It was October 16. The New England Patriots were 3-2, having just beaten a Vick-less Atlanta Falcons on the road, 31-28. Despite that good news, most of the northeast watched in progressive horror at the train wreck that began the season.
It wasn't getting any better this day. They were on the road again in the Mile High City. The Denver Broncos were dominating the AFC West at 4-1 and were in the middle of a four-gaming winning streak, having beaten San Diego, Kansas City, Jacksonville and Washington. Even now, that looks impressive.
Quarterback Jake Plummer was en route to a career season, and the Cleveland defensive line castoffs were looking pretty tough. And somehow, Denver had another pair of punishing running backs, this time with Tatum Bell and veteran Mike Anderson. The offensive line was as good and as formidable as ever.
Meanwhile, the Pats run defense was bad and getting worse. Richard Seymour had been listed as questionable earlier in the week, but was downgraded to out a couple days before the game, the first of three missed starts. Tedy Bruschi was still two weeks away from returning.
And if the running defense was bad, the passing defense was b-a-d. Remember Duane Starks? There's wasn't much else back there either, and it actually got worse before it got better.
The game showed us what we already knew. Denver's offensive line dominated. Tatum Bell gained 114 yards on the ground, 20 more in the air. Mike Anderson added 57 yards rushing, and both backs scored touchdowns. Plummer, who saw virtually no pressure all day, was an efficient 17 of 24 for 262 yards and two touchdowns, one to Rod Smith (6 catches, 123 yards). Ashley Lelie added 3 catches for 81 yards.
If Denver showed any weakness, it was in committing penalties. The Broncos committed 11 in the game, several of them were neutral zone infractions, something unusual for opposing quarterbacks to accomplish at Mile High.
Contrary to what you hear or read elsewhere, the Pats were not down 28-0, nor did they shut out Denver in the second half. New England took a 3-0 lead, which they held after one quarter, and only then did Denver pound them for 28 straight points, taking a 21-3 halftime lead and putting up another touchdown in the third before finally "letting up."
Tom Brady looked like an average quarterback for most of the game, throwing 5 of 20 from 1:21 of the first to 7:30 of the third. He finished 24 of 46 for 299 yards, most of the completions and the yards late in the game.
Patrick Pass led New England in both rushing (10 carries, 64 yards) and receiving (6 catches, 89 yards). Corey Dillon missed his first start of the year with that nagging ankle injury.
Left guard Logan Mankins also got tossed from the game for hitting Ebenezer Ekuban below the belt on the last play of the first half, which was an Adam Vinatieri missed field goal. (Quick note on Vinatieri: He's attempted fewer field goals this year (25) than any other year of his career. His previous low was 29 in 1997. His 80 percent success is just under his career average. Not nearly his best; not nearly his worst. But we all know that this is his time of year. -- OK, that wasn't a quick note.)
Brady, was under constant pressure early, and worse after Mankins' ejection. The tight ends had to stay in and block most of the time. Still, Brady and the offense put on an impressive comeback, but it was way too little, way too late, and Denver was in cruise control by then.
Mike Vrabel was already on his career tear. He had 13 tackles in the game and remained the only Patriot with an interception to that point in the season. (A note on Vrabel: His previous best season was 82 tackles in 2002. This season: 108.)
A couple other little things: Troy Brown, who caught a touchdown pass and played well on defense last week against Jacksonville, was inactive for the first Denver game. Ellis Hobbs returned a kick, but didn't play defense. Asante Samuel started his Rodney Harrison-esque hitting. In this one, he hammered tight end Jeb Putzier.
In the end, the game was a lot like the Pittsburgh game last year. New England had a lot of key players on the bench, and ultimately didn't show the Steelers anything of the real Patriots until the playoffs.
Out of that mid-October train wreck comes a team on the verge of the incomprehensible. This may be the toughest road, tougher than the three previous. This weekend may be the test. And the train kept a'rollin'.
Oh, one more thing. October 16th in Denver? It was 75 degrees.