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Broncos take advantage of turnovers, eliminate Patriots

DENVER (AP) -- It took a Champ to knock off the champs.

Huffing, puffing, sprinting down the sideline, Broncos
cornerback Champ Bailey made the interception that put an end to
Denver's years of playoff misery and finished off New England's
dominating dynasty.

The record shows that Bailey got caught and knocked down at the
1-yard line after his 100-yard return Saturday night. But his
interception of Tom Brady did plenty of damage, setting up the
game-changing touchdown in Denver's 27-13 victory over the
defending Super Bowl champions.

"It was a great play by me," Bailey said.

Sure was.

It was the highlight of the first playoff game in the history of
Invesco Field, which resulted in Denver's first postseason win
since John Elway's last game, the 1998 Super Bowl.

Next week in the AFC championship game, the Broncos will play
the winner of Sunday's meeting between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.

New England (11-7), meanwhile, will go home, three wins short of
NFL history.

Trying to become the first team to win three straight Super
Bowls, the Patriots simply didn't have enough to overcome Denver's
steady play, a few bad breaks or their own five turnovers. That was
one fewer than they had during their entire, record-setting 10-game
playoff winning streak that ended at the hands of the Broncos
(14-3).

"When you lose, you want to go down fighting," Brady said.
"You want to go down playing your best and we didn't do that. We
made it easy for them."

It didn't get really easy until Bailey changed the game.

The Patriots were moving the ball well in the third quarter.
They cut a 10-3 deficit to four points on a field goal and had
moved quickly to the Denver 5 for what could have been the go-ahead
score.

But on third down from the 5, Bailey stepped in front Troy Brown
in the end zone for the pick. He sprinted down the sideline and
when he felt Kevin Faulk swipe at him helplessly about 70 yards
into the trek, he thought he had it cinched.

Champions don't go down easily, though, and tight end Ben Watson
wasn't quitting. Watson took an angle, and with Bailey slowing and
bringing the ball down to his hip, Watson got there, knocked Bailey
down and sent the ball flying out of bounds at the 1.

Or maybe through the end zone.

With Bailey lying on his back, grimacing and gasping for air,
Belichick challenged the call, saying the ball flew out of the end
zone, not at the 1, which would have given New England the ball
back on a touchback.

"It was a great effort on his part," Belichick said of Watson.

But did it go out through the end zone?

"Go ask them," the coach said of the officials, who also set
up Denver's first touchdown on a questionable pass-interference
call in the end zone against Asante Samuel.

It was the kind of call a championship team might have gotten.
With no decisive TV angle, though, the Pats didn't. On the next
play, Mike Anderson scored his second 1-yard touchdown of the night
and gave Denver a 17-6 lead.

"I never saw the guy coming, but I was going as hard as I
could," Bailey said of the longest non-scoring interception return
in NFL playoff history.

Not that anybody was questioning him. Nor is there any more
doubt about who won in the blockbuster trade before the 2004
season, when the Broncos sent Clinton Portis to Washington for
Bailey and a second-round pick.

Portis and the Redskins got knocked out of the playoffs
Saturday. Bailey and the Broncos are moving on.

"I don't care about what happens tomorrow," Bailey said. "It
doesn't matter if it's Pittsburgh or Indy. We got this one."

Trailing 17-6, always reliable Adam Vinatieri, the difference in
all three of New England's three-point Super Bowl victories, missed
a 42-yard field goal. Shortly after, Brown fumbled a punt return to
set up Jake Plummer's lone touchdown pass of the night, a 4-yarder
to Rod Smith for a 24-6 lead.

Plummer finished 15-for-26 for 197 yards with the touchdown and
one interception.

And while the Denver quarterback won't be mistaken for Elway, or
even Brady -- who threw for 341 yards in defeat -- that was the
point: As has been proven all year, Plummer doesn't have to do it
all for the Broncos to win.

There's the running game, held in check for most of this night,
but good enough to grind out 96 yards and punch the ball in under
duress at the goal line. There's the defense; Al Wilson made no
fewer than four big plays in the first half to keep the game
scoreless for the first 26 minutes.

Special teams were good, too, creating two turnovers, including
one off a fumble forced by kicker Todd Sauerbrun, which led to a
field goal and a 10-3 lead.

After Bailey's big play, and the non-reversal on Belichick's
challenge, the coach stood there in his gray sweatshirt, looking
nonplussed, as he's been throughout New England's four seasons of
excellence. Behind him, though, the Patriots were coming apart, at
least a little.

TV cameras showed Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest shoving
teammate Larry Izzo away during an argument, while Mike Vrabel
tried to calm McGinest down -- hardly the kind of poise they showed
as they made their run toward history.

Meanwhile, the Broncos put on the finishing touches and got
ready for next week.

Their fans, dressed in orange and loud as they've been in the
five-year history of a stadium many thought was too cushy and
comfortable for raucousness, chanted, "Let's Go Pittsburgh,"
hoping a Steelers win Sunday will bring their team back for another
game.

If Indy wins, though, the Broncos will return to the site of
their playoff demise the last two seasons, by a combined score of
90-34.

After last season's loss, a 49-24 embarrassment, Denver coach
Mike Shanahan insisted the Broncos weren't too far away from being
Super Bowl contenders. Lots of people snickered. Very few are
snickering now, especially not the Patriots.

Game notes
This was New England's first playoff loss since Jan. 3,
1999, a 25-10 loss at Jacksonville in the first round. ... The
Broncos improved to 2-0 lifetime against the Patriots in the
playoffs. Their other win was 22-17 in 1986. ... Denver CB Darrent
Williams returned from his groin injury and played as the nickel
back, while Domonique Foxworth started.

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