Meltdown At Mile High

Everything the Denver Broncos could wish for came true on Saturday night. Turnovers, blown opportunities by the opposition, and calls going their way helped to secure the Broncos trip to the AFC Championship game. New England misfired five times, with a number of their gaffes resulting in 24 "gift" points to the Broncos. Somber reactions from the locker room were enough to tell you that the Patriots knew they gave the game away, and another shot at a Super Bowl.

PHOTO: New England quarterback Tom Brady sits on the bench as the Denver Broncos defeated New England, 27-13, in their AFC Divisional Playoff game in Denver on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2006. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Point to Belichick for the past 10 consecutive playoff wins. Don't point to him, though, for this one.

The successful Patriots coach had most of the proper plays in place and made the right calls and challenges over the course of the game, but his team still lost the AFC Divisional Playoff game, 27-13, in Denver Saturday night.

It's execution and focus upon which the finger of the blame lies, as Patriots players turned the ball over an uncharacteristic five times, essentially throwing (or fumbling) the game away.

An even-more-than-usually stoic and concise Belichick had only the words "It's hard to win when you give the ball away" to say about the turnovers after the game. That's more than an understatement.

Consider this: over the span of New England's 10-game playoff winning streak, the Patriots committed only six total turnovers, while forcing opponents to make 27. That's four-and-a-half times more, or a plus-21 differential. Saturday's game? Five times fewer, or a minus-4 differential. And this is in one game, as opposed to 10. That is not good math.

"We turned the ball over five too many times. You've got to take care of the ball, and we didn't. They forced some and we gave them some," said Patriots WR Troy Brown, who later went on to lament about his own turnover while trying to return a punt. "I was trying to catch it and I didn't. I probably cost my team a chance to come back in the game. I just didn't catch it."

Brown can't place the blame solely on himself. In fact, it was some of the more reliable players who also made equally - if not more - costly mistakes, such as QB Tom Brady and back Kevin Faulk's turnovers and K Adam Vinatieri's missed field goal.

"It's just unfortunate that it was our best players making some of the big mistakes," Brady said. "It was disappointing at the end of the game when you look up at the scoreboard and realize how many points we left on the field and can't make up for it.

"Everyone is disappointed - a very disappointed lockerroom. I think we realize what a special opportunity we had and the opportunity is not in front of us anymore. Denver made a lot of great plays, but we helped them out. I can't complain because I have been on the other side of those plays in years past."

Brady is right about that, judging by his team's previous track record for taking care of the ball, or the infamous tuck rule in the snow against Oakland in 2002. The numbers would also back up his commending over Denver, but maintaining that his team gave some away, too.

Many of the turnovers were just sloppy. On top of that, it was apparent Belichick thought his team found itself on the wrong side of some questionable calls. These points were both illustrated in what led to two of Denver's touchdowns (which accounts for more than half of the Broncos' points).

With two minutes left in the first half, Faulk fumbled after running up the middle for three yards to his team's own 36. On the first play of the ensuing Denver drive, CB Asante Samuel, who had been playing a terrific game to that point, drew a pass interference call from the officials, placing the ball on the 1-yard-line. Bronco RB Mike Anderson easily drove it in for a score the next play.

Later, with less than a minute left in the third, Brady misread Denver CB Champ Bailey's potential to pick off a throw to Brown in the end zone. Bailey intercepted it and ran it back 100 yards before getting decked by a steam train in TE Benjamin Watson, who seemed to come out of nowhere to stop the return at the 1 as Bailey's limp body fumbled the ball out of bounds. However, Belichick thought it also appeared that Bailey, who said after the game he didn't see Watson coming, may have fumbled it into the end zone and then out of bounds. The coach signaled for a challenge, which could have made the play result in a touchback and the ball at the 20 for New England if overturned, but the officiating crew concluded a lack of evidence and, once again, Anderson ran in an easy one-yard score.

"They were blitzing and I was running from a guy on my right," Brady said. "Champ (Bailey) had outside coverage and I thought I had Troy (Brown) open in the corner. Champ just made a great play and that's why he is among the best in the league. That was a 10-point swing right there. I saw Troy outside of Champ after I threw the ball. Champ wheeled back and undercut him to make the interception. It's tough - when I got hit I rolled over on the ground and I heard the crowd's reaction. At that time I realized it was going the other way."

Actually, factoring in the fact the pass could have resulted in a Patriots touchdown in the absence of an interception, the play could be considered a 14-point swing - the difference in the game. That's why Denver coach Mike Shanahan said he gave the game ball to Bailey.

"That gives you an idea of what I thought about that play," Shanahan said. "That was a turning point in the game, obviously. They were driving down and had a chance to go up, and Champ's a great player and made a big-time play when it counted. Great players do that."

And good teams capitalize on their opponents' mistakes. Denver turned the first four Patriots turnovers into 24 of their 27 points. What's more, those four scoring drives consumed just 2:35 of playing time, and the Broncos required only 24 yards of offensive (not including penalties) to score them.

Maybe neither team really showed it deserved to win, but Denver certainly didn't show it deserved to lose. On Saturday night, lose seemed to be all the Patriots could do.

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