By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 08, 2006

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Jacksonville, then Indianapolis. Simple. Just lose to Miami and make it look good.

Oops. Forgot one thing. If Pittsburgh beats Cincinnati, it's off to Denver and not Indianapolis.

But that won't happen, will it? Cincinnati playing in its first playoff game since the days of the Ickey Shuffle? A rabid home crowd at Paul Brown Stadium cheering on the AFC North champions? Carson Palmer ready to assume his place as the best up and coming quarterback in the league?

Guess what. Break out the oxygen masks, Patriot Nation. It's off to Denver, the place where Ron Borges of the Globe refers to as "Football Hades, Colorado".

Instead of a presumptive Bengal win at home against division rival Pittsburgh, everyone got a graphic display of why the Patriots preferred Jacksonville in the first round. Everyone assumed Pittsburgh would come at Cincinnati very physically, and it took only the second offensive play of the game for Cincinnati to make that prediction come true.

That fateful play pretty much decided the game. Palmer dropped back and hit Chris Henry with a stunning 66-yard pass along the right sideline. But Palmer lay on the ground at his five-yard line, writhing in pain. Kimo von Oelhoffen came in and cut down Palmer at his ankle, tearing the ACL in his knee and shelving him for the season. CBS commentators said that von Oelhoffen was "blocked into Palmer", but replays clearly don't show that he was. It was a dirty play, although von Oelhoffen did a splendid acting job in trying to appear sorry that he did it.

And you've seen this before out of Pittsburgh. Back in the 2001 AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field, Tom Brady was cut down in just the same way by Lee Flowers. And it wasn't just once, but twice. The second time put Brady out of the game, and Drew Bledsoe had to come in. Bledsoe managed the game well enough to get the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXVI despite completing less than fifty percent of his passes. But Flowers' second hit on Brady was a potentially damaging blow; Brady did come back the following week and lead the Patriots to a win in the Super Bowl.

So, thanks to Pittsburgh eventually piling it on the beat-up Bengals (Henry himself would also suffer a debilitating knee injury later on and would leave the game) by a 31-17 count, the Patriots have a Saturday night date at Invesco Field in Denver instead of a Sunday date in Indianapolis. Pittsburgh will head to the RCA Dome for a rematch with their Monday night debacle against the Colts, while the Patriots also head for a rematch (Denver won earlier this season against the Patriots at Invesco, 28-20).

It's Pittsburgh who will get that precious first shot at the Colts, not the Patriots. The Colts, who suffered through a tragic and listless December, are ripe for the picking this weekend. Pittsburgh was no match for the Colts here back in November (the Colts won by a 26-7 count), but their physical game, as well as a more seasoned Ben Roethlisberger, could play better in this second go-round.

And if Peyton Manning gets hot, hey, just hit him low at the ankles and take your chances with Jim Sorgi.

Meanwhile, the Patriots head for a city where they traditionally do poorly in, rather than a city where they generally excel. The Patriots went winless in Denver from 1969 to 1999. John Elway never lost to the Patriots in his entire career (11-0 counting the playoffs). Since 1967, the Patriots are 6-20 against the Broncos overall. In contrast, the Patriots are 29-10 against Indianapolis since 1984.

Lately, the Patriots have been at least somewhat successful against Denver, but there have still been moments of completely lousy football mixed in. Since Bill Belichick took over the Patriots in 2000, New England is 2-3 against Denver, with both wins coming in Denver. In their final appearance at Mile High Stadium, the Patriots beat Denver 28-19 in 2000, Belichick's first win as Patriot head coach. And on a Monday night in 2003, the Patriots parlayed an intentional safety and botched subsequent free kick coverage into a late rally for a 30-26 win. Jake Plummer did not play in that game (Danny Kanell did), but neither did Richard Seymour (the mysterious "listed as questionable but never made the trip" controversy).

On the other hand, there was Brady's 2001 stinker at brand new Invesco Field, where he threw the first four picks of his career. The 24-16 loss at home in 2002 was pathetic and not as close as the score suggests. And there was the game earlier this year, of course.

But these are the playoffs. The Patriots lost their only playoff contest against the Broncos, 22-17 at Mile High Stadium the year after they made it to Super Bowl XX. The Patriots won't mind the cold weather that Denver is likely to get, but the altitude is what will cause the Patriots, or any visiting team for that matter, to not be able to do what it takes to knock off the Broncos and move on to the AFC Championship Game.

To shine some light on things, there are several elements about the first meeting between these two teams which could work in favor of the Patriots in the rematch. An Internet poster put up several items on this website's discussion board, which help explain why Denver played the Patriots so well earlier in the year and which, if corrected, might prevent Denver from being the dominant team next weekend.

Offensively, neither Kevin Faulk nor Corey Dillon saw any action, and the only healthy Patriot tailback was Amos Zereoue. Patrick Pass was also hurt at the time. This completely negated any chance the Patriots had to establish a running game. Brandon Gorin was also inactive for the game.

On defense, the deficiencies were much more acute. Duane Starks gave up a ton while starting at cornerback, and he has since left the team, while Randall Gay was playing hurt and would later be IR'ed. Richard Seymour was out once again (like 2003). James Sanders was hurt in the game, and Eugene Wilson was still adjusting to life without Rodney Harrison. Mike Vrabel was playing his first game at inside linebacker. Artrell Hawkins, Michael Stone and Hank Poteat had yet to join (or re-join) the team. And of course, Tedy Bruschi was still on the PUP list.

With the Patriots at near full strength, you might figure that they have a better chance in this game, which they do. But they face a tough Bronco team with an attitude and a swagger, as evidenced in their regular season finale win at San Diego, a meaningless game where they rested starters and still whipped tail on the Chargers. It just seems that the Broncos will simply find a way to win, and the way will somehow, if nothing else, find its way back to the altitude.

But the Patriots at least have Belichick, who is wonderful in rematches. Every game leading up to the Super Bowl will be guaranteed a 2005 rematch. With all the arrows in Belichick's quiver, maybe the Patriots come up with what would have to be their best championship effort of all time in winning at a near impossible road venue, even in the playoffs.

Inspiration? The last time Denver lost a home playoff game? 1996. 30-27. The team the Patriots just beat was the team that pulled that off. Suffice it to say that Denver will not disregard the Patriots like the Broncos did to Jacksonville in 1996.

Oh, well. At least no one got badly hurt against Jacksonville. Palmer would gladly trade places with Brady any day.


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