PHOTO: Cornerback Asante Samuel #22 of the New England Patriots argues a pass interference call with back judge Greg Steed #12 in the second quarter during the AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Denver Broncos on January 14, 2006 at Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Patriots 27-13 to advance to the AFC Championship game. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Tom Brady threw interceptions. Adam Vinatieri missed a field goal. Troy Brown fumbled a punt. The key players from three previous Super Bowl runs all factored negatively in their historic playoff winning streak coming to an end. They went down fighting, but the Broncos prevailed 27-13, and to move on to the AFC Championship Game.
The New England defense did what they set out to do: stop the run. They held the Broncos to 96 yards rushing, as Mike Anderson (69 yards on 19 carries) and Tatum Bell (19 yards on 6 carries) found very little running room. Quarterback Jake Plummer was up-and-down all night, finishing with 197 yards on 15-of-26 passing. But New England's 5 turnovers led to 24 Denver points, as too many mistakes doomed this year's playoff run.
New England led 3-0 on an Adam Vinatieri 40-yard field goal late in the 2nd quarter after a defensive 1st half. After forcing a punt, the Patriots took over on their own 7 with 2:41 remaining in the half. Tom Brady (20-of-36 for 341 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions), who was knocked down repeatedly throughout the game, hit David Givens with a 21-yard pass and Corey Dillon (13 carries for 57 yards) picked up 8 just before the 2-minute warning. As the offense broke the huddle following the timeout, no one could have foreseen what happened next. Kevin Faulk went up the middle for 3 yards, but fumbled and Denver recovered.
Plummer threw deep for Ashley Lelie (5 catches for 50 yards) on the next play, and Asante Samuel was called for a questionable pass interference in the end zone, placing the ball on the 1-yard line. Mike Anderson burst into the end zone on the next play for Denver's first lead of the night, 7-3.
On the ensuing kickoff, Ellis Hobbs was hit by the kicker, Todd Sauerbrun, fumbled, and Denver recovered. Plummer hit Jeb Putzier with a 5-yard pass, but threw incomplete to Lelie two plays later. Jason Elam squeaked a 50-yard field goal just over the crossbar, and Denver led 10-3 at halftime after forcing two fumbles and scoring 10 points in just under one minute.
After the intermission, the New England defense stopped Anderson on two runs, and Rosevelt Colvin's pressure forced Plummer to throw incomplete. The Patriots drove 58 yards in 11 plays, as Brady hit Daniel Graham, Givens, and Deion Branch (8 catches for 153 yards) for 1st downs. But on 3rd-and-2, Brady bounced a quick pass to Branch. Vinatieri kicked a 32-yard field goal to cut the Denver lead to 10-6.
The defense rose up once more for New England, as they forced Plummer out of the pocket on 2nd down, and Mike Vrabel picked up a sack on 3rd down, as the Patriots had four people in the backfield.
After completing a 33-yard pass to Troy Brown, the Patriots executed a perfect flea flicker, and Brady completed a 26-yard pass to Branch. Brady completed two more passes before throwing incomplete to Givens. On 3rd-and-goal, Brady rolled to his right, and, facing pressure, looked for Brown in the end zone. Champ Bailey stepped in front of his pass and ran 100 yards in the other direction. Only Ben Watson's hustle and huge hit prevented a touchdown, but one play later Mike Anderson was in the end zone again with another 1-yard run that increased Denver's lead to 17-6.
The Patriots drove to the Denver 16 on their next possession, only to watch the usually automatic Vinatieri miss a 33-yard field goal.
The defense forced another Denver punt, but Troy Brown fumbled after calling for a fair catch, and Denver recovered. Three plays later, Plummer hit Rod Smith with a 4-yard touchdown pass, extending the lead to 24-6.
The Patriots were in the end zone just two plays later. Brady hit Branch with a 73-yard pass, then hit Givens with the 4-yard scoring strike (his 7th straight playoff game with a touchdown catch). In just 33 seconds the Patriots cut the lead to 24-13 to keep their hopes alive.
But after Elam kicked a 34-yard field goal, Brady's playoff perfection came to an end on a long desperation throw that Sean Lynch intercepted.
A season that featured so many injuries and low points ended on a sour note for the Patriots. After rebounding from a 4-4 start, the Patriots won 6 of 7 to win the AFC East and make the playoffs. With their resounding win over Jacksonville last week, New England was considered a threat in the playoffs because they were playing with the same poise that had led to back-to-back championships. But an uncharacteristic performance ended their season early tonight, and they'll spend a tough off-season wondering what could have been.
Darren is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: DestinationSuperBowl. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "Darren Kelly"