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Peppers return longest non-TD ever

DENVER (AP) -- You could have timed the play with a sundial.

Rumblin', bumblin', stumblin', Julius Peppers looked up and saw
nothing but 104 yards of thin, Mile High air between himself and
the end zone. He only made it 101.

That pretty much defined the day for the Carolina Panthers, who
came up just short Sunday, falling 20-17 to the Denver Broncos in a
wild game filled with lots of strange and unexpected performances
from lots of strange and unexpected places.

Reuben Droughns ran for 193 yards for Denver (4-1) and Jake
Plummer made up for his fourth-and-goal interception to Peppers by
throwing a pretty, 39-yard touchdown pass to Ashley Lelie for the
winning points.

Lelie's touchdown -- caught over the shoulder in the corner of
the end zone, then upheld after Carolina asked for a review -- was
one of the few things that went to script on an otherwise crazy
day.

"I think of myself as someone who can put the bad things behind
me," Plummer said. "It was an emotional roller coaster. To go
down there and throw that pick was bad, stupid."

Despite the loss, Peppers will surely get a game ball -- maybe a
bottle of oxygen, too -- for his 101-yard trek that goes down as the
longest interception return in NFL history to not result in a
touchdown.

Sure not to get a game ball for Carolina (1-3) is Matt Willig,
who got called for unsportsmanlike conduct when he picked up a flag
and chucked it downfield after the Panthers were called for false
start before a tying field-goal attempt with 6:42 left.

The 20 yards in penalties forced Carolina to punt and the
Broncos, mostly behind Droughns, ran the rest of the time off the
clock.

Willig said he got hit in "the eye area," a la Orlando Brown,
who got nailed directly in the eye by an official's flag in a game
five seasons ago.

"It's not too often that one player single-handedly costs a
team a chance to win. That's how I feel," Willig said.

Peppers, meanwhile, gets credited for arguably the NFL's
wackiest play this season.

After picking off Plummer's pass 4 yards deep in his end zone,
the 283-pound lineman took off down the sideline. He started
running out of steam around the Denver 20. Then he cut inside. Then
he started looking backward.

"I was really worried about someone chasing me, so I was
looking back to see who it was," he said.

It was Broncos receiver Rod Smith. With Smith bearing down,
Peppers stumbled, Smith pounced on him, the ball rolled into the
end zone and Smith recovered. Carolina challenged the play,
however, and kept the ball when referee Larry Nemmers ruled Peppers
was down before he lost control.

"First down, California," Nemmers announced. Yes, it was that
kind of day.

"I owe it to the other guys that are out there to play hard and
do anything," Smith said, explaining his excellent effort.

Three plays later -- with both Smith and Peppers sucking oxygen
on the sidelines -- quarterback Jake Delhomme scored on a 3-yard run
to put Carolina ahead 17-13.

After a change of possessions, though, Plummer drove the Broncos
87 yards for the go-ahead score.

The Denver quarterback threw two touchdowns, one with his right
(and correct) hand and one with his left.

The left-handed TD -- Plummer's second left-handed throw of the
season -- was a 5-yard shovel pass to Droughns, a
fullback-turned-tailback who started in place of the injured
Quentin Griffin. The fifth-year veteran put spark back into
Denver's struggling ground game and did wonders for his own stats.
He had a career total of 127 yards rushing entering the game.

"On Playstation I'd seen him a couple times returning
kickoffs," Panthers defensive lineman Mike Rucker said. "That's
all I really know."

He wasn't the only fullback to get unexpected action. The
Panthers came into the game without Stephen Davis (knee) and lost
backup DeShaun Foster in the second quarter with a broken
collarbone.

It left things to a pair of fullbacks -- Nick Goings and Brad
Hoover -- who had three carries between them this season. Forced to
improvise, the Panthers lined up in the wishbone a couple times and
depended on Delhomme through the air.

Delhomme threw for 173 yards, Goings ran for 22 and Hoover had
21, none of which was good enough to keep the NFC champions from
losing their second straight.

Game notes
Jason Elam made two field goals in the first quarter and
became the 16th player to kick 300 field goals. ... Panthers S
William Hampton sprained his knee early and did not return. ... Fox
said Davis wasn't 100 percent during warmups so he made him
inactive, hoping to avoid further injury.

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