PHOTO: Cornerback Champ Bailey #24 of the Denver Broncos intercepts a pass in front of wide receiver Troy Brown #80 of the New England Patriots and returns it 100-yards before fumbling at the 1-yard yardline in the third quarter of the AFC Divisional Playoff game on January 14, 2006 at Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Not only did the Patriots lose a playoff game for the first time in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady Era, but they also became unraveled with turnovers, penalties and a brief, uncharacteristic sideline tussle between linebackers Willie McGinest and Larry Izzo.
Three fumbles (two on special teams) and two interceptions spelled doom for the Patriots' NFL-record 10-game postseason win streak. The 27-13 loss in Denver punctured the aura of invincibility surrounding the Patriots in general and Brady in particular. He had thrown 147 consecutive playoff passes without an interception before Champ Bailey picked him off in the end zone on a third-and-goal from the 5-yard line in the third quarter.
Even though tight end Benjamin Watson clobbered Bailey out of bounds at the Patriots' 1 after a 100-yard return, the Broncos cashed in with a touchdown that put them ahead 17-6. Brady was flushed out of the pocket by blitzing safety Nick Ferguson on the play (protection was a problem for much of the game), but the pass was ill advised, considering that Troy Brown had no chance of keeping the more-athletic Bailey away from what amounted to a jump ball.
"That was a 10-point swing right there," Brady said.
Misery loves company, and Brady had plenty of that. Running back Kevin Faulk, who had been so instrumental in the Patriots' third-down success down the stretch, lost a fumble in the second quarter. Rookie cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who had played so well late in the season, fumbled away a kickoff. And Brown, one of the most popular players in franchise history, muffed a fourth-quarter punt deep in his own territory to seal the loss.
The Broncos converted the Patriots' first four turnovers into 24 points. The Patriots had turned the ball over only six times in their 10-game playoff win streak and had been plus-21 in turnover differential during that span.
"It's just unfortunate that it was our best players making some of the big mistakes," said Brady, who was picked off again with three minutes remaining. "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."
--Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini was hired to coach AFC East division rival the New York Jets on Tuesday. In his press conference, Mangini thanked the Jets for the opportunity, and praised his mentors Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells. Why wouldn't he? At 34, Mangini becomes the youngest head coach in the NFL, and he landed the job having never served as a head coach in either the NFL or the college ranks.
--The day after the loss to Denver, coach Bill Belichick was still fuming about what he termed "real questionable" officiating. The Patriots were incensed that back judge Gregory Steed called what appeared to be a phantom pass interference penalty -- in the end zone, no less -- on Asante Samuel in the second quarter, setting up Denver's first touchdown. And Belichick clearly thought Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey had fumbled the ball out of the end zone for a touchback on his interception return.
"But the bottom line is we didn't play well enough to win," Belichick said. "Didn't coach well enough to win. Denver was the better team (Saturday) night. There were some things that went against us, but I don't think that was the difference in the game. I think Denver deserved to win because they played better."
After a pause, though, Belichick added, "I'm surprised that that was a playoff (officiating) crew."
--Despite cornerback Ellis Hobbs' fumble in the playoff loss, the Patriots got solid production out of their rookie class with left guard Logan Mankins (18), left tackle Nick Kaczur (12) and Hobbs (10) combining for 40 starts, including playoffs. Kaczur was inactive for the playoff loss after battling a shoulder injury down the stretch.
Belichick said the Class of 2005's experience should serve them well next season.
"I think that next year they will be starting from a much higher point in terms of experience and background in our system, knowing what it takes to play in the league and all of that," he said. "I think they came in at a very mature level.
"To avoid the second year not being as good as the first, I think they have to maintain their same work ethic and attitude, desire, aggressiveness, all of those kind of things that gave them a chance to be successful this year. They need to maintain that and then combine it with a good offseason. Then they have a chance to improve."