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Publish Date: 10/17/2005

Broncos wide receiver Ashley Lelie hauls in a 55-yard pass from Jake Plummer in front of the Patriots’ Duane Starks during the second quarter Sunday at Invesco Field.Times-Call/Lewis Geyer

Measuring stick
Denver holds on to beat defending NFL champions

DENVER — The excuses inevitably will come.

Let them. The Denver Broncos don’t care. So what if the New England Patriots were missing key personnel. So what if the Patriots are only a shell of the team that’s won three of the last four Super Bowls.

They’re still the defending world champions, and Denver feels like its 28-20 win over New England on Sunday validated the team.

The Broncos (5-1) are for real. They’ve won five in a row, and they are a legitimate power in the AFC.

“They’re probably going to have 1,000 excuses why they didn’t win,” Denver running back

Tatum Bell said. “They didn’t have so and so, and so and so.

“We got it going. This is a big deal.”

The Patriots are willing to give respect where respect’s due, and Denver earned New England’s admiration.

“We played a good football team,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, which is high praise coming from him.

But the Patriots aren’t the reigning champions because they went to Wal-Mart and bought a trophy. They showed their championship mettle in the second half.

This game was on the verge of turning ugly. The Broncos were up 28-3 with 10 minutes, 36 seconds left in the third quarter. Turn out the lights, the contest’s over.

“When you have No. 12 back there, it’s never over,” said Denver cornerback Champ Bailey, who started Sunday, but didn’t play in the second half after re-aggravating his hamstring.

In case you’re living under a rock, No. 12 would be New England’s Tom Brady. This is a player who’s never lost a playoff game, and has orchestrated 19 game-winning drives in his career.

So what if the team was down 25 points? Brady wasn’t daunted.

“I don’t think people know how good he is,” Denver defensive lineman Trevor Pryce said.

Sure they do, and Brady was in fine form Sunday. After an Adam Vinatieri field goal, a touchdown run by Patrick Pass and a David Givens touchdown catch, the Pats had suddenly closed to within eight, 28-20.

Could this be Denver’s biggest collapse in team history? Denver once blew a 24-point lead to the Los Angeles Raiders, circa 1988, but this would take the cake. This could be the kind of loss that sends teams into a tailspin.

When Brady and company got the ball back with 5:02 showing on the clock, the palms were getting sweaty.

That’s where linebacker Al Wilson left his mark. On a third-and-20 at the Pats’ 28-yard line, Brady threw a strike to receiver Deion Branch.

However, Wilson hit him so hard, he thought his name was Branch Deion. The ball came flying out, and the Pats had to punt.

Two first downs later, and the Broncos took a knee to run out the clock.

Asked about the smack on Branch, Wilson downplayed the teeth-rattling hit.

“I was just doing my job,” Wilson said.

Since Wilson’s being so modest, Denver defensive lineman Courtney Brown filled in.

“That dude can hit,” Brown said with emphasis on the last word.

That’s enough on the second half and what almost happened. Let’s revisit the first half. The Broncos were flawless in the first half. They were maestros.

So Mike Shanahan has turned conservative. Shahanan didn’t want to risk turnovers so he’s playing it close to the vest.

Or so the assumption went.

Well, he proved that theory wrong. Shanahan allowed quarterback Jake Plummer to be more than a babysitter of the offense. He allowed Plummer to make some plays.

Plummer had a 72-yard completion to receiver Rod Smith. It set up Denver’s opening 3-yard touchdown run by running back Tatum Bell. Plummer also had a 55-yard completion to receiver Ashley Lelie.

The big pass plays have been missing all season. Plummer hadn’t completed a pass longer than 31 yards all season.

Last year, Plummer thrived on big plays through the air. He and Lelie combined for seven touchdowns of more than 30 yards.

Since the beat-up Patriots defense had to respect Plummer’s right arm, the running game was made all the more potent. Bell scampered 68 yards in the second half to set up a 1-yard run by fellow back Mike Anderson, which made the score 21-3 at intermission. A 2-yard run by Anderson to open up the third quarter would give Denver all the scoring it would need.

“We thought we would get an opportunity to make big plays,” said Plummer, whose offense hasn’t committed a turnover since the third quarter of the San Diego game.

All week long, Denver said it was using this game as a barometer to see how it stacked up. So, how do the Broncos stack up?

“This was a nice win,” safety John Lynch said.

Only nice when you beat the defending Super Bowl champions? Then again, this is a team with bigger fish to fry than simply beating the Patriots in a regular season game. This was another day at the office.

“Now we’ve got to go to New York next week and make sure we’re 6-1,” Bailey said.

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