It took a Champ to knock off the champs.
Huffing, puffing, sprinting down the sideline, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey made the interception that put an end to Denver's years of playoff misery and finished off New England's dominating dynasty.
The record shows that Bailey got caught and knocked down at the 1-yard line after his 100-yard return Saturday night. But his interception of Tom Brady did plenty of damage, setting up the game-changing touchdown in Denver's 27-13 victory over the defending Super Bowl champions.
"It was a great play by me," Bailey said.
Sure was. It was the highlight of the first playoff game in the history of Invesco Field, which resulted in Denver's first postseason win since John Elway's last game, the 1998 Super Bowl.
Next week in the AFC championship game, the Broncos will play the winner of today's meeting between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.
New England (11-7), meanwhile, will go home, three wins short of NFL history.
The Patriots had five turnovers.
"When you lose, you want to go down fighting," Brady said. "You want to go down playing your best and we didn't do that. We made it easy for them."
It didn't get really easy until Bailey changed the game.
The Patriots were moving the ball well in the third quarter. They cut a 10-3 deficit to four points on a field goal and had moved quickly to the Denver 5 for what could have been the go-ahead score.
But on third down from the 5, Bailey stepped in front Troy Brown in the end zone for the pick. He sprinted down the sideline and when he felt Kevin Faulk swipe at him helplessly about 70 yards into the trek, he thought he had it cinched.
Champions don't go down easily, though, and tight end Ben Watson wasn't quitting. Watson took an angle, and with Bailey slowing and bringing the ball down to his hip, Watson got there, knocked Bailey down and sent the ball flying out of bounds at the 1.
Or maybe through the end zone.
With Bailey lying on his back, grimacing and gasping for air, Belichick challenged the call, saying the ball flew out of the end zone, not at the 1, which would have given New England the ball back on a touchback.
"It was a great effort on his part," Belichick said of Watson.
But did it go out through the end zone?
"Go ask them," the coach said of the officials, who also set up Denver's first touchdown on a questionable pass-interference call in the end zone against Asante Samuel.
It was the kind of call a championship team might have gotten. With no decisive TV angle, though, the Pats didn't. On the next play, Mike Anderson scored his second 1-yard touchdown of the night and gave Denver a 17-6 lead.
"I never saw the guy coming, but I was going as hard as I could," Bailey said of the longest non-scoring interception return in NFL playoff history.
Not that anybody was questioning him. Nor is there any more doubt about who won in the blockbuster trade before the 2004 season, when the Broncos sent Clinton Portis to Washington for Bailey and a second-round pick.
Portis and the Redskins got knocked out of the playoffs Saturday. Bailey and the Broncos are moving on.
"I don't care about what happens tomorrow," Bailey said. "It doesn't matter if it's Pittsburgh or Indy. We got this one."
Trailing 17-6, always reliable Adam Vinatieri, the difference in all three of New England's three-point Super Bowl victories, missed a 42-yard field goal. Shortly after, Brown fumbled a punt return to set up Jake Plummer's lone touchdown pass of the night, a 4-yarder to Rod Smith for a 24-6 lead.