SAN DIEGO, NOV. 28 -- After the Chargers intercepted one of his first passes and returned it an NFL-record 103 yards today, John Elway of the Denver Broncos promised himself he wouldn't let it ruin his game.

"My heart dropped out," he admitted.

"But I kept telling myself I wasn't going to get mad and keep thinking about it."

A few moments later, however, when he walked back onto the field, the electronic scoreboard reminded him of it by telling the largest crowd ever in Jack Murphy Stadium that Elway had thrown only two touchdown passes, compared to 13 interceptions in his career against the Chargers.

"I know it wasn't supposed to get to me," he said, "but this time it bothered me. It just added fuel to the fire." His internal fire was one the Chargers couldn't extinguish. His three touchdowns and 347 yards passing kept the sparks flying today in the Broncos' 31-17 victory over the Chargers.

As a result, the AFC West's already complicated race grew even more tangled.

Denver (7-3-1), as a result of its third consecutive victory, moved within a half-game of the first-place Chargers (8-3). The Seattle Seahawks, who are 7-3 in the division, will play the Los Angeles Raiders on Monday night.

"It was a must win to have any chance to win the division," Denver Coach Dan Reeves said. "There's no way you can go 2 1/2 games down {which is what the Broncos would have been if they had lost} with four games to go and expect to win the division."

The Broncos are within range now, and it's because of Elway. Their offense totaled 522 yards today, 387 of that generated by Elway's passing and running. On third and 14 in the third quarter, he ran 16 yards to keep alive a drive that resulted in a touchdown.

And when the Chargers cut the lead to 14 points in the fourth quarter and thought they had the Broncos pinned on third and 10, he ran 29 yards -- the longest rush from scrimmage of his career -- to keep the Chargers in line.

Although Elway threw the pass that San Diego safety Vincie Glenn took 103 yards, he was Denver's life today.

His 52-yard pass to Mark Jackson after the interception set up Sammy Winder's one-yard touchdown run that tied the game, 7-7.

Elway's 46-yard touchdown pass to rookie Rickey Nattiel midway through the second quarter put Denver ahead, 14-7.

After his 16-yard run, Elway passed five yards late in the third quarter to Gene Lang to push the lead to 24-10.

And his nine-yard throw to Vance Johnson made it 31-17 and insurmountable.

The Chargers and Broncos lined up afterward to praise him.

"John was fantastic," said San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts, who knows a thing or two about being fantastic.

Fouts completed 23 of 40 passes for 322 yards today, the 50th 300-yard passing game of his career. But he knew Elway was playing on a higher level.

"If I was a fan," Fouts said, "I'd have known I was watching something special. I enjoyed watching him; it's a shame it was from my sideline."

San Diego Coach Al Saunders: "John was magnificent."

San Diego linebacker Gary Plummer: "This afternoon John Elway was like the $2 million man."

The Chargers' Glenn: "Sometimes, you just wonder what you have to do to stop him. The last three games, he's proved he's the best quarterback in the league. He's rising to the occasion."

Denver Coach Reeves: "I was especially proud of John Elway. I know that interception made him mad, and I know he has had some tough games against San Diego. But today, he was great."

And when he is great, so are the Broncos. They punted once, in the fourth quarter, and, after that one interception, had no turnovers. They moved so swiftly on offense that Elway said later he had wanted to have on-sides kickoffs and go for more.

And even though Fouts got his yards -- as he does against any team -- the Denver defense did a credible job, preventing him from throwing even one touchdown pass.

Denver's glory, of course, was San Diego's misery. Throw today's loss on top of last week's 34-3 defeat in Seattle, and some might think the Chargers are starting to look a little suspect after racing to an 8-1 record, their best start since 1961.

But Mike Davis, their veteran safety, said: "I don't think anybody in here will go into a shell. It's not time to pack up and turn out the lights."

But they were kicking themselves for mistakes that could have changed the outcome, Elway's performance notwithstanding.

Trailing by 17-10 just before halftime, Fouts moved them from their 35 to the Denver 7 in just six plays, taking only 41 seconds of playing time. But after two incompletions, the Chargers had third and goal from the seven.

Fouts threw to tight end Kellen Wilsow at the 1, and his helmet was about even with the goal line before several Broncos kept him out of the end zone.

Before the Chargers could get the field goal unit on, the first half ended. No tie, no field goal.

"We work on those situations every day in practice," disappointed Al Saunders said.

Reeves didn't lose sight of that play, either, saying: "Nothing was bigger than what happened right before the half when they couldn't score the touchdown or get the field goal team on the field."

Fouts also threw two interceptions that hurt, bringing thoughts that the Chargers might be falling back to earth after spending time atop the AFC West for the first time since 1981.

Denver 7 10 14 0 31 San Diego 7 3 0 7 17

First Quarter

SD -- Glenn 103 interception return, (Abbott kick), 12:51

D -- Winder 1 run (Karlis kick), 14:38 Second Quarter

D -- Nattiel 46 pass from Elway (Karlis kick), 6:07

SD -- FG Abbott 32, 8:56

D -- FG Karlis 27, 13:51 Third Quarter

D -- Lang 5 pass from Elway (Karlis kick), 5:33

D -- Johnson 9 pass from Elway (Karlis kick), 13:40 Fourth Quarter

SD -- Adams 1 run (Abbott kick), :54

A -- 61,880

Broncos Chargers First downs 31 18 Rushes-yards 47-175 10-66 Passing yards 347 312 Return yards 17 115 Passing 21-32-1 23-40-2 Sacked-yards lost 0-0 2-10 Punts-average 1-49 3-46 Fumbles-lost 0-0 0-0 Penalties-yards 3-26 8-49 Time of possession 41:19

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING -- Denver: Lang 24-73, Winder 16-62, Elway 6-40, Bell 1-0. San Diego: Adams 5-38, Anderson 3-16, Sp

PASSING -- Denver: Elway 21-32-1, 347 yards. San Diego: Fouts 23-40-2, 322.

RECEIVING -- Denver: Johnson 7-88, Nattiel 4-118, Winder 3-27, Jackson 2-56, Mobley 2-30, Massie 1-13, Kay

MISSED FIELD GOALS -- Denver: Karlis 39.