EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Trevor Pryce stared into empty space.
While everyone else was scrambling to dress, the Denver Broncos defensive lineman sat in his chair, not moving so much as an eyelid.
Every so often, he’d shake his head in disgust.
Try as he might, Pryce couldn’t erase the image of the final defensive play during the Broncos’ 24-23 loss to New York on Sunday at Giants Stadium.
The picture will haunt Pryce and the Broncos for a while. There was New York quarterback Eli Manning backpedaling, trying to avoid the pressure of Denver safety John Lynch.
Manning threw the pass and ducked as Lynch nailed him. Manning didn’t even see the result as it soared through the rain and right into the waiting arms of New York receiver Amani Toomer.
The crowd, which had been booing 30 minutes earlier, erupted in applause that could be heard in Manhattan. Toomer’s 2-yard game-winning catch with five seconds left stole a win away from Denver.
Once again, it was Toomer to the rescue for the Giants. The Broncos wish they’d trade him or something. Toomer caught a 37-yard touchdown pass against Denver on Dec. 13, 1998, with 48 seconds left to steal a win that ended Denver’s 13-0 start.
“Same man at the end of the catch,” New York defensive lineman Michael Strahan said through a gap-toothed smile. “Oh man, that was one of the best comebacks.”
The Giants’ win ripped the hearts right out of the Broncos. Pryce, usually verbose, wouldn’t speak. He just sat and stared at nothing.
Lynch had a stunned look in his eyes. He didn’t know how to articulate his thoughts as the head-spinning loss dropped Denver to 5-2.
“A lot of good effort wasted,” he said. “We’ve got to finish people.”
The Broncos’ past finally caught up to them. They’ve struggled to put teams away late in games. Denver nearly blew a 21-10 lead against Washington and a 28-3 advantage against New England.
This time, the Broncos weren’t so fortunate.
“New York wasn’t ready to lay down,” said Denver running back Mike Anderson, who had 120 yards on the ground. “We were dominating, but they kept fighting. Somehow, someway, they found a way. At the end, when they needed it most, they found a way.”
Manning may have just escaped from big brother’s shadow. By marching his team on the winning 15-play, 83-yard drive, Manning showed he has some fourth-quarter magic of his own. He’s no longer the other Manning.
“Eli’s maturing,” Denver defensive lineman Gerard Warren said.
Just like this experience will mature rookie cornerback Domonique Foxworth. When Toomer broke left on his shallow route, Foxworth tried to go with him, but lost his footing thanks to the wet conditions. By the time he recovered, it was too late.
“It’s a play I can make,” Foxworth said. “It’s tough, but I have to make it.”
As long as Foxworth’s being hard on himself, kicker Jason Elam will join the party as well. Elam missed a 49-yard field goal with 5 minutes, 24 seconds left in the game. It would’ve put a nice red ribbon on the victory. It would’ve given Denver a nine-point cushion.
But the kick, which appeared headed straight down the middle, veered right. The legendary Meadowlands wind pushed the ball.
Or maybe it was the ghost of former teamster Jimmy Hoffa? He is rumored to be buried in the West end zone. Maybe he’s more of a Giants fan rather than Jets, and pushed the ball wide right?
“Usually, I know what I did wrong,” said Elam, 3 of 4 on the afternoon, including a 49-yarder when quarterback Jake Plummer bobbled the hold. “On that one, I don’t have any idea.”
Cornerback Champ Bailey intercepted a Manning pass with 4:56 remaining that appeared to clinch the ball game. However, Denver couldn’t run enough time off the clock on the ensuing drive and punted.
Manning and company took it from there.
“This is definitely the biggest play so far of my career,” Manning said.
Now the talk has started. The past two years, Denver began the season 5-1 only to suffer a midseason swoon. This could be the start of the “mon-swoon” season.
“We’re sick of hearing about the 5-1 collapses that everyone keeps bringing up,” Plummer said. “The only way to remedy (a loss) is to go out and get a win.
“A team that’s inexperienced and doesn’t have self-respect and faith would probably go in the dumps. We know what kind of team we have.”
Right now, it’s a team that’s reeling. The Broncos felt like a Mike Tyson uppercut hit them. They had the ball 8 minutes longer, outgained the Giants, 191-97, on the ground and otherwise dominated this game. But stats matter little when a win doesn’t accompany it.
“We lost the game,” Warren said. “That’s all that matters.”
Sitting next to Warren, Pryce still resembled a statue. His teammates had already slipped on coats and ties, and yet he sat.
Every once in a while, he’d drop his head and stare at the green carpet. Pryce just couldn’t shake the image of the loss.