DENVER - When Ty Law said, “It was hard to breathe” in Denver yesterday, it could have applied to the Patriots’ season.
It’s always hard to breathe when you’re 0-4 and your next loss means the season is virtually over. But Law and his teammates would catch their breath in an improbable 28-19 win over the Broncos. It ended an 11-game and 32-year losing streak at Mile High Stadium, in New England’s final appearance there (it’s being torn down after this season to make room for a new facility next door).
“I can breathe just fine right now,” Law added.
It was the Patriots’ first win of the season; the first win of the Bill Belichick era, and the first win for Belichick as a head coach since 1995 with the Cleveland Browns.
Quarterback Drew Bledsoe, a player some were beginning to believe no longer could get the job done after a stretch of 12 brutal games in which the Patriots went 2-10, threw four touchdown passes. He proved once again that when the offensive line blocks, when the receivers run good routes, and he has time to throw, he can be in complete control.
“It was the first time this year everything was really clicking together,” said wide receiver Terry Glenn, who caught five passes for 60 yards. “The offensive line did a good job, but Drew made some great throws. We felt we were in control.”
Another first was the Patriots scoring a third-quarter touchdown, which proved to be the clincher. Rookie running back J.R. Redmond caught a 12-yard touchdown pass, and Tebucky Jones made his first interception. And Bledsoe’s 271 yards made him the all-time leading Patriots passer (27,033), surpassing Steve Grogan’s 26,886. Troy Brown made the big plays - touchdown catches of 11 and 44 yards.
“As far as 32 years, the curse, all that is irrelevant now,” said Law. “The most important thing is we got a win and that’s a great feeling. I think we proved today this team has character.”
The Patriots obviously had a plan. Belichick game-planned superbly for Denver coach Mike Shanahan’s offense, the best running team in football. Belichick took away the Broncos’ run game - they had 79 yards on 21 carries - and also made quarterback Brian Griese throw 50 times with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Griese had one touchdown pass, a 43-yard bomb to Terry McGriff, during garbage time.
The Patriots secondary made the Broncos receivers work hard in the 80-degree heat.
The key was getting off to a quick start.
“The Broncos have always been a really fast-starting team, so it was important for us to get off to a good start,” said Bledsoe.
Bledsoe put up 14 unanswered points in the first quarter, and staked his team to a 21-3 halftime lead.
Willie McGinest’s return to the lineup from a pulled leg muscle, which kept him out for two games, paid off immediately when he slammed Griese for a 14-yard sack, forcing a fumble he recovered at the Broncos 29 on the first series of the game.
The once red-zone-impaired Patriots looked like a confident bunch. Bledsoe connected with Glenn for 14 yards as the quarterback was blasted by linebacker Al Wilson as he released the ball. Kevin Faulk ran a draw play for 4 yards before Bledsoe exploited the Broncos’ coverage on Brown. With linebacker Bill Romanowski in coverage, Bledsoe found Brown in the end zone from 11 yards away, giving the Patriots a 7-0 lead.
“It was one of those plays where Terry was behind me and he took coverage over with him and I was one-on-one against a linebacker and we made it happen,” said Brown.
Bledsoe, who threw for 110 yards in the first quarter and completed 6 of 7 passes, went to the air immediately when the Patriots took over at their 24 on their second possession. Glenn faked defensive back Ray Crockett for a 14-yard gain, Chris Calloway caught a pass in the flat for 13, and then Bledsoe hit on a long one - a 44-yard Brown catch-and-run. Brown faked Wilson and Crockett with a stutter step to the outside and was gone.
“The Broncos were in a zone defense and I got loose in the middle and Drew made a good throw,” said Brown. “I had to fight to get loose, but it was good that I was able to get into the end zone.”
The Patriots didn’t muster much for most of the second quarter but they made the most of their final 2:27, with Bledsoe moving the team 80 yards on nine plays. The drive was capped by Bledsoe’s 12-yard pass to Redmond with 25 seconds remaining. It was a well-called march by offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and Bledsoe, as they mixed the run with the pass. Faulk gained 13 yards on a draw play, but the big play was a 16-yard pass from Bledsoe to Brown and a roughing the passer penalty tacked on when Maa Tanuvasa hit Bledsoe high with his helmet. That put the ball at the Broncos 30. A pair of 12-yarders to Redmond got the Patriots on the board again, giving them the 21-3 lead at the half.
“We haven’t had a halftime lead for a long time,” said linebacker Ted Johnson, who made two big stuffs, one on a fourth and 1 at the goal line that thwarted a Broncos drive, and the other squashing a 2-point conversion.
Bledsoe made his worst play when he threw an interception to Terrell Buckley, intended for Glenn, early in the second half, setting up the Broncos at the New England 38. But Johnson soon made his defensive stand.
After taking a safety in the third quarter, Johnson punted on the free kick to the Broncos 13, but Deltha O’Neal returned it 87 yards for the score, as Tony George and Chris Floyd missed tackles along the way.
With a 21-11 lead there was reason to wonder about a Broncos comeback, but that was silenced by a seven-play, 77-yard drive by the Patriots. The big gainer was a 39-yard pass to Brown to the Denver 21. That set the stage for Glenn’s 8-yard catch on the left side of the end zone, making it 28-11 with 43 seconds left in the third quarter.
The rest was a matter of holding on, not doing anything stupid. The Patriots managed that, and had a chance to breathe again.