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BOB RYAN

In the end, it was a dead giveaway

DENVER -- This is not the way they would have preferred to go out, just plain giving the game and their crown away.

The Patriots are men enough to accept defeat. Had the Broncos gone out and just plain outplayed them, the men from New England would have tipped the ol' fedoras and offered proper congratulations. But that is not what happened last evening at Invesco Field at Mile High. What happened last night before 75,579 enraptured, orange-clad observers was that the New England Patriots curiously, inexplicably, and terminally imploded. They turned the ball over four times (five total) directly leading to the Broncos' first 24 points in a 27-13 victory, sending the Broncos into the AFC Championship game a week from today.

That's not cryin'. That's not whinin'. That's just explainin'. It was one weird ballgame.

''Everybody knew what was in front of us," said Tom Brady. ''But this was a game where we just did not play our best."

The Patriots did what many NFL experts doubted they could do, which is take away the run from the Broncos. The Denver first, last, and middle names are all some derivation of the verb ''To run." Running the football is the Broncos' identity. But last night all they could manage from their ballyhooed ground game was 96 yards, the final 19 in garbage time.

Taking away the run was supposed to mean that, for the Broncos to win, quarterback Jake Plummer would have to win the game. That didn't happen, either. He wasn't much of a threat, either via his arm (15 for 26, 197 yards) or by his legs (8 yards).

In the end, none of this mattered. Who needs an offense when either by fumbles (two unforced, one quasi-forced) or interception (one a super ballhawking move by the great Champ Bailey) you are able to score on ''drives" of 40 (39 coming on a highly dubious pass interference call on Asante Samuel), 7, 1, and 15 yards? Jake gets no credit for this. In fact, no one on the Denver offense gets credit for this.

Did Denver deserve to win? Oh, absolutely. These are the NFL playoffs, and turnovers have been historically important. The Patriots have won big playoff games this run by taking the ball away and then making the defense pay. That is the way of life in the playoffs.

But when things happen the way they did last night you start thinking that some things are just meant to be. Kevin Faulk was losing control of the ball before he was even hit when he fumbled at his 40 with the Patriots leading, 3-0, and 1:51 remaining in the half. The next play, back judge Gregory Steed generously awarded a pass interference penalty to Ashley Lelie in the end zone, thus placing the ball at the Pats' 1.

On the ensuing kickoff, Ellis Hobbs was coming out of a spin at the end of a nice return when he, too, was separated from the ball, by, of all people, punter/kickoff man Todd Sauerbrun at the New England 39. That turnover led to a Jason Elam field goal.

Turnover No. three was no fluke, however, and it was a killer. The Broncos were about to find themselves either behind, 13-10, or shakily in front by a 10-9 score as Brady approached the line of scrimmage on third and 5 at the Denver 5 in the third quarter. But Bailey, subject of a long, adoring oration by Bill Belichick earlier in the week, leaped in front of Troy Brown, picked off the ball and took off for the other end zone, making it all the way to the 1 before a hustling Benjamin Watson delivered a tremendous blow from behind, knocking both Bailey and the football far out of bounds. The Patriots challenged, hoping for a touchback, but the call was upheld.

The fourth turnover summed it all up. When has anyone seen Troy Brown fumble a punt? Yup, Troy Brown. Well, ladies and gentlemen, Troy Brown did drop a punt in the fourth quarter. On his own 15! That led to to a Plummer-to-Rod Smith 4-yard touchdown pass, making it 24-6 and pretty much ensuring the Patriots would soon be ex-champs.

So it is over, at least for now. Instead of three out of four it is now three out of five, and we can stop talking about streaks. They are mortal, OK? Tom Brady has joined a list that includes Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Troy Aikman, John Elway, and scores of far less distinguished quarterbacks. The world now knows that Brady can be on the losing side in an NFL playoff game. The fact that he was light years better than Plummer last night is an ironic footnote.

It has been a great run and there is no reason to think the Patriots are anywhere near finished. Brady is in the prime of life for quarterbacks (28). The offensive line is young. The receivers are young. Richard Seymour is 26. Vince Wilfork is 24. Mike Vrabel is 30. Rosevelt Colvin is 28. Kevin Faulk is 29. The core is strong, and Belichick isn't going anywhere that we know of.

You can be pretty sure the brass will be looking for a running back, a defensive back, and perhaps a young linebacker or two. But they're aren't many roster cores you'd trade, even up. The Patriots are going to be fine.

Hey, this was a bonus game, anyway. The Patriots came from a 4-4 situation to win the division, earn a first-round playoff game, and then win that game. That represented an NFL record 10 straight playoff victories, and from then on they were playing with house money. Everyone knew that winning at Denver would be tough. What? You think the 13-3 and the 8-0 here at Invesco were bogus?

Patriots' fans are hereby granted 24 hours to commiserate over the bizarre nature of this particular loss. There sure were some classic what-ifs? and they deserve a full airing out. But that's it: 24 hours. No one has any right to get greedy. When those 24 hours are up, the time to reflect on what we have all just lived through begins.

The New England Patriots have taken their place at the top of the all-time New England great teams list, alongside the Russell Celtics. Winning is one thing, but becoming a standard of excellence for all teams -- in all sports -- is another. That is what the Patriots have done.

One whacky evening in Denver cannot change that. Someone will win Super Bowl XL, and when it's over people will say, ''Good luck trying to catch up to the Patriots."

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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