Remembering one of the greatest forgotten plays in Patriots history

A decade later, it remains a truly remarkable feat of athleticism and character.

Ben Watson during the 2006 playoffs against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Ben Watson during the 2006 playoffs against the Jacksonville Jaguars. –Matthew J. Lee / The Boston Globe

While the first postseason loss of Tom Brady’s career is not a moment many Patriots fans enjoy looking back on, the game is memorable for one of the greatest plays in franchise history.

Occurring in a 27-13 defeat to the Broncos at Mile High Stadium in January, 2006, the extraordinary play has been cast aside by history in large part because of wider circumstances. Still, there’s no denying that Ben Watson chasing down Champ Bailey over 100 frantic yards has to rank as one of the most impressive displays in the entire Belichick era.

The play went as follows:

  • In the third quarter of the divisional playoff game against the Broncos, the Patriots trailed 10-6, facing a 3rd and goal at the Denver five-yard line.
  • Tom Brady rolled to his right, making a poor decision to try and hit Troy Brown in the end zone. Denver cornerback Champ Bailey, covering Brown, stepped in front of the pass. He was off to the races, with only open field in front of him.
  • Bailey tore down the sideline, escorted by a bevy of Broncos blockers. Patriots running back Kevin Faulk appeared to have the best chance at tackling Bailey, but couldn’t bring him down.
  • The convoy of Broncos players (including Bailey) eased up as they approached the end zone, savoring the imminent touchdown after a 100-yard interception return.
  • Yet one Patriots player had other thoughts. Ben Watson, a tight end, seemingly came out of nowhere to demolish Bailey at the goal-line, causing a fumble. Watson, as the replays showed, ran the distance of the football field (and from across it) to catch Bailey on the brink of the end zone.

Bailey, it should be noted, was a physical freak. Before being drafted in the first round in 1999, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.28 seconds, one of the fastest times in the history of the rookie combine.

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That said, Watson was also a phenomenal athlete. At 255 pounds, he still ran a “sub-4.4” time in the 40-yard dash at his pro day in 2004. By any standard, that’s fast for a tight end.

More than simply being a contest of two remarkable runners, the play was striking for its character. As Watson noted afterward to NFL Films, he could have easily given up and no one would have bothered him about it. Not even Bill Belichick.

“If I would have dogged it, I don’t even know if coach Belichick would have said anything, because we lost the game and it was the last game of the season,” said Watson.

Yet he pushed himself to hustle all the way down the field despite the slim chances of actually catching the speedy Bailey. It was a moment that combined impressive physical ability with the best character attributes in sports. Watson never gave up even though he easily could have.

And the play was symbolic of the game itself. His heroic effort was rendered forgettable, since Bailey was judged to have fumbled at the one-yard line, leaving the Broncos in prime position to score (which Mike Anderson did on the very next play). The Patriots challenged the call, saying that Bailey had fumbled into the end zone for a touchback (which would have given the ball back to New England), but the officials upheld the initial ruling.

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For all of his effort, Watson only delayed the inevitable. New England’s many mistakes in the game (five turnovers) could not be undone, regardless of how incredible individual efforts like Watson’s were.

Still, the play remains legendary to Patriots fans. Even the Broncos players marveled at Watson’s effort, reacting to the news that a tight end was the one to chase down Bailey with collective shock.

In the Brady-Belichick era, fans have had numerous victories to cherish and replay in their memories. But Watson’s play, coming as it did in a sobering loss, should nevertheless not be overlooked.

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