DENVER -- Champ Bailey tried.
He ran and he ran. He huffed and he puffed until his lungs filled with mile-high air and he could run no more. After Benjamin Watson knocked him senseless along the left sideline, the ball flew out of his arms at the 1-yard line as he crashed into the pylon with 47 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
He had run 100 yards after intercepting a Tom Brady pass intended for Troy Brown. It was the longest nonscoring interception return in playoff history. The Patriots challenged the play, feeling the ball was fumbled through the end zone and therefore should have been called a touchback. Referee Jeff Triplette upheld the ruling on the field, however, and the Broncos scored on the next play, a 1-yard run by Mike Anderson.
''We gave out some game balls and he got one," said Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. ''That was the turning point of the game. It was a chance to go up big. It was a big-time play by a great player. And great players make great plays at the right times."
There would be no more Patriot comebacks. The Broncos coaching staff put together a brilliant game plan against Brady and the Patriots offense, forcing three defensive turnovers and two more on special teams. It might have been uncharacteristic of the Patriots, but very characteristic of the Broncos, whose plus-20 turnover ratio ranked second in the NFL.
Brady had earlier beaten Bailey for a couple of long passes (51 yards to Andre' Davis and 21 yards to David Givens). Brady had said all week that he needed to be careful throwing to Bailey's side. In this case, with a chance at a touchdown, he threw the ball off his back foot with Nick Ferguson bearing in on a safety blitz. Bailey read Brady's eyes, something you rarely see, picked it off in the end zone, and ran down the sideline.
''It was just a basic blitz," said Ferguson. ''We were looking to cause some confusion with Brady and make him make a bad throw. That's what happened. I thought our team executed our game plan so well against Tom."
Bailey spoke about the Patriots' offense trying to use basketball-like ''picks" against the corners to create some space for the receivers. It took a while, but Bailey said the Denver secondary finally solved it.
''Early in the game, they were kind of tricking us," said Bailey. ''We were all-out blitzing. They were trying to pick us and all kinds of stuff. We knew they'd probably try it again. We just did a little in and out and it worked perfectly."
Basically, Bailey switched places on coverage with Darrent Williams. With Brady getting pressure from Ferguson, Bailey figured if he stayed where he was in the end zone the ball would come his way.
Bailey, who had eight interceptions in 14 games this season, saw the ball come right to him. And off he went.
''My lungs are still burning, boy. I've never felt that mile-high air quite like that. I definitely didn't see Watson," said Bailey. ''Even if I saw him I wouldn't have had enough gas to do anything about it anyway. I was afraid that it went out of the end zone. I knew he got me right before I got to the pylon. I was just hoping the ball didn't cross the goal line."
Ferguson was running right with him.
''I was good," Ferguson said. ''I had something left. I just needed to make sure nobody could get to Champ. I saw Troy Brown coming up and I got in front of him so he couldn't get a clear shot at him, but I was there. I was just hoping Champ could go in. But I never really thought the officials were going to overturn that. There wasn't enough evidence."
Bailey, who has battled hamstring injuries all season, said he started running out of gas at around the 30-yard line and basically got to the 1 on fumes and adrenaline. As he tumbled to the ground he hit his head, and while he might be sore today, he couldn't feel a thing.
''I was on the ground because I was gassed," Bailey said. ''I couldn't even get up and walk. I was just happy to get the pick. When you can get a pick in the red zone that's quite a turnaround. They could have got 3 or 7 and we turned around and got 7."
Bailey said that the communication between himself and his fellow corners was the main reason they were able to pull off the play. Bailey didn't refer to his swapping places with Williams as a switch, but rather a last-minute change of plans.
Shanahan said he told the team before the game that creating turnovers and not turning it over would be the most important thing they could do.
Everyone on the Broncos knew they weren't going to shut Brady down.
''It's kind of hard to confuse him," said Bailey. ''The thing is to get to him and it's so hard to get to him. We got pressure and we made him throw. That's probably all you can ask for."
Bailey is hoping his happy days won't end any time soon.
''I'm happy because I'm moving on to the next round and my season is not over," he said. ''Maybe I can do this again in the next round."