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Shanahans final choke 

Sure, the Denver Broncos' calamitous crash landing to close the 2008 season was history-making, simply because no NFL team ever had missed the playoffs after basking in a three-game lead with three games to play.

Sure, the repercussions will last for a while especially after the earthshaking news Tuesday that Denver coach Mike Shanahan had been fired by owner Pat Bowlen. Shanahan had many plausible excuses and explanations for this December Debacle, starting with an epidemic of injuries.

But after years of blaming everyone else, Shanahan couldn't survive this one. Still, if you're assuming 2008 was the all-time No. 1 choke in Denver's franchise history, you're wrong. It's not even close.

This team had no consistency, no leadership and no depth to make up for the casualties. San Diego benefited from facing awful (Kansas City) or slumping (Tampa Bay and Denver) opponents down the stretch.

Let's be realistic here. Denver still can't put itself on the same level as San Diego, as long as the Chargers have quarterback Philip Rivers, star runner LaDainian Tomlinson (and the league's best backup in Darren Sproles), tight end Antonio Gates, all those receivers including Colorado Springs' own Vincent Jackson, a proven offensive line and a stable, playmaking defense.

With all that said, here's a legitimate list of the Broncos' biggest chokes:

1. Jacksonville, Jan. 4, 1997. Denver had started 12-1, clinching the top American Conference seed early, then coasted while resting key players. Many observers rated the Broncos the NFL's best team. But they couldn't beat the 9-7 Jaguars, even after jumping to a 12-0 lead at home. That 30-27 defeat left the Broncos with such a sour taste that they won the next two Super Bowls.

2. Pittsburgh, Dec. 30, 1984. In John Elway's second year, the Broncos went 13-3 and finished the regular season with a stunning 31-14 upset win at Seattle to pull out the AFC West title over the Seahawks. After an off week, the 9-7 Steelers came to town looking average by comparison, with quarterback Mark Malone and not much else. Denver never clicked, and a late Elway interception handed Pittsburgh a shocking 24-17 victory.

3. Super Bowl XXI, Jan. 25, 1987. Nothing hurts worse than blowing a Super Bowl, and the Broncos should have had a commanding lead by halftime against the New York Giants. But after failing to capitalize on repeated early threats (including first and goal at the 1), and Rich Karlis missing two point-blank field goals, Denver led only 10-9 at the break. After the teams returned to the Rose Bowl field with 100,000 people singing "New York, New York," the Broncos cowered and the Giants took charge, as quarterback Phil Simms suddenly looked like Joe Montana en route to the Giants' 39-20 victory.

4. San Francisco, Dec. 31, 2006. Even those with short memories should remember this. Denver had come within one game of the Super Bowl in 2005, and many onlookers had picked the Broncos to go all the way in '06. Instead, they entered the season finale needing to beat 6-9 San Francisco at Invesco Field to make the playoffs. Denver couldn't make it happen, as the 49ers eked out a 26-23 overtime surprise. That loss, followed hours later by the murder of defensive back Darrent Williams, pushed the Broncos into a hole that they still haven't escaped.

5. Los Angeles Raiders, Sept. 26, 1988. Coming off two Super Bowl losses, the Broncos still figured to reign over the AFC West and perhaps finally win a championship. On this Monday night, with the nation watching, they looked the part in storming to a 24-0 halftime lead. But then everything unraveled, as quarterback Jay Schroeder led the Raiders back to force overtime and then escape with a 30-27 victory. Denver never was the same, sagging to 8-8.

We could add several more ahead of the Broncos' most recent collapse. Like Super Bowl XII in January 1978, when Denver had the NFL's best defense but quarterback Craig Morton was absolutely rotten (4 of 15 for 39 yards and four interceptions) in a 27-10 loss. Or 1993, Wade Phillips' first year as head coach, when Denver lost its final two games, including one at home to 4-10 Tampa Bay, and slid from division contender to a wild-card playoff loser.

Compared to all that, this choke is just another bad dream. But for Mike Shanahan, the nightmare might never go away.

routon@csindy.com

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