- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

Pittsburgh played without Ben Roethlisberger. New England was in the midst of the Deion Branch contretemps. Cincinnati held its breath about Carson Palmer’s surgically repaired knee. Indianapolis was dealing with Brother Bowl hype. Jacksonville was facing a formidable Dallas team.

Of all the returning AFC playoff teams, Denver had the easiest opener, visiting St. Louis (6-10 last year and making its debut for coach Scott Linehan).

However, the first five playoff teams won. Denver lost 18-10. Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer was picked off three times, sacked four times and lost a fumble. Denver, which trailed 15-7 heading into the fourth quarter, is now 2-11 when trailing after three quarters with Plummer, once the comeback king in Arizona.

“We’re a ball-control offense, so I think it looks like at times that when we’re behind, then we’re [in serious trouble],” tight end Stephen Alexander said. “A lot of people do things differently than we do it here. But I think we all have total confidence that if we had to score 21 points in the fourth quarter that it can be done.”

Plummer’s fourth-quarter passer rating since joining the Broncos was horrid in 2003 (62.6), solid in 2004 (81.7) and mediocre last year (71.5). In the fourth quarter last week, Plummer was 2-for-7 for 19 yards and two of his three interceptions.

There’s already a public outcry for rookie Jay Cutler, the first-round draft choice, backup quarterback and heir apparent. But coach Mike Shanahan is committed to Plummer, who’s 33-15 in Denver and has led the Broncos to the playoffs in each of his three seasons.

“Jake understands what’s going to happen here, he understands the media, he understands Denver,” Shanahan said.

But Shanahan added this interesting commentary.

“Sometimes you get too comfortable and forget about the things that have gotten you there,” the coach said. “If something’s not there, you can’t make a play when it’s not there. Sometimes when the quarterback has been very successful like Jake has … you forget about not taking a chance, and you start taking those chances.”

No love lost — It could’ve been one of those warm and fuzzy stories about the mentor and the protege when New England visits the New York Jets on Sunday. Instead, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is in a cold war with Jets coach Eric Mangini, the former ballboy whom he hired in 1995 with only two years coaching semi-pro ball in Australia. Belichick was his boss from then — except in 1996 — until this season.

Belichick and Mangini haven’t spoken in months. When Mangini won his first game as a head coach last week at Tennessee, he received congratulatory messages from such coaching buddies as Ron Erhardt, Kirk Ferentz and Jim Mora, but not Belichick.

“Sometimes that happens where you are extremely busy,” Mangini said. “Our relationship is the same as it’s been. Bill’s always been a good friend. This probably won’t be the week that we’ll be chatting too much.”

That’s not just because of their impending matchup.

The Patriots also filed a grievance with the NFL this week, claiming the Jets tampered with Deion Branch while the holdout receiver was in search of a new team. Branch wound up being traded to Seattle.

“When you’re in the same division, you’re in direct competition,” Belichick said. “We’re going to put our energy to our respective organizations.”

Asked when he knew the 35-year-old Mangini had the makings of a head coach, Belichick said: “He worked hard. He had a lot of different responsibilities. He started back in Cleveland with really no responsibility at all and worked his way up to a coordinator position. There are a lot of steps along the way.”

Against the grain I — Road teams went 11-5 last week, the most such opening victories since 1983. It was also the fourth-best road showing in any week during the last 10 seasons.

Against the grain II — Tennessee had two 2-point conversions Sunday against the Jets, the franchise’s first since 1969 — also against the Jets — when it was the AFL’s Houston Oilers.

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