DENVER It took a Champ to knock off the champs.
Huffing, puffing, sprinting down the sideline, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey made the interception that put an end to Denver's years of playoff misery and finished off New England's dominating dynasty.
The record shows that Bailey got caught and knocked down at the 1-yard line after his 100-yard return Saturday night. But his interception of Tom Brady did plenty of damage, setting up the game-changing touchdown in Denver's 27-13 victory over the defending Super Bowl champions.
"It was a great play by me," Bailey said.
It was the highlight of the first playoff game in the history of Invesco Field, which resulted in Denver's first postseason win since John Elway's last game, the 1998 Super Bowl.
Next week in the AFC championship game, the Broncos will play the winner of Sunday's meeting between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.
New England (11-7), meanwhile, will go home, three wins short of NFL history.
Trying to become the first team to win three straight Super Bowls, the Patriots simply didn't have enough to overcome Denver's steady play, a few bad breaks or their own five turnovers. That was one fewer than they had during their entire, record-setting 10-game playoff winning streak that ended at the hands of the Broncos (14-3).
"When you lose, you want to go down fighting," Tom Brady said. "You want to go down playing your best and we didn't do that. We made it easy for them."
It didn't get really easy until Bailey changed the game.
The Patriots were moving the ball well in the third quarter. They cut a 10-3 deficit to four points on a field goal and had moved quickly to the Denver 5 for what could have been the go-ahead score.
But on third down from the 5, Bailey stepped in front Troy Brown in the end zone for the pick. He sprinted down the sideline and when he felt Kevin Faulk swipe at him helplessly about 70 yards into the trek, he thought he had it cinched.
Champions don't go down easily, though, and tight end Ben Watson wasn't quitting. Watson took an angle, and with Bailey slowing and bringing the ball down to his hip, Watson got there, knocked Bailey down and sent the ball flying out of bounds at the 1.
Or maybe through the end zone.
With Bailey lying on his back, grimacing and gasping for air, Belichick challenged the call, saying the ball flew out of the end zone, not at the 1, which would have given New England the ball back on a touchback.
"It was a great effort on his part," Belichick said of Watson.
But did it go out through the end zone?
"Go ask them," the coach said of the officials, who also set up Denver's first touchdown on a questionable pass-interference call in the end zone against Asante Samuel.
It was the kind of call a championship team might have gotten. With no decisive TV angle, though, the Pats didn't. On the next play, Mike Anderson scored his second 1-yard touchdown of the night and gave Denver a 17-6 lead.
"I never saw the guy coming, but I was going as hard as I could," Bailey said of the longest non-scoring interception return in NFL playoff history.
Not that anybody was questioning him. Nor is there any more doubt about who won in the blockbuster trade before the 2004 season, when the Broncos sent Clinton Portis to Washington for Bailey and a second-round pick.
Portis and the Redskins got knocked out of the playoffs Saturday. Bailey and the Broncos are moving on.
"I don't care about what happens tomorrow," Bailey said. "It doesn't matter if it's Pittsburgh or Indy. We got this one."
Trailing 17-6, always reliable Adam Vinatieri, the difference in all three of New England's three-point Super Bowl victories, missed a 42-yard field goal. Shortly after, Brown fumbled a punt return to set up Jake Plummer's lone touchdown pass of the night, a 4-yarder to Rod Smith for a 24-6 lead.
Plummer finished 15-for-26 for 197 yards with the touchdown and one interception.
And while the Denver quarterback won't be mistaken for John Elway, or even Tom Brady -- who threw for 341 yards in defeat -- that was the point: As has been proven all year, Plummer doesn't have to do it all for the Broncos to win.
There's the running game, held in check for most of this night, but good enough to grind out 96 yards and punch the ball in under duress at the goal line. There's the defense; Al Wilson made no fewer than four big plays in the first half to keep the game scoreless for the first 26 minutes.
Special teams were good, too, creating two turnovers, including one off a fumble forced by kicker Todd Sauerbrun, which led to a field goal and a 10-3 lead.
After Bailey's big play, and the non-reversal on Belichick's challenge, the coach stood there in his gray sweatshirt, looking nonplussed, as he's been throughout New England's four seasons of excellence. Behind him, though, the Patriots were coming apart, at least a little.
TV cameras showed Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest shoving teammate Larry Izzo away during an argument, while Mike Vrabel tried to calm McGinest down, hardly the kind of poise they showed as they made their run toward history.
Meanwhile, the Broncos put on the finishing touches and got ready for next week.
Their fans, dressed in orange and loud as they've been in the five-year history of a stadium many thought was too cushy and comfortable for raucousness, chanted, "Let's Go Pittsburgh," hoping a Steelers win Sunday will bring their team back for another game.
If Indy wins, though, the Broncos will return to the site of their playoff demise the last two seasons, by a combined score of 90-34.
After last season's loss, a 49-24 embarrassment, Denver coach Mike Shanahan insisted the Broncos weren't too far away from being Super Bowl contenders. Lots of people snickered. Very few are snickering now, especially not the Patriots.
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