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Saturday, January 14, 2006
Broncos won't reach Detroit playing like that

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

DENVER -- There's just no nice way to put this.

I have a better chance of slipping the Lombardi Trophy some post-Super Bowl tongue than the Denver Broncos do this year. That's because neither of us are going to be playing in The XL at Ford Field come Feb. 5. And if the Broncos do make it to Detroit, I'll pay the barbershop tab for Jake Plummer to shave the worst beard this side of an Amish barn raising.

It's nothing personal, but if I'm the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Indianapolis Colts -- especially the Colts, who keep the home-field advantage if they hold the Bus to low mileage Sunday -- I start clearing out space in my locker for one of those AFC Champion T-shirts. No way do the Broncos beat either of those teams.

I know, they beat the New England Patriots Saturday night at home. Stuck a salad fork in the dynasty. Deep-sixed the Pats' 10-0 postseason run. Penetrated Tom Brady's five layers of Visa protection. I'm so impressed I think they'll only lose to Indy by two TDs, and to the Steelers by one.

It isn't personal, just bidness. To the Broncos, congratulations for winning your first playoff game since John Elway's final season in 1998. Now pick up your AFC parting gift and enjoy your offseason, which officially begins next Sunday evening.

Elway was here for the 27-13 victory. The guy still owns this town. He has his own restaurant, and his name graces about every car dealership within a 30-mile radius. And you should have seen Broncos fans as he walked with family and friends through the Invesco Field parking lot to the stadium suite entrance. Jaws will have to be surgically re-attached.

But Elway knows how fortunate the Broncos were to win this one. After all, when's the last time you saw the Patriots, winners of three of the last four Super Bowls, make more mistakes than Bill Belichick has hooded sweatshirts?

Champ Bailey
Champ Bailey's end-zone interception and long return turned the game to Denver.
Brady was 20 of 36 for 341 yards -- 22 of 36 if you count the two interceptions he threw, including one which Broncos coach Mike Shanahan called "the turning point of the game." That would be Champ Bailey's 100-yard pick-off return late in the third quarter on a third-down play from the Denver 5. What could have been a 13-10 New England lead suddenly became a 17-6 Broncos lead, courtesy of Bailey's interception, followed moments later by Mike Anderson's 1-yard scoring run.

But the Broncos didn't win this game just because Brady scuffled at times. They won it because the Patriots lost three fumbles, had those two interceptions, missed a field goal, committed eight penalties, rushed for a grand total of 79 yards and set a New England record for Most Sideline Meltdowns (Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest is our new leader). And when exactly is the last time you saw a kicker -- a kicker! -- force a fumble on a return?

"I don't think I've ever seen it," said Plummer of Todd Sauerbrun's hit on Ellis Hobbs late in the second quarter.

I'm not saying the Broncos didn't take advantage of the Patriot screw-ups. They did. Twenty-four of their 27 points came after New England turnovers. But it's not like the Broncos had to go far for those points.

First touchdown drive: One play, one yard.

First field goal drive: Four plays, seven yards.

Second touchdown drive: One play, one yard.

Third touchdown drive: Three plays, 15 yards.

That's 17 total yards for 21 points. Donovan McNabb and the Campbell's Soup flag-football team could win games with that sort of field position.

"We knew it was going to be ugly," said Broncos wide receiver Ashley Lelie.

This was double-bagger ugly. After all, since when do the Patriots resemble the Houston Texans at times?

"We got the win, that's all that matters," said Plummer.

That's sort of true. Criticizing a team after it reaches the AFC championship is like ripping Angelina Jolie for wearing too much lip gloss. But I can't help it. If the Broncos think they can play like this and beat the Colts in Indy, or even the Steelers at Mile High, then they're suffering from oxygen deprivation.

Of course, there were hugs and handshakes after the win. Broncos defensive tackle Gerard Warren kept saying he'd go "any place, anywhere, anytime" for the AFC championship.

"We're trying to go to a Super Bowl," he said. "We're one step closer now."

A baby step closer, that's it.

As Plummer jogged off the field and toward the stadium tunnel, he stopped just long enough to hand the game ball to a 10-year-old boy leaning against the railing. His name was Jack Dunnigan, and for several minutes he was so stunned by the gesture that he couldn't speak.

Memo to Jack: Hold onto that ball. It will be the last one Plummer hands out this season.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.