by Robert Ferringo - 01/13/2006
When Denver quarterback Jake Plummer lines up under center this Saturday, it will be six degrees below freezing and there will be 77,000 drunken beasts screaming his name. He'll be staring down the barrel of a New England defense loaded with intent to do harm, and in the mist of their chilled breath, the ghosts of Playoff Past, Present, and Future will be looming.
The Broncos (13-3) host the Patriots (11-6) at 8 p.m. in an AFC Divisional Playoff, with the winner advancing to face either Pittsburgh or Indianapolis for the right to go to the Super Bowl. The Broncos have been installed as a tidy three-point favorite. New England is 9-8 this year against the spread, while Denver has been a profitable 11-4-1.
For Plummer, this game represents a convergence of the mystical powers that govern his football life. It could be his last Best Chance to alter the trajectory of not only his career, but also that of a Broncos franchise still searching for an identity in the post-Elway Era.
Plummer was rescued from a nightmare in Arizona and brought to Denver in 2003. His sole purpose was to restore this proud organization to its former glory. The Snake is renowned for his swashbuckling style, but is still shadowed by his penchant for erratic and disappointing play in critical games. However, with a tough and talented team behind him, and playing in front of the Denver faithful, everything appears to be in place for Plummer to finally break through.
But there's only one problem with this potentially warm and fuzzy story. And that's the New England Patriots.
The Patriots will be led into the arena at Mile High by the anti-Plummer - Tom Brady. Brady has been Mr. Clutch; flawless in crucial situations and fearless in big spots. He is undefeated as a starter in the playoffs (10-0) and has two Super Bowl MVP's on his mantle.
Since John Elway led the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 1998 and 1999, the Patriots have redefined what a dynasty is in the NFL. They have a league-record 10-game postseason winning streak, have won three of the last four Super Bowls, and are three wins away from an unprecedented three-peat.
Denver has a double-digit streak of its own to protect this Saturday. They have won 10 consecutive home games. Also, Mike Shanahan has a 7-3 career record against the Patriots, and is 3-1 versus Brady.
This game is a rematch of a Week 6 game that the Broncos won 28-20 at Invesco Field. Denver controlled a 28-6 lead in the fourth quarter of that game, but had to stave off a late New England rally. The Patriots were without Corey Dillon, Richard Seymour, and Tedy Bruschi in that game.
The fact that these clubs have met prior to this weekend's battle actually bodes well for the defending champions. Since 2001, the Patriots are an incredible 18-3 when facing an opponent for the second time. That includes a perfect 6-0 when they lost the first meeting.
The formula that the Patriots have been able to parlay into postseason prowess is not making mistakes. Not only that but they have a hunter's patience when it comes to waiting for and capitalizing on other team's miscues. New England has a plus-20 turnover differential over its 10-game winning streak.
During the regular season the Pats had a minus-six differential, compared to Denver's plus-20.
For good or ill, Plummer will be on center stage this Saturday. Denver's thunderbolt running attack represents a serious threat to the Patriots postseason survival. As a result, Belichick has no choice but to stack eight in the box and put Plummer in a position to make or break his team's fortunes.
And once again, Jake Plummer will shatter someone's soul with his play in the clutch. But which team's season will he play a primary role in ending?
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