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Analysis: Turnovers end reign

The New England Patriots’ two-year dominance of the NFL ended Saturday night because the two-time defending champions failed to take care of the ball.



]()Playing on the road against the 13-3 Denver Broncos in a divisional playoff, the Patriots committed five turnovers, with the costliest being an interception of QB Tom Brady, enroute to a 27-13 defeat. The AFC West champions ended the Patriots' quest for an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl victory and snapped their 10-game postseason win streak. Brady lost his first playoff game.

"That was a game of big plays tonight," said Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick, who lost for the first time in New England and was choked up as he spoke. "Denver made more than we did."

The Broncos delivered their knockout punch with 1:03 remaining in the third quarter. New England, trailing 10-6, had driven 73 yards to the Denver five-yard-line and was knocking on the door when Brady dropped back on third-and-five and made an ill-advised throw towards Troy Brown at the right front corner of the end zone. Under pressure as he rolled out and threw, Brady tried to squeeze the ball past All Pro cornerback Champ Bailey. Bailey jumped the route, picked the pass and returned the ball 100 yards to the New England 1-yard line.

Instead of scoring a touchdown and grabbing 13-10 lead, the Patriots soon found themselves trailing 17-6 with 15:47 remaining.

It was also turnovers that put New England in the 10-6 hole in the first place. The Patriots had drawn first blood on an Adam Vinatieri 40-yard field goal with 3:48 left in the second quarter. The New England defense, which played a strong game, forced a three-and-out to keep Denver on the ropes and get the ball back to the offense, but RB Kevin Faulk fumbled at the New England 36-yard line after a three-yard run through the left side. Broncos LB Ian Gold recovered at the 40. Two plays later, Denver scored on a 1-yard Mike Anderson run. The other 39 yards came on a highly questionable pass interference call on Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel, who was called for bumping WR Ashley Lelie in the end zone, even though Lelie appeared to have pulled Samuel into himself.

Just 57 seconds later, the Broncos scored yet again off a New England turnover, with Jason Elam kicking a 50-yard field goal. Denver got the ball when Patriots rookie Ellis Hobbs fumbled on the kick return while being hit by the kicker, Todd Sauerbrun, at the New England 39. Denver's Cecil Sapp recovered.

With 1:33 remaining in the half, Belichick called a timeout to talk with his defense, and they succeeded in holding the Broncos to a field goal that made it 10-3 at halftime.

Bailey's critical pick and return didn't quite put the game on ice, but the fourth Patriots turnover did. The Patriots went all out to block a Sauerbrun punt with 10:21 remaining in the game, and the Broncos punter got off a 30-yarder that New England's Troy Brown muffed. The ball bounced out of his hands and was recovered by Denver's Mike Leach at the New England 15-yard line. Three plays later, Broncos QB Jake Plummer hit Rod Smith in the end zone for a 24-6 Denver lead.

There was one more turnover to come. After scoring once to make it 24-13, the Patriots were scrambling for another quick score when Brady threw long for Andre Davis and had the ball intercepted by Denver Safety John Lynch at the Denver 34 with 3:08 remaining. The Broncos needed to make just one more first down before running out the clock.

Ball control has been a key element of the Patriots' success during the four-year run that had seen them win three Super Bowls. Had they held onto the ball Saturday night, they might well have earned a return trip to the AFC Championship game, as they dominated Denver in most aspects of the game.

New England lit up the Broncos for 420 yards, led by Brady's 341 yards of on 20-of-36 passing. The two-time Super Bowl MVP was crisp on most of his passes, despite facing heavy pressure on nearly every passing play.

The Patriots put the game in Brady's hands, as their rushing game was once again unproductive, amassing only 79 yards. RB Corey Dillon carried just 13 times for 57 yards.



]()On defense, the Patriots were solid, even dominant in stretches, holding the Broncos to 286 yards of total offense, including 96 yards rushing. The Broncos showed respect for New England's improved run defense, handing the ball off only 25 times to running backs Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell. Anderson led the Broncos with 19 carries for 69 yards (3.6 average).

Plummer passed carefully for the most part enroute to a 15-for-26, 197-yard performance. His only serious mistake came with 6:10 remaining in the second quarter, when Samuel made a great pick of his pass at the New England 11-yard line to set up Vinatieri's first field goal.

In a season marred by injuries, it was fitting that the Patriots were forced to make yet another injury adjustment to start the game. Rookie left tackle Nick Kaczur missed the game, forcing Belichick to start Tom Ashworth. The offensive line, which had already lost starters Matt Light and Dan Koppen earlier in the season, struggled all night to keep Denver's pass rush off Brady and to open holes for Dillon and Faulk.

Despite the line's struggles, the New England offense hit its stride after a slow start. Brady and WR Andre Davis connected on the first big play of the game with 6:10 remaining in the second quarter, following Samuel's interception. Davis went streaking down the middle with Bailey on his shoulder, and Brady threw a perfectly placed ball that enabled Davis to shield off the ball-hawking cornerback. The play went for 51 yards.

Two plays later, WR Deion Branch made a nice run after a short reception with some help from an Ashworth block and gained 13 yards.

After watching the Broncos rack up 10 points on two turnovers in New England territory late in the first half, the Patriots started the second half well. The defense forced a quick three-and-out, then the offense got rolling as Brady hit TE Daniel Graham for 18 yards and WR David Givens for 14. The 11-play, 58-yard drive culminated in a 32-yard Vinatieri field goal that put New England right in the game with momentum at 10-6.

The Broncos managed only 16 yards and one first down on their next possession. After a punt, New England appeared to take control of the game. Brady showed great patience in the pocket as he completed a 33-yarder to Brown, and he followed that with a 19-yard completion to Branch and a nine-yarder to Givens. The drive went 73 yards to the Denver five, but Bailey turned the tables with his interception and return. New England tight end Benjamin Watson showed great hustle as he raced upfield and knocked Bailey out of bounds short of the end zone, but the Broncos scored on the next play to complete a dramatic turn of events that destroyed New England's momentum.

Branch led New England's receivers with eight catches and 153 yards. Givens added five for 54 yards and caught a touchdown pass in his seventh consecutive playoff game.

The loss ends a season that many of the players had described as satisfying because of the redemption they achieved after a spotty start. The Patriots lost four of their first eight games and struggled badly on defense following the losses of several key players. Linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson were missing, and safety Rodney Harrison was lost to a severe knee injury. Pro Bowl DE Richard Seymour also lost time to injury, and five other defensive backs were lost for the season.

As players like Bruschi and Seymour returned and Hobbs emerged as a solid cornerback, the Patriots once again began shutting down opponents and winning games. They easily won the AFC East with a 10-6 record and won their playoff opener at home last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, 28-3.

They appeared to have the upper hand for a while on Saturday night, until turnovers caused them to unravel and put their dynasty on hold, at least for now.

"I was proud of the effort all year," said Belichick. "I thought we fought hard, and I thought they fought through a lot of the adversity. We just didn't play well enough today. Denver played better and that's why they won the game."

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