Classic Rewind: Patriots Find Safety At Mile High
The Matchup: New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos
All Time Head to Head Record: The Patriots had won ten of their first eighteen match-ups against their AFL rival in the 60s. New England then split four meetings in the 70s before losing eleven straight against John Elway’s Broncos teams. The Patriots finally beat Denver after Elway’s retirement, winning two straight before dropping two straight entering this 2003 match-up.
The Game: November 2, 2003 played at INVESCO Field at Mile High Denver, CO
Season Team Records: New England Patriots (6-2), Denver Broncos (5-3)
Overview: Denver was the house of horrors for New England entering their Monday Night tilt. The Patriots were 1-12 in their last 13 trips to the Mile High city.
New England and Denver were both feeling the injury bug. The Patriots have shuffled 40 players in and out of the starting line up. All Pro, Richard Seymour joined the walking wounded with a leg injury.
The Broncos were down to their third string quarterback, Danny Kanell. Starter Jake Plummer and back-up Steve Beuerlein were both injured and not available. They were also missing receiver, Ed McCaffrey and two starting linebackers.
Both teams were jockeying for position in the AFC playoff picture. This matchup was extremely important for both teams possibly dictating home field advantage come January.
Coaches: New England Patriots-Bill Belichick, Denver Broncos-Mike Shanahan
Notable Patriots: Tom Brady(qb), David Givens(wr), Deion Branch(wr), Ken Walter(p), Asante Samuel(db), Adam Vinatieri(k)
Notable Broncos: Danny Kanell(qb), Clinton Portis(rb), Deltha O’Neal(kr), Jason Elam(k), Kenoy Kennedy(db)
Interesting Note: The Patriots were riding a four game winning streak and Denver lost two straight after starting out 5-1.
The Game: Monday Night football pitted two former AFL franchises in a key AFC conference battle. The Patriots arrived in Denver on fire, rattling off four straight wins against the Titans, Giants, Dolphins, and Browns after a 2-2 start.
Denver, on the hand, was reeling after two straight losses to Minnesota and Baltimore. They were left with their
third straight quarterback. The Broncos would have to serve a heavy dose of Clinton Portis to offset the lack of passing game.
The one dimensional Denver offense hit pay dirt first. Running back, Clinton Portis opened up the scoring with a 15 yard scamper for a touchdown. The Broncos capitalized on a Tom Brady fumble on their opening drive. Denver would only need 4 plays to score from the Patriots’ 28 yard line.
The disastrous beginning continued for Brady and the Patriots. Kenoy Kennedy, who recovered Brady’s fumble, picked off a Patriots pass to give the Broncos the ball once again. The drive stalled and Jason Elam missed a 43 yard field goal.
The Patriots dodged a bullet and avoided going down 10-0 at a hostile INVESCO Field.
Tom Brady shook off his horrendous start and regained his composure. As soon as he got the ball back, he converted. Brady connected with Deion Branch on a 66 yard bomb and before you could get your popcorn, it was all tied up at 7-7.
In the second quarter, the kickers were very busy. Adam Vinatieri and Jason Elam both connected on kicks of forty plus yards to square the game at 10-10.
Danny Kanell showed some poise and grit leading the Broncos on a 14 play 72 yard march. He connected on intermediate passes and Clinton Portis continued to run well. The Patriots also committed three costly penalties that kept the drive alive.
As the half winded down, Kanell connected with running back, Mike Anderson for a 1 yard score. The Broncos were ready to bring a 17-10 lead into the locker room.
Kick returner, Bethel Johnson, had something to say about that. With only 24 ticks left on the clock, Johnson took the kick 63 yards to get the Patriots in field goal range.
Vinatieri connected on a 46 yard booming kick and cut the Denver lead to four points. The score was now 17-13, after an exciting first half on Monday Night Football.
The Patriots took the lead mid way though the third quarter with Tom Brady’s second touchdown pass to tight end, Daniel Graham. New England now led 20-17. The Patriots now had the momentum.
Could the Broncos swing pendulum back?
Special teams have already played a vital role in this game with Bethel Johnson’s return to set up a field goal. The Broncos Deltha O’Neal wanted to get into the game and make his presence known on prime time TV.
After Brady’s touchdown pass, Denver and New England both went three and out on the next two possessions of the game. Patriots’ punter, Ken Walter, kicked the ball a mile high that pinned the Broncos deep in their own end.
One problem. Holding penalty on New England.
This penalty would prove costly. Walter re-kicked the ball to the speedy and shifty Denver returner, Deltha O’Neal. He took the punt and raced 57 yards for the touchdown.
Denver was on top yet again, 24-20 as the third quarter came to a close.
Could Tom Brady orchestrate another fourth quarter comeback?
New England took the opening possession in the final frame down to the Denver 10 but had to settle for a 28 yard field goal. The scoreboard now read, Denver 24 New England 23.
After a few fruitless possessions for both teams, Denver put together a drive that stalled at the New England 35 yard line.
Coach, Mike Shanahan, had a dilemma. A long field goal attempt would be a plausible option. One problem, Jason Elam pulled his groin earlier in the game and would never make such a long kick.
Shanahan chose to punt the ball deep and pin the Patriots against their own goal line.
Surprisingly, Brady threw three straight incomplete passes in the shadow of his own end zone.
The game of chess would continue.
This time it was Bill Belichick’s move. Most coaches would punt the ball and hope his defense could get the ball back for his offense.
Belichick is not like most coaches.
He called for an intentional safety.
Yes an intentional safety.
No one could believe Belichick would make such a bold move.
People’s memories must be short.
Belichick took an intentional safety three years earlier against these same Denver Broncos. The Patriots won 28-19.
Ken Walter now had a free kick from his 20 yard line rather than from the back of his end zone.
Belichick’s gutsy decision paid dividends.
Walter’s kick from the 20 yard travelled to Denver’s 15 yard line. Deltha O’Neal had no room to run and the kick coverage was perfect. O’Neal could not make a big play like he did earlier in the game.
The Broncos were backed up deep in their end, but they had a 26-23 lead. Kanell and the offense just needed to convert a few first downs to make Belichick’s intentional safety a moot point.
Portis was able to amass 9 of his 111 yards on this drive. However, a penalty cost Denver 5 yards on third down. Kanell and Broncos now faced third and 6 yards to go with 2:31 remaining.
Kanell’s pass fell incomplete and the Patriots would get the ball back.
Belichick’s master plan was coming to fruition.
Now Denver was kicking from the shadow of their end zone, but didn’t have the time to take an intentional safety of their own.
Troy Brown took the punt and returned the ball to Denver’s 42 yard line with 2:15 remaining. New England only had one timeout plus the two minute warning to stop the clock. They had plenty of time to go for a tying field goal or a go ahead touchdown.
Sounds like the team’s first Super Bowl victory versus the Rams. They could be content with a tie or go for a win.
Brady only believes in going for it all and that’s just what he did.
Brady connected with running back, Kevin Faulk on passes of 5, 19, and 16 yards. Faulk continued to show his consistency and versatility as an all purpose back.
The Patriots drove down to the Denver 18 yard line with about one minute left on the clock. Brady (20 for 35 for 350 yards and 3 td’s) found wide receiver, David Givens on a pass that he had to adjust on by the pylon. He crossed the goal line and the Patriots took an impossible 30-26 lead.
Could Denver counter New England’s latest hay maker?
Kanell was in position to do his best John Elway or now Tom Brady impression. Unfortunately, for Broncos fans, Danny Kanell is no Elway, Brady, or even Jake “The Snake” Plummer.
On second down from his 13 yard line, Kanell threw an ill advised pass right to Patriots corner, Asante Samuel. The Patriots took over on the costly turnover and kneeled down on the ball.
This game exemplified how important coaching is in football. If Belichick didn’t call for the intentional safety, the Patriots probably wouldn’t be in position to tie or win the game.
Coaches coach, players play, and champions win.
Post Script: The Patriots would not lose again during the regular season. They would finish 14-2 and win the AFC East with ease. After a bye, the Patriots defeated Tennessee in the divisional playoffs then Indianapolis at home for the AFC Crown.
The Patriots would face Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII and would win their second championship in three years, 32-29 on Adam Vinatieri’s last second field goal.
The Broncos would go 5-2 down the stretch and finish 2nd in the AFC West. They earned a playoff berth in the Wild Card round versus the Colts. Indianapolis defeated the Broncos in a close battle, 10-7.
Joe Gill is a featured blogger for Boston Sports Then and Now.