Denver Denver's quest for a third straight Super Bowl title was over almost as soon as it began.
John Elway had retired, paving the way for Brian Griese. Terrell Davis suffered a knee injury while making a tackle on an interception return. Shannon Sharpe soon joined Davis on the bench because of an injury. The Broncos started 0-4.
"We weren't even close, for a number of reasons," coach Mike Shanahan said.
The New England Patriots visit the Broncos today for a playoff game that could move them two wins away from the third straight championship.
It's an unprecedented feat and, much like hitting .400 in baseball or breaking 60 on the PGA Tour, it long has stood as one of the most elusive of challenges in sports. And while every sports fan knows what an amazing feat it would be, nobody quite relates like the Denver players who were around in 1999, the last time anyone in the league had a chance.
"It's impossible," defensive lineman Trevor Pryce said. "I have one statement: I went to the Pro Bowl the year the Ravens won it. Ray Lewis was at the table, talking crazy about repeats and three-peats. I said, 'OK, remember this. You've got an 'X' on your back. We had it twice. It's hard to win it. You will not win it again.' And they didn't."
In one sense, the Patriots have been lucky in that they've been able to keep their core together and still have the means to fill in missing pieces. Part of that is because some of their best veterans - like Troy Brown and Tedy Bruschi - have been willing to play for less in New England than they could have gotten elsewhere.
This season, injuries almost did in the Patriots. Bruschi, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison. Corey Dillon, Matt Light, Kevin Faulk. All are key cogs who missed significant time. When the Pats came to Denver for a regular-season game Oct. 16, they barely resembled playoff material, let alone a wannabe dynasty.
A weakened defense and a struggling offensive line that caused Tom Brady to take a beating were a big reason they fell behind, 28-3. Their championship mentality was a big reason they rallied and nearly tied it before falling, 28-20.
"There are a lot of things that are different" between now and then, Brady said. "I don't want to sit up here and rattle off all the things that I think we can accomplish. We have to just play better football."
During the final six games of the regular season, they allowed only 2.9 yards per run. Brady has thrown for a career-high 4,110 yards. They won six of seven before falling in the regular-season finale, a game in which coach Bill Belichick rested many of his starters.
Still, all those stats only speak to the bigger point - that the Patriots are champions, they know how to win, and they know how to do it with everyone else targeting them.
"It's why they are what they are," Shanahan said. "They've got a chance to do something pretty special."
Only six players remain from the last Denver Super Bowl team, and much has been made of the fact that the Broncos haven't won a playoff game in seven years and haven't played host to one in that span, either.
The tandem of Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell are now in the position held by Terrell Davis, who at the time of Denver's championships was on a pace to become one of the best backs in the history of the game. Sharpe, one of the game's best, has been replaced by the not-well-known tandem of Jeb Putzier and Stephen Alexander.
And Elway? After Shanahan's experiment with Griese failed, Jake Plummer became the heir apparent. Plummer versus Brady might seem like a mismatch, but so far this season, Plummer has answered every challenge.
He appreciates what the Patriots are trying to do.
"They're going after something that has never been done," Plummer said. "Everyone wants to be the greatest, and if they go out and win another one, it will be hard to say that they're not the greatest dynasty ever, as far as the NFL. We want to put a halt to that and they want to continue on, so it is going to be a big challenge for us."