FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – This game was set up for a quarterback meltdown.
On three occasions, Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer lined up under center with his own end zone buttressing his rear end. About the only thing less appealing for most quarterbacks is lying on a bed of nails.
"That's not a fun position to be dropping back in, I'll say that," Plummer said.
Not on the road against the New England Patriots' scheme-happy defense. And not after opening the season with five interceptions in two games.
Still, with naysayers expecting doom and gloom in those situations as Plummer stepped to the line, Plummer disproved them time after time. In fact, Plummer thrived, delivering the kill shot in the Broncos' 17-7 victory over the Patriots on the last of three drives where Denver opened within five yards of its goal line.
"That's a hell of a game, especially on the road," Denver safety John Lynch said. "You come into a loud place like this one, just getting out of there is big."
It's fair to say that a considerable amount of Denver fans wanted Plummer out of a job after the first two games. His play had the Broncos going stagnant in the first two games, limiting the potent offense to 10 points in an opening loss at St. Louis and nine in an ugly victory in Week 2 against Kansas City.
With rookie Jay Cutler on the sideline after playing impressively in the preseason, some observers felt Plummer was one more bad game from seeing the bench.
But while this game was not statistically stunning, it was effectively gorgeous. Plummer kept the Patriots from coming up with a key defensive play that might change the game. He not only got out of bad field position but also he threw away passes when he had to and bided his time waiting for a big play.
"I think Jake really managed the game well," Denver head coach Mike Shanahan said. "With a defense like this, they really keep you off balance. They do so many different things to you, so many different rushers, so many different defenses. They can confuse a quarterback quickly and make him make mistakes."
Instead, it was Plummer and wide receiver Javon Walker who combined to confuse New England at just the right times. Plummer hit Walker for touchdowns of 32 and 83 yards, each coming on critical third-down plays.
Part of Denver's success on those third downs was having solved another lingering issue. Earlier in the week, Shanahan settled on Tatum Bell as his full-time running back. Bell had a career-high 27 carries for 123 yards and his presence obviously drew the focus of New England's defense.
For instance, on the third-and-1 from the New England 32-yard line, the Patriots loaded up to stop the run. Instead, the Broncos threw, Shanahan figuring that he was going to go for it on fourth down if the Broncos didn't get it and also figuring that he had a good chance to catch New England in man coverage.
The Broncos did just that as Walker was singled up with cornerback Asante Samuel. Walker created just enough separation, and Plummer laid the ball in a perfect spot for a 10-0 lead in the second quarter.
The second touchdown came on third-and-6 from the Denver 17. Again, the Patriots anticipated run and got pass. Walker got behind Samuel and Plummer got him the ball before safety James Sanders could get there.
For Bell, his ascension to the full-time job ended more than two years of waiting. Shanahan gave him the news Wednesday, but he kept it primarily to himself, his family and his friends. His girlfriend was the first to know.
"She said, 'Good, 'cause I got you on my fantasy team,'" Bell said.
But the bigger issue in this game still was about Plummer righting himself after a wobbly start. This isn't the first time Plummer has had a problematic start to the season. In 2004, he opened the season with his infamous left-handed pass for an interception in a win over Kansas City. In 2005, he was confused and played poorly during a loss to the Dolphins.
Now, however, the Broncos have an alternative in Cutler, the first-round pick they traded up to get. To some, this was where Plummer was set up to fail. This is the same guy who once flipped off the fans in Denver after getting booed. He also came unglued in the AFC championship game, prompting Shanahan to examine other options.
So as he stepped out into those bad situations Sunday, all of that was weighing on him.
Well, maybe not all of it.
"Was I thinking about how I struggled in the first two games and how something might happen?" Plummer said, rhetorically. "(Expletive), this game is hard enough without thinking about that stuff. I just wanted to get us out of there."