
The touchdown pass to Joiner gave him 181 yards for the night. He finished with 17 completions in 29 attempts for 230 yards and a regular season total of 4,082 yards in 16 games.
Fouts also scored the first Charger touchdown on one of his fare runs, four yards around the right side on a rollout, to complete a 45-yard drive after Denver quarterback Craig Morton fumbled when sacked by San Diego end Fred Dean. This was one of six costly turnovers -- two fumbles, and four Morton interceptions -- by the Broncos.
Fouts had three passes intercepted, but the first was not his fault.
It came on the first-quarter play on which Joiner suffered his hip injury. He was open over the middle, but was jarred by Denver safety Bernard Jackson as the ball reached him, and it skipped off his hands to the other safety, Bill Thompson.
Shortly thereafter, Joiner left the game with a gash over his right eye that needed to be sewn. He was battered, bruised and bleeding, but he kept coming back for more -- as did the Chargers.
Joiner also was involved in the most controversial play of the game.Five minutes into the third quarter, he caught a pass at the Denver 41, was hit and injured again, and fumbled.
It richocheted off one Charger to Denver cornerback Foley, who shoveled it to teammate Jackson, who ran a couple of steps and fumbled out of bounds. The officals ruled the Denver never had possession, and San Diego retained the ball.
"It was the worst call I have ever seen. It was terrible officiating . . . The ref missed the whole thing completely," groused Denver linebacker Bob Swenson. "But the Chargers deserve to win. They are a class team, not like Oakland. Oakland is dirty."