Meet the New Champ

Times Staff Writer

The New England Patriots, two-time defending Super Bowl heavyweights, were eliminated from the playoffs Saturday, and it was the Champ who delivered the knockout blow.

Denver cornerback Champ Bailey returned an interception 100 yards -- although he failed to score -- in a 27-13 divisional playoff victory that ended the Patriots' bid for an unprecedented third consecutive championship.

"This gives us a lot of confidence," Bronco defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban said. "Hey, we beat the two-time world champs, man, and we have the capability next week to beat whoever our foe should be. So we're excited."

Said linebacker Al Wilson: "This is definitely a confidence booster for a lot of people. Guys who didn't believe should believe now."

Turnovers were the difference. In their NFL-record 10 consecutive postseason victories, the Patriots turned the ball over only six times. But they had almost that many turnovers Saturday night, when they littered Invesco Field with three fumbles and two interceptions.

"They forced some and we gave them some," said returner Troy Brown, who was charged with one of the turnovers on a muffed punt return. "It's just hard to overcome. It's already a tough place to play, and we had to take care of the ball to have a chance. We didn't do that."

The turnover that had everyone buzzing was Bailey's play, both a personal highlight and lowlight for him. It was the longest non-scoring play in postseason history. He intercepted a Tom Brady pass one yard deep in the end zone, then ran it all the way back to the New England one before being blindsided and knocked out of bounds by tight end Ben Watson. The hit not only jarred the ball from Bailey's hands -- officials ruled it a fumble out of bounds -- but it knocked him loopy. He was on the ground for about a minute before trudging to the sideline just in time to see Mike Anderson score his second one-yard touchdown run of the game.

"I didn't see him coming at all," Bailey said of Watson, who angled in from the right side. "But regardless of whether I saw him or not, I was gassed. ... It was like me telling my legs I've got to go, and my legs were saying, 'Nope.' "

The play was a turning point -- the Patriots, trailing only 10-6, were in position to possibly take the lead before Bailey's return set up a touchdown that put Denver ahead, 17-6.

Even if Bailey didn't go the distance, the Broncos did. The victory marked their first in the postseason since the retirement of quarterback John Elway, who hung it up after winning the Super Bowl following the 1998 season. Since, the Broncos had lost three consecutive playoff games.

The Patriots, meanwhile, had been unstoppable in the postseason and had won three of the last four Super Bowls. Since 2001, they hadn't even lost to a team twice in a season -- until losing to the Broncos, who had beaten them in October.

"It's just the end of the road for us," New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "That's all we see. We knew we had to play sharp and take care of the ball. The ball didn't bounce our way a couple times, and all of a sudden we were in a hole."

After beating the Patriots, Denver players made no secret of the fact they're rooting for Pittsburgh today when the Steelers play at Indianapolis in the other AFC divisional playoff. The reason is simple: If the Steelers win, they have to play at Denver next Sunday. But if the Colts win, they will play host to the Broncos at the RCA Dome, where Denver has been eliminated from the playoffs each of the last two seasons.

"Of course you pull for Pittsburgh," Ekuban said. "We need to tell all the Denver fans to take a red-eye [flight] tonight, go to Indy and stand outside the stadium and put some Pittsburgh gear on, man. Be traitors at least for one day. We need Pittsburgh to come here, man."

The statistics back him up. The Broncos are 12-2 in postseason games played at home, and they're 3-8 as visitors. The familiar surroundings were certainly a help against the Patriots, especially when the crowd got so loud that Brady couldn't be heard at the line of scrimmage. He wasn't nearly as commanding or smooth as he was in his other 10 playoff games, all New England victories.

"I guess it hasn't sunk in yet," Brady said of the defeat. "It's going to be a long flight home, a long off-season -- it's just tough all around."

Although the Patriots won the yardage battle, 420 to 286, the Broncos had short-field scoring drives of 40, seven, one, 15 and 61 yards.

With less than two minutes remaining in the first half, New England had the ball, a 3-0 lead and enough momentum to have quieted the house. But then, over a span of 18 seconds on the game clock, the Patriots fumbled twice and were flagged for pass interference in the end zone -- a controversial call on cornerback Asante Samuel that gave Denver first and goal at the one. The Broncos scored on the next play, taking their first lead in a postseason game since the Elway era.

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