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Denver ruins Eric's return

Thirty minutes before Sunday's kickoff, Eric Dickerson returned to his old spot on the football field _ about 20 yards away from his nearest Indianapolis teammate. Dickerson's long-distance approach to the usually relaxed pre-game warm-ups was a symbolic match to his tremendous _ and turbulent _ NFL career.

The 30-year-old running back returned from a 10-month sojourn to gain a team-high 55 yards on nine carries in the Colts' 27-17 loss to Denver. But that news was almost secondary compared with Dickerson's lukewarm greeting by fans and some teammates in Indianapolis.

"If we won this football game, we're back in the (division) race and everything with Eric is probably forgotten," said guard Brian Baldinger, one of Dickerson's main antagonists. "If he gains 150 yards and we win, we'd carry him off on our shoulders. That's just the way it is.

"But right now, I don't know if it's going to stew."

In the last year, Dickerson has criticized his teammates, demanded a trade, threatened retirement and then had to sit out the last six weeks in a dispute with general manager Jim Irsay. For all of that, he was rewarded last week with a four-year, non-guaranteed contract extension in the $10-million neighborhood.

Several Indianapolis offensive linemen have made it clear they are not Dickerson fans. But it's also clear that they need a game-breaking running back to have a shot at the playoffs.

"Everybody is on this teammate-kick," Dickerson said after the game. "There are three or four guys on the team that I don't see eye to eye with. I get along with everybody else. It's just like any other job. Three out of 45 is not bad."

Three out of 59,850 is pretty bad. And that was about the ratio of fan support Dickerson got from the Hoosier Dome crowd when he came onto the field for the first Colts series.

Along with the boos, he also was greeted with a half dozen banners that called for Dickerson's departure and increased playing time for tailback Albert Bentley. They ran from the direct (Eric Who?) to the cute (Park the Rolls and Drive the Bentley).

"That's no big deal," Dickerson said. "I don't get caught up in that."

Somehow, it's hard to imagine Jim Brown, Walter Payton or O.J. Simpson getting that kind of greeting from the home crowd. But then, none of those players came close to matching the "Me first" legacy Dickerson has seemingly perfected in Indianapolis and, before that, with the Los Angeles Rams.

"Eric did what he had to do to get his money," Baldinger said. "As the world has seen here, the world of sports is not just cheerleaders and hometowns. It's about getting paid."

Dickerson did win over the fans for a few minutes in the first quarter when he rushed for 35 yards on three carries. On his second carry, Dickerson passed Simpson for sixth place on the all-time rushing list (he now has 11,281).

But with Denver quarterback John Elway scrambling and throwing for 317 yards and two touchdowns, the Colts had to play catch-up and Dickerson's role gradually was reduced.

Indianapolis eventually tied the game at 17-17 in the fourth quarter, but Elway took the Broncos on successive drives of 58 and 56 yards to put it away. The win kept Denver (3-4) from suffering its first four-game losing streak in 18 years.

It also kept the pressure on Dickerson and his teammates.

Along with the issue of Dickerson's popularity in the locker room, there is also the question of how he will fit into a game plan that centered on a passing attack during his absence.

At various points Sunday, Indianapolis faced fourth-and-1, first-and-goal from the 1 and third-and-2 situations. The Colts passed all three times.

"That was okay with me," Dickerson said. "I don't care what schemes we run. I can run anything.

"Just give me a hole."