BOSTON (CBS) – It doesn’t matter if it’s called Mile High, Invesco or Sports Authority Field; strange things always seem to happen when the Patriots head to Denver.
It’s where Tom Brady threw his first career interception, the site of the Patriots’ first playoff loss under Bill Belichick, and the spot where the coach calmly called for an intentional safety in order to escape with a clever win.
And all of that came well before they legalized the whacky tabacky, so who knows what will be in store for Sunday’s AFC Championship.
Brady and Belichick are 2-4 together in Denver, one of the few venues that hasn’t been very kind to the duo. Sure, this time around they have John Fox and not Mike Shanahan scheming on the sidelines, and there is the added possibility of a “Manning face” appearance, but it’s hard to look back on their previous trips to Denver and not expect something out of the ordinary to occur on Sunday.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at the Patriots’ trips to Denver with Brady and Belichick at the helm.
October 28, 2001 – Broncos 31, Patriots 20
Brady’s first trip to Mile High came just a few weeks after he took over for the injured Drew Bledsoe in Week 7 of the 2001 season, and it’s one he probably learned quite a bit from.
The Pats were up 20-10 in third, but after the Broncos cut it to 20-17 Brady threw four interceptions in 10 passing attempts over the game’s final 15 minutes. Four picks in 10 attempts is extremely un-Bradylike these days, but they were far from the norm back then as well. Brady began his NFL career by throwing 162 passes without being picked, and those four picks in Denver accounted for a quarter of his season total (12).
Brady wasn’t the only Patriot throwing the ball to the Broncos that Sunday. Even receiver David Patten threw a pick in this game, just one week after he tossed a 61-yard touchdown in a win over the Colts.
The loss dropped New England to 3-4, but they would only lose one more game that season on their way to the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
November 3, 2003 – Patriots 30, Broncos 26
When Bill Belichick looks back on his head-coaching career, he’ll have (at least) three Super Bowl titles, (at least) five trips to the big game and an endless amount of regular season wins to reflect on.
But if he ever doubts his own genius, he can always look back to one Monday night in Denver and feel pretty good about himself.
With the Patriots trailing the Broncos 24-23 with just over three minutes left in the fourth quarter, Brady and company found themselves pinned at their own 1-yard line. After three incomplete pass attempts, the Pats were looking at a punt deep in their own zone, giving Denver some primo field position to kill some clock and likely add on to their slim lead.
But Belichick added on to that lead for them by calling for an intentional safety. Ken Walter let the snap sail over his head, and the Broncos had two more points.
But out of that, Walter got a free kick. His boot sailed 64 yards to the Denver 15, and three plays, two New England timeouts and a Denver punt later, the Patriots had the ball at their own 42 with 2:15 remaining on the clock.
The defense did its part, and Brady and the offense did theirs when they got the ball back. With 30 seconds left, Brady hit David Givens for an 18-yard score and the Patriots left Denver with a 30-26 victory.
There were some doubts surrounding the Patriots heading into the Week 7 matchup in Denver, but this was just the first of many wins where it seemed like no matter what the Patriots did, they’d walk away with the victory. They racked up 17 wins that season on the way to their second Super Bowl title.
What’s even more impressive is the fact Belichick called for the self-safety while wearing this hoodie:
October 16, 2005 — Broncos 28, Patriots 20
The Patriots scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to make this look like a close game, but the Broncos were basically in control from start to finish.
Denver took a 28-3 lead in the third quarter and kept the Patriots at bay, despite not having Champ Bailey, by controlling the clock and keeping Brady off the field. The Broncos rushed for 178 yards, including 114 yards and a touchdown from Tatum Bell, and got 123 receiving yards and a score from Rod Smith. The star of the day though was Jake Plummer, which is just as painful to read as it was to write. “Jake The Snake” threw for 262 yards and two scores, and managed not to throw the ball to the New England defense.
In Tom Brady fashion, he did lead the Patriots to a mini-comeback with a touchdown pass to David Givens with eight minutes to go. But when the Pats got the ball back with five minutes to go, they couldn’t get past their own 28-yard line and were forced to punt it away (with no intentional safety there to save them this time). Plummer and the Broncos were able to pick up a pair of first downs and killed the remaining 3:31 on the clock.
And it wasn’t the only loss the Patriots would suffer in Denver that season.
January 14, 2006 – Broncos 27, Patriots 13
This is a game many Patriots fans will want to strike from their memory, as it broke up New England’s shot at three straight Super Bowl titles and was Brady and Belichick’s first postseason loss.
The most frustrating, and odd, play from the loss came in the third quarter, as the Patriots looked poised to take the lead. Down 10-6, Brady and the offense lined up at the 5-yard line, and Brady went looking for the reliable Troy Brown in the end zone.
But long-time Brady nemesis Champ Bailey jumped in front of Brown and began a 99-yard trek down the sidelines. He nearly took the interception back for a pick-six, but a speedy Benjamin Watson walloped Bailey at the 1-yard line, sending the football flying.
Whether the ball went out at the 1 or flew through the end zone is up for debate. The officials said one-yard line, and Belichick tossed out the red challenge flag. After a review, the officials stuck with their call and the Broncos punched it in a play later to take a 17-6 lead. They’d go on to win 27-13.
The Patriots didn’t deserve to win the game given that they turned the ball over five times, which was one fewer turnover than they had in the 10 previous playoff games to begin the Belichick and Brady regime.
But the fumble/touchback call, given Watson’s hustle to chase down Bailey when nearly everyone else gave up on the play, is one that will always leave Patriots fans thinking “what if,” especially coming up three wins short of NFL history.
October 11, 2009 – Broncos 20, Patriots 17 OT
When Josh McDaniels left the Patriots to become the head coach of the Denver Broncos, there wasn’t the venom that surrounded Eric Mangini’s departure for the Jets.
But still, you don’t want the master to lose to one of his apprentices, ever. Especially when his team is wearing these uniforms:
But that’s exactly what happened in Week 5 of the 2009 season. Though the Patriots led for most of the game, they let Kyle Orton (who took over after McDaniels pissed Jay Cutler off enough to demand a trade) throw for 330 yards and orchestrate a game-tying 98-yard drive in the fourth quarter to tie things at 17-17. Brady fumbled at the 50-yard line in the final two minutes of regulation, and things went to overtime, where Matt Prater kicked a 41-yard field goal to give Denver the improbable win and send the Pats to a 3-2 record.
The Patriots would rebound to win their next three, and it wasn’t even the most devastating loss of the regular season (fourth-and-2 was just five short weeks away at that time), but the loss showed just how vulnerable the Patriots’ pass defense was that season.
Decemeber 18, 2011 – Patriots 41, Broncos 23
However crazy their trips to Denver have been, the Patriots did come out victorious in their last visit.
The magic of Tim Tebow wasn’t enough for the Broncos to pull out a win over the Patriots in 2011. Despite his 287 total yards (194 through the air, another 93 on the ground) and two touchdowns, the Patriots defense smothered the darling of the NFL all afternoon. Tebow was sacked four times, including a 28-yard loss in the fourth quarter, and the Broncos lost three fumbles (two by Tebow) in the blowout win by New England.
In the “my how things can change” department; Chad Ochocinco caught his first touchdown with the Patriots and Aaron Hernandez set career highs with nine catches for 129 yards in the game. My, how things can change in just two years.
So what awaits the Patriots this Sunday in the AFC Championship – aside from the Broncos of course? We’ll see plenty of 300-pound linemen huddled around an oxygen machine, hear plenty of that annoying “in-com-plete” chant (hopefully not too much) and probably yell “hike the damn ball” about a dozen or so times at Manning. But will there be some sort of weird thin-air voodoo coming from the Denver sidelines, getting the best Brady and Belichick again, blocking the path to yet another Super Bowl?
There’s little doubt the duo isn’t fretting over their trip to Denver, even with the wackiness that has gone down in their previous visits. But being the AFC Championship, with a trip to the big game on the line, the NFL gods must have something up their sleeves.
And if they don’t, Patriots fans will be just fine seeing the Manning Face – Mile High Edition.
Tune in to the AFC Championship game Sunday afternoon at 3 pm on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV — the flagship stations of the New England Patriots. WBZ-TV will have a special 90-minute edition of Patriots GameDay beginning at 11:30 am, with pregame coverage beginning on 98.5 FM at noon.