DENVER -- No all-expenses-paid trip to Detroit in February. No fourth Vince Lombardi trophy to hoist at City Hall Plaza. No duck boats. New England's football winter is over early this year. Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 18.
Two thousand miles and a couple of time zones removed from the comforts of their cozy Route 1 home, the New England Patriots were officially dethroned at Invesco Field last night. Unraveling in a hail of turnovers and mistakes by the stars who delivered all those Super Bowls, the Patriots suffered a 27-13 AFC divisional playoff loss to the Denver Broncos.
It was an untidy and somewhat shocking finale to a strange Patriots season that started slowly but produced much hope after the holidays. Tom Brady threw two interceptions, the Patriots lost three fumbles, and Mr. Automatic, Adam Vinatieri, even missed a field goal as the Patriots fell hopelessly behind in the fourth quarter. Small surprise the game was played under a full moon the day after Friday the 13th. For New England, this was bizarre and bad.
''I thought we needed to play our best game tonight and we didn't," deadpanned Mensa mentor Bill Belichick, who saw his playoff record as Patriots coach dip to 10-1. ''Whatever it was, that's the way it turned out. We didn't make enough plays to win."
The Patriots won an NFL-record 10 consecutive playoff games, dating to January 2002. Like Belichick, Brady was 10-0 in the postseason but now all that is over. The Dynasty, and three Super Bowls in four years, is officially over.
''It will be a long flight home, a long offseason," said Brady. ''It's tough. The season's over."
Blame Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. He turned the game around with one spectacular play.
Trailing by a mere 10-6 in the final minute of the third quarter, the Patriots were on the verge of taking the lead when Bailey changed the game. On a third-and-goal from the 5-yard line, while pressured by Broncos defensive back Nick Ferguson, Brady threw toward Troy Brown in the end zone. Bailey stepped in front of Brown, picked off the pass, and streaked 100 yards down the sideline. Just before he scored, the winded Bailey was blasted from the side at the 1-yard line by Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson. The ball flew out of bounds and the Patriots, hoping for a touchback, challenged the ruling on the field. But the ruling wasn't overturned and running back Mike Anderson danced into the end zone on the next play. In a few seconds, a potential 13-10 lead for the Patriots turned into a 17-6 deficit.
''They were blitzing . . . I thought I had Troy," said Brady. ''I threw it and Champ wheeled back and made a great play. That's basically a 10-point swing and that's kind of the way the game went. Poor execution, bad throw.
''What else can you say?"
For all practical purposes, that was it. In the next few minutes, Vinatieri missed a 43-yard field goal attempt, Brown fumbled a punt, and the Broncos took a 24-6 lead with 8:38 remaining.
It is almost impossible to overcome five turnovers in a playoff game. The Patriots had committed only six turnovers in their previous 10 playoff games. Then five in one night. It was shocking for longtime Patriot watchers.
''You can't win when you don't have the ball," said veteran Kevin Faulk, who committed the first turnover by fumbling late in the first half.
The Patriots fell behind in the final two minutes of the first half because of two fumbles in a span of 18 seconds, plus a dubious pass interference call on Asante Samuel. New England had gone seven postseason games without losing a fumble, but the Patriots fell apart as Faulk, then Ellis Hobbs, put the ball on the ground on back-to-back plays. Instead of taking a 3-0 lead into the locker room, New England trailed, 10-3, at intermission.
Historically, Belichick's teams have made crucial adjustments at halftime and the Patriots needed to figure out ways to counter Denver's multiple formations and nonstop blitzes.
Brady's quick releases foiled the Broncos early in the third quarter and the Patriots drove to the Bronco 14, setting up Vinatieri's 32-yard field goal that cut Denver's lead to 10-6.
When the Patriots got the ball back, Brady's first pass was a 33-yard completion to Brown. It was beginning to look like the Patriots had found a way to solve the Denver defense. Although the Patriots didn't get inside the Denver 20 in the first half, New England got there on its first two possessions of the third quarter. But the Patriots couldn't get over the goal line.
Then came the Bailey interception. The beginning of the end.
''When you turn the ball over, bad things happen," said tight end Christian Fauria. ''The toughest part was seeing them on their sideline celebrating. It stings a lot. It's like an open wound."
The Patriots have been delivering the pain over the last four years. They've been celebrating at the end of playoff games. After their late-season run, and the thorough beating of Jacksonville in the AFC wild-card game, it was beginning to look like they might do it one more time.
No. A guy named Champ delivered the knockout punch to New England last night.