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'The Snake' can't shed his old skin

DENVER — Goodbye, Jake the Snake. Hello, Jake Mistake.

On the biggest stage of his nine-year NFL career Sunday, Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer reinforced the belief, prevalent in Denver and around the league, that he is still the same turnover-prone quarterback he has always been.

Plummer committed four turnovers and helped sink the Broncos in their 34-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday at Invesco Field.

No longer the Snake, a nickname earned with his wild escape acts and daring comebacks at Arizona State, the Boise native will have to deal with a host of new ways to describe him.

Among the few already trotted out in the skeptical Denver-area media: Jake the Flake and Jake the Fake.

None cut as deeply or ring as true as Jake Mistake, a reputation born with erratic play as a member of the Arizona Cardinals and one he nearly shed during this year's Pro Bowl campaign.

Plummer had just nine turnovers — seven interceptions and two fumbles lost — in leading the Broncos to their first AFC West crown since 1998, John Elway's final season.

But before 76,174 at Invesco and millions watching on television, Plummer, 31, reverted to his earlier days. His poor performance likely cemented his reputation for playing loose and fast with the football.

The turnovers led to 21 Pittsburgh points and helped take the Broncos out of the game early.

On the Broncos' second possession, already trailing 3-0, Plummer, attempting to avoid heavy pressure, was sacked and stripped by linebacker Joey Porter at the Denver 39. Pittsburgh converted the turnover into a touchdown.

Less than two minutes before halftime and with Pittsburgh holding a commanding 17-3 lead, Plummer committed his most egregious error. He misread the coverage, lofting a pass that almost seemed intended for Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor. The Steelers again turned the miscue into a touchdown.

"You'd like to have that one back if you could," Denver coach Mike Shanahan said. "I think he was frustrated."

Plummer's frustration level didn't get any lower. Though he did toss a touchdown and lead the Broncos on two second-half touchdown drives, including some vintage Snake scrambling to avoid the heavy and constant Pittsburgh rush, Plummer made a critical mistake early in the fourth quarter.

On the first play after Charlie Adams' 47-yard kickoff return started the Broncos' possession at the Pittsburgh 43, Plummer was intercepted by linebacker Larry Foote. Later in the quarter, he fumbled on a desperate fourth-down attempt.

That's four turnovers, nearly half of his season total, in one game. Plummer lost two fumbles all season. He lost two Sunday.

Unfortunately for Plummer, the mistakes fit with his postseason profile.

In six career postseason games, Plummer now has thrown 10 interceptions. He's been picked off at least once in all six games, and Sunday marked the fourth time in those six games that he's tossed two interceptions.

Forget escaping the enormous shadow of the revered Elway, a five-time AFC champion and two-time Super Bowl winner. Now, as Bronco tight end and Eagle High alum Jeb Putzier put it, Plummer is fighting his own shadow.

"He's carrying this label that he's this mistake-prone guy from his days with the Cardinals. Anyone who knows anything about football is going to know that (Sunday) it was about more than just Jake." Putzier said. "Unfortunately, he's the one that's going to have to take the brunt of it."

And Plummer knows it. Though Porter harassed him all day and a porous defense left him in a hole thus making the Denver running game a non-factor, this one falls largely on Plummer.

"Even without turnovers, if we lose, I'm taking the blame on this one. That's my job. As a quarterback, I have to lead this team to a win and I didn't get that job done," Plummer said. "I had a couple of poor decisions and, in a game like this, you can't do that."

Until he doesn't "do that" in a playoff game, the questions and the doubters aren't going anywhere. If this was his now or never game, a likely proposition, never just took a huge lead.

The playoffs define quarterbacks.

That's why you should expect to hear an awful lot about how great Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is in the next two weeks. Any why Plummer can expect an offseason of wishing his nickname was still the Snake.

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