Dynasty dashed


New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who started the season recovering from a stroke, walks off the field after the Patriots were eliminated by the Denver Broncos after their AFC Divisional football game in Denver, Saturday Jan. 14, 2006. The Broncos won, 27-13, and will head to the AFC Championship game.

The Associated Press
Published: Monday, January 16, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 16, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
There were no crutches in sight, only ex-champs in a somber locker room.
The Patriots were just about the healthiest they'd been the whole season. In the locker room, they didn't blame their mistake-filled flop on questionable calls by officials.
There was befuddlement, though, at how a disciplined group that thrived under the pressure of three Super Bowls victories could come unglued with a chance for a fourth. Five turnovers plus an opportunistic opponent equaled a 27-13 divisional playoff win for the Denver Broncos on Saturday night.
Coach Bill Belichick said Sunday there were "very questionable calls" and that he was "surprised that was the playoff crew" of officials, but didn't blame the loss on those calls.
"They played better than we did," Belichick said on a conference call.
Now comes a long offseason of soul-searching about how a budding dynasty ended with a dud.
"When you lose, you want to go down fighting, you want to go down playing your best," New England quarterback Tom Brady said, "and we didn't do that."
The Patriots didn't do that for most of the regular season.
Still, they had a chance to become the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls, something seven other teams who won two straight - including Joe Montana's 49ers and Terry Bradshaw's Steelers - failed to do. And, like the Patriots, none of those seven made it back to the title game the next year, either.
"You can't win 'em all," said linebacker Willie McGinest, although Brady had done just that in his other 10 playoff games. "It's not going to stop us from doing what we normally do, fighting hard in the offseason, getting guys back to the way we used to be and make another run."
The runs the Patriots made in the first 10 games of the season looked more like limps.
Rodney Harrison was the strong safety, the emotional and tactical heart of the defense. Matt Light was the veteran left tackle who protected Brady. Both had their seasons ended by injuries - Harrison's knee and Light's broken leg - in the third game.
The Patriots played two games without both of their top two running backs, Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk. Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour missed four games and linebacker Tedy Bruschi missed the first six before returning from a mild stroke.
"It's a tough one to swallow," Seymour said. "It's disappointing, very disappointing. The last game is done, and we feel like it's premature."
At midseason, the Patriots were 4-4. Belichick's father Steve died after the 10th game. After the 11th, the Patriots were 6-5 with four losses by at least 10 points.
"We're sitting at 4-4, not a very good football team and losing a ton of guys to injuries and Coach losing his father," Brady said. "In a lot of ways it's been a very rewarding year just because we overcame things."
They went 4-1 in their last five games but two of those wins were over the New York Jets and one was over Buffalo - the weakest teams in the AFC East where New England's 10-6 record was enough to win the division.
Then they won the wild-card playoff game 28-3 against Jacksonville, the team that last beat the Patriots seven years ago before their 10-game playoff winning streak began. The Jaguars were 12-4 this season but their schedule was weaker than the one the Patriots played.
Denver was different - a 13-3 team unbeaten at home in the challenging AFC West.
"I think the last few weeks you're just going on vapors. Your tank's on empty," Brady said, "but you just keep finding a way because you realize it's all worth it if you make it to the Super Bowl."
But the coordinators for their three championships - Charlie Weis on offense and Romeo Crennel on defense - left for head coaching jobs. Players insisted those departures didn't hurt the team.
Now Eric Mangini, who succeeded Crennel, is considered a top candidate for the New York Jets top job.
"For selfish reasons we always want a guy like Mangini back," Seymour said, but "you have to move on."
The Patriots did that well in the secondary when rookie cornerback Ellis Hobbs and free agent safety Artrell Hawkins took over for sidelined players.
The offensive line also protected Brady with two rookies on the left side and Russ Hochstein filling in when starter Dan Koppen was lost for the season in the ninth game. But did that harm the inconsistent running game, or has Dillon, a nine-year veteran, lost a step one year after setting a single-season team rushing record?
And although McGinest said, "we don't make any excuses," did Asante Samuel really interfere with Ashley Lelie in the end zone, a questionable penalty that led to Denver's first touchdown?
There will be a longer offseason than usual to ponder those questions.
Belichick said he's already planning for next season, but acknowledged Sunday that, "it's been a long year."
Brady did lead the NFL with a career-high 4,110 yards passing and played a bigger role with so many players hurt. And Adam Vinatieri joined Denver's Jason Elam as the only two kickers in NFL history to score at least 100 points in each of his first 10 seasons.
But how did such clutch players fail in such a big game?
Brady, now 1-4 against Denver, threw a game-changing interception that Champ Bailey returned 100 yards. Vinatieri missed a 43-yard field goal, breaking a string of 25 successful fourth-quarter kicks.
Deion Branch, last year's Super Bowl MVP said before the game that Belichick had drummed into his players that the Patriots weren't champs this season because the title came last season.
The coach turned out to be right. "In a lot of ways this kind of invigorates you," Brady said. "You hate to end the season this way. Hopefully, we'll come back stronger next year. I know it's a long ways away. It's just disappointing."
Denver Notice had been sent in recent weeks. The Patriots squad that lost to Denver in October was substantially different from the one that ran onto Invesco Field on Saturday night for an AFC divisional playoff game.
Either the Broncos did not get the memo, or they just answered "no" to the question of whether it mattered.
That would be but one "no" many Patriots followers have to digest along with the team's first postseason defeat of the century, a 27-13 loss to the Broncos before an orange-happy crowd of 75,579.
No Tom Brady-led comeback. No Adam Vinatieri game-winning kick.
No owner Robert Kraft standing in a sea of confetti atop a podium with the Lombardi Trophy held high.
No parade. No city-wide celebration. No three-peat.
Denver, which won its first playoff game since John Elway and Terrell Davis led it to a Super Bowl victory seven years ago, will face the winner of today's Pittsburgh-Indianapolis contest next Sunday in the AFC Championship game.
The Patriots, the two-time defending league champions with an NFL-record 10 straight playoff victories, will begin their offseason.
"We tried to play like champions." New England (11-7), which entered the playoffs having lost two more games this season than they had in the past two years combined, made costly mistakes that were out of character.
Brady throwing interceptions. Vinatieri missing a field goal. Troy Brown muffing a punt.
"We made it easy for them," said Brady, who threw two interceptions as the Patriots committed five turnovers.
The most stunning was Brady's first pick, just his fourth in 11 career postseason games. With New England driving to take the lead with a minute to play in the third quarter, his error on third and goal from the 5 was a 14-point mistake.
Trying to slide away from blitzing Broncos safety Nick Ferguson, Brady let go a poor throw toward Brown in the end zone.
Champ Bailey stepped in front of Brown, snared the ball out of the air and raced toward the opposite end zone.
He ran through one tackle and was off to a 101-yard touchdown before Benjamin Watson came out of nowhere to blast him at the 1. The ball went flying, as Bailey was almost knocked out by the blow after the longest non-scoring interception return in NFL playoff history.
The Patriots' defenders coming onto the field screamed at coach Bill Belichick to challenge the spot of the ball. The Patriots believed the ball may have been fumbled through the end zone, thus New England would take over at the 20 with a touchback.
The on-field ruling stood, though, and Mike Anderson went in untouched around left end on the next play to give Denver a 17-6 lead.
Belichick felt the call should have been overturned.
"The ball definitely went out of his hands," Belichick said. "The officials reviewed the play, so ask them."
If Brady's miscue wasn't bad enough, two other key members of the Patriots for the past decade made errors.
Vinatieri misfired on a 43-yard field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter. Then after the Patriots held on defense, Brown dropped a punt that Denver recovered at the New England 15. Three plays later, Jake Plummer hit Rod Smith for a 4-yard touchdown and 24-6 lead.
"I just dropped it," Brown said. "You're rolling the dice when you do that. You really don't have a chance when you have two special teams turnovers."
The Patriots gave Denver 10 points near the end of the first half on fumbles - one by Kevin Faulk that set up a touchdown, and another by Ellis Hobbs on a kickoff return that resulted in a field goal and a 10-3 Broncos lead at the break.
Faulk's fumble might not have been so painful were it not for a questionable pass interference penalty on the next play. Asante Samuel got caught in a hands-on battle with Ashley Lelie down the left sideline. It appeared harmless, particularly since Lelie initiated the contact, but a few seconds after the play, a flag came flying. Samuel practically celebrated assuming the call was against Lelie. He was wrong.
The infraction netted 39 yards for Denver, putting the ball on the 1, where Anderson barreled his way into the end zone to give Denver its first lead.
Hobbs lost the handle on the ensuing kickoff, and four plays later Jason Elam tacked on a 50-yard field goal.
Even when trailing, 24-6, there remained fight in the defending champions. They scored in less than a minute, with Brady hitting Deion Branch for a 73-yard gain, and connecting with David Givens from the 4 for a touchdown with 8:05 left.
"We're always going to fight," linebacker Willie McGinest said. "There are a bunch of competitors in this locker room. We just didn't bounce back.
"The playoffs you have to play almost perfect football, and we didn't do that."
The Patriots gained 420 yards - with Brady (20 of 36) throwing for 341 yards - to Denver's 286, but the season-high five turnovers were too much to overcome.
"It's hard to win when you give the ball away," Belichick said.
"We beat ourselves," Branch said. Denver marched to another Elam field goal (34 yards) to extend the lead to two touchdowns with 3:20 left.
Any hope of a miracle comeback died with Brady's second interception, grabbed by safety John Lynch. Soon after, Plummer took a knee three consecutive times to end the Patriots' quest for a third consecutive title.
"We didn't talk about winning three in a row, we talked about winning one game at a time," Brown said. "It's a tough situation, and it gets tougher when you look at the opportunities we let slip by.
"That makes it even worse." The Broncos won, 27-13, and will head to the AFC Championship game.

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