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ON FOOTBALL

This time, they were their own worst enemy

DENVER -- All through their remarkable playoff run, they had lived by the sharp sword of turnovers. Last night they were impaled on it.

After running up a string of 10 straight playoff victories that included three Super Bowl wins in four years, the New England Patriots finally succumbed to a fact that had become difficult to believe -- they're human, too. They can, if they are unlucky, drop the ball like anyone else. They can, if under enough duress, throw a crucial interception like anyone else. They can, difficult though it is for any opponent to accomplish, be beaten in the playoffs like anyone else.

None of that, by the way, takes away anything they have accomplished the past four years. They might have been knocked out of the playoffs for the first time in the new millennium by the Denver Broncos, 27-13, because they turned the ball over an uncharacteristic five times, but they are still one of the best teams ever assembled. Nothing the Broncos did to them at Invesco Field at Mile High, nor anything they did to themselves, will change that.

Like the Packers and Dolphins and Steelers (twice) and 49ers and Cowboys and Broncos before them, the Patriots are not going to win a third straight Super Bowl, a feat that has yet to be accomplished. They are not moving on to another game next weekend either, which will make things feel odd in New England, a place that has grown used to playoff football this time of year. The reason for all those ''nots" is the same reason for all the victories that preceded last night's defeat. The reason was the Patriots didn't take care of the football.

The Patriots entered Invesco Field with a plus-21 turnover ratio in the postseason since the dawning of the Bill Belichick Era. They had forced 27 turnovers while turning the ball over only six times on three fumbles and three interceptions. But they committed that many fumbles and threw nearly that many interceptions (two) last night, including one ill-conceived pass by Tom Brady as the Patriots were driving to take the lead. Champ Bailey caught that pass in the end zone and returned it 100 yards to the 1-yard line before tight end Benjamin Watson blasted him out of bounds, causing the ball to be jarred loose.

In other years, that ball would have bounced the Patriots' way but this time they didn't get the bounces. This time the call and the ball went against them time and again. This time no official ruled the ball had gone out of the end zone, which would have been a touchback and the Patriots' ball at the 20. No, this time the Broncos were handed it at the 1 and a play later Mike Anderson ran for a touchdown that made it 17-6 Denver.

''You see what happens when you're on the flip side of it," said surehanded Troy Brown, who dropped a punt without being touched. ''The teams in this league are too good for you to beat them if you turn the ball over."

It was still a game at that point, although most everything that counts was beginning to go against the Patriots when perhaps the most reliable player on the most reliable team, Brown, inexplicably dropped that punt in the fourth quarter without being hit and the Broncos recovered at New England's 15. Three plays later, Rod Smith, that old Patriot killer, did them in with a 4-yard touchdown that made the score 24-6 with less than 10 minutes to play.

Against a team like the Broncos, which went 13-3 this season and 8-0 at home, such a score is a death knell even for as resilient and proud a team of champions as these Patriots are. And so their fate was sealed in the same way they had broken the dreams of so many other teams since this all began in 2001.

Three fumbles, one intercepted pass returned 100 yards. Another interception late in the game when desperation throws were all they had left. In the end, it was too many mistakes to beat an opponent that had marched into the playoffs in large measure because they had forced 36 turnovers, including 16 fumbles.

''You can't say we did it to ourselves," All-Pro defensive end Richard Seymour said. ''When you say we beat ourselves you're not giving the other team enough credit. We did make a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes, but in a way they forced them. As a competitive player and as a man you have to accept it. They did it to us. I'm disappointed. Very disappointed. But if you can't accept a loss, what kind of person are you?"

The Broncos' powerful running game was stilled most of the night by New England's front seven. Seymour couldn't be blocked all evening and was baffled after the game why the Broncos kept running at him. Eventually the Broncos abandoned that idea, however, and that was what the Patriots had hoped to accomplish. They wanted to force Denver quarterback Jake Plummer to win the game with his arm, believing they could prevent him from that. In the end, although Plummer played well, he did not beat them. He did not have to. Neither did the Denver running game that had been talked about all week, but averaged only 3 yards per rush last night.

What beat the Patriots was perhaps the only thing that could. Despite Seymour's reasoning, they beat themselves. Certainly the Broncos' defense had much to do with it. They made the plays the Patriots did not.

Yet even after it was over, there remained a lingering wonderment at what might have happened had New England taken care of the ball the way they always had before. Might things have been different? What does it matter?

''Take away the mistakes and it might have been a different game but that's the funny part of it," Seymour said. ''They have to stay in."

Which is why the Patriots had to go. They're out because they didn't play Patriot football on a night the Denver Broncos did.

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