Broncos fall short in OT, miss playoffs


Published: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

DENVER — Joe Nedney and the San Francisco 49ers sent the Broncos packing and set off a celebration in Kansas City.

Nedney kicked a 36-yard field goal with 1:56 left in overtime as the Niners eliminated Denver from the playoffs with a stunning 26-23 victory Sunday.

All the Broncos (9-7) needed was a win over the double-digit underdog Niners (7-9) or even a tie to earn a spot in the playoffs but they couldn't score on three trips inside the Niners 5 and blew an early 13-0 lead.

Denver's fifth loss in its last seven games made AFC West rival Kansas City (9-7) a wild-card team.

Champ Bailey returned his league-leading 10th interception for a 70-yard touchdown in the first half for Denver. San Francisco's Walt Harris returned one of his three takeaways for a touchdown.

The Broncos sent the game into overtime when rookie Jay Cutler drove his team 80 yards in 10 plays and threw a fastball to fellow rookie Tony Scheffler for a 9-yard TD with 90 seconds left in regulation.

Both teams had to punt on their first possession of overtime. Needing only a tie to get a wild-card berth, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan chose not to run out the clock with seven minutes left in overtime but instead put the ball in the air behind Cutler, who was knocked woozy and sidelined by a hard hit in the first half.

San Francisco got the ball back with 4:38 left and drove 42 yards to the Denver 18, where Nedney kicked his fourth field goal. As it sailed through the uprights, Denver safety John Lynch smashed his helmet on the grass, a crushing end to Denver's dreams of a franchise-record fourth straight trip to the playoffs.

Frank Gore, the NFC's starting Pro Bowl running back, gained 153 yards on 31 carries and caught two more passes for 32 yards for San Francisco.

After Bailey intercepted Alex Smith's pass and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, the Niners responded with 17 straight points, capped by Harris' 28-yard interception return for a touchdown that gave San Francisco a 17-13 lead.

Harris also picked off Jake Plummer, who came in after Anthony Adams' hard hit sent Cutler to the sideline in the second quarter. Plummer, who was benched five weeks ago, also committed a false start, almost unheard of for a quarterback.

Cutler looked woozy upon his return after halftime and made several bad decisions and poor throws and even burned all of Denver's three timeouts on one third-quarter drive.

In the first half, Gore reeled off a 29-yard gain to put the Niners at the Broncos' 35. Smith tried to check down to Gore on the next snap but it went through his hands and right to Bailey, who took it 70 yards for the touchdown and a 13-0 lead.

The play might have helped Bailey's quest for Defensive Player of the Year — he led the league with 10 interceptions and 11 takeaways — but that would be of little consolation to the perennial Pro Bowl cornerback.

Tatum Bell topped 1,000 yards rushing but committed a costly fumble for the third time in December. He had a 15-yard reception on a screen pass but lost the ball and Harris came in and casually picked it up to hand to umpire Undrey Wash, apparently unaware like everybody else that he was picking up a live ball.

The call on the field was a catch, but Niners coach Mike Nolan challenged it and referee Larry Nemmers gave possession to San Francisco.

The Broncos also blew a chance to put the game away in the closing minutes of the first half.

Denver was ahead 13-0 when Smith fumbled at the Broncos' 20. Instead of falling on the ball, however, defensive end Kenard Lang tried to pick it up and run the other way. Instead, the ball bounced out of bounds and the Niners decided to kick the field goal on second down.

Nedney was good from 46 yards to pull San Francisco to 13-3 at halftime. Gullback Moran Norris's 32-yard TD catch cut the lead to 13-10.

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