The New England Patriots bid for an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl title was stopped Saturday by the last team that failed to complete the threepeat feat. Denver, with what many will say was a big assist (or two) from the game officials, handed the Patriots a 27-13 loss.
Denver also made some big plays, and New England's big game players seemed to only make mistakes. Fumbles by Kevin Faulk, Troy Brown and Ellis Hobbs and two interceptions thrown by Tom Brady were more than enough to end the Patriots historic run. Adam Vinatieri also missed a field goal.
Meanwhile, Denver did a better job protecting the ball and executing their game plan, which was to keep constant pressure on Brady and to wear down the New England defense. Plummer threw one interception the Patriots turned into three points, and Champ Bailey had a meaningless fumble following his pick of Brady.
Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi leaves the field Saturday after New England was eliminated from the playoffs by Denver.
Denver also turned the ball over on downs, as did the Patriots on their second offensive series, on a drive spanning the end of the first quarter. New England made a great defensive stand at the 3-yard line, and there was a subtle shift in momentum.
New England was unable to escape the shadow of their goalposts, but Asante Samuel, who had brilliantly defended Ashley Lelie on the fourth down play in the end zone, intercepted Plummer at the New England 11 -- a play New England had to challenge because the officials blew it live, and things were suddenly going the Pats way.
Brady drove New England to Denver's 22-yard line keyed by the first play of the drive, a 51-yard bomb from Brady to Andre Davis right into the teeth of the Denver defense. Like October, Vinatieri grabbed a 3-0 lead for the Pats.
Among the litany of blown calls by the officials was this blatant facemask on Davis' 51-yard reception that led to the game's opening score.
New England held the Broncos to a three-and-out, and with less than 3 minutes left in the half, the Patriots appeared to be ready to start one of their trademark end-of-half drives and put Denver in a serious hole to end the half.
Brady hit David Givens for 21, and Dillon drove ahead for 8 yards at the 2-minute warning. And everything quickly fell apart.
As Kevin Faulk dove up the middle, Denver's Courtney Brown jarred the ball loose, and Ian Gold recovered at the Patriot 40. On the ensuing play, Plummer threw deep to Lelie. Samuel had position on Lelie all the way down the field. He looked back for the ball. Lelie shoved him from behind. As both players went for the ball, it bounced harmlessly away in the end zone.
Several seconds after the play, a flag came flying from the wrong part of the field, the area of back judge Gregory Steed. Steed informed head referee Jeff Triplette that Samuel was guilty of pass interference. Denver got the ball at the 1-yard line and Mike Anderson punched through a stunned New England defense to put Denver on top 7-3.
Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel pleads his case with back judge Gregory Steed after Steed flagged Samuel for pass interference.
After the game, reporters asked Patriots head coach Bill Belichick what he saw on the play.
"I think I saw what the side judge saw," Belichick said, indicating that since the side judge didn't throw a flag, he didn't see the interference. "It was the side judge's call," Belichick responded to another question, and then when asked if the side judge made the call, " No, he didn't." What did the back judge see? "You have to go ask them what they saw," Belichick said.
Defensive lineman Richard Seymour said despite the call, the Patriots needed to respond, and didn't do well enough.
"One thing you learn as a football player is you can't let one play affect another," he said. "It's a tough call, but we make no excuses. We had our opportunities."
Momentum made a huge swing, and in the playoffs, situations like these are magnified.
On the ensuing kickoff, kicker Todd Sauerbraun put his helmet on the ball being returned by Hobbs, who fumbled. Denver recovered, ran down the clock, and turned to Jason Elam to blast a low line drive through the uprights from 50 yards, giving the Broncos, what may have been a 10-0 deficit, a 10-3 lead at halftime.
Broncos kicker Todd Sauerbrun forces Patriots returner Ellis Hobbs to fumble.
The Broncos committed a false start, but the officials completely missed it. They missed most of the game.
New England scrapped back in the third quarter. Following a Denver three-and-out to open the half, Brady led an 11-play drive, keyed by 10-plus yard passes to David Givens, Daniel Graham and Deion Branch. Vinatieri made it a 4-point game with a 32-yard field goal.
The Broncos continued to struggle on offense. Another short series found them punting from their own 36. Then, starting from his own 22, Brady connected with Brown for 33 yards and Branch for 26. A 9-yard pass to Givens and a 5-yard Dillon run gave the Patriots a 1st-and-goal at the Denver 5.
Two plays later from the 5, Brady was chased to his right out of the pocket. He looked for Brown in the corner of the end zone, but the pass was too flat and Champ Bailey jumped in front of it, a yard deep in the end zone. Bailey stole down the sideline and clearly tired as he approached the opposite end zone. From the other side of the field, Pats tight end Ben Watson closed on Bailey like a heat-seeking missile.
Watson blasted Bailey, who with the ball in the crook of his right arm, fumbled the ball as he himself hit the flag at the goal line. But the officials inexplicably said the ball went out of bounds at the 1-yard line and awarded Denver the ball there.
New England challenged, but there was not enough visual evidence to overturn the original call.
Anderson ran around the left side for another 1-yard gift touchdown, giving Denver a realistically insurmountable 17-6 lead.
Only making matters worse, Vinatieri missed a 43-yard field goal on the Pats next drive.
Troy Brown fumbled the punt return following Denver's next series, and the Broncos put it away with a 4-yard Plummer to Rod Smith touchdown.
Brady connected with Branch on a 73-yard play and with Givens on a 4-yard score, but the writing was on the wall.
Elam added another field goal, and Brady was intercepted on a last gasp in the closing minutes, but it's unlikely New England could have drawn close enough to have a last-second chance.
What should the NFL do about the officials' mistakes? (Choose all that apply.)
This poll is closed
Fine the officials.
Reassign the officials to the chain gang.
Reassign the officials to NFL Europe.
Fire the officials.
Execute the officials.
Apologize to New England.
Ignore the mistakes altogether.