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It's now or never for Plummer

DENVER —Eluding the pass rush has always been one of Jake Plummer's greatest attributes on the football field. Eluding pressure and expectations off of it, well, that's never been quite as easy.

Today, when the bearded Boise native quarterbacks the Denver Broncos against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game, Plummer will have his best chance — perhaps his last one — to escape his reputation as a shaky performer and the enormous shadow of John Elway once and for all.

Plummer, 31, stands just one victory from his sport's pinnacle and two wins from football immortality. Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks hold a special place in history — Trent Dilfer notwithstanding.

Such opportunities do not come along often. Near-perfect ones, like the situation Plummer and the Broncos find themselves in today rarely ever materialize.

Having already vanquished the two-time defending champion New England Patriots and with the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts — Denver's recent playoff nemeses — also gone, the Broncos face sixth-seeded Pittsburgh at home, where they are undefeated (9-0) this season.

It's as perfect a setup as anyone in orange and blue could have asked for. But there's also a

healthy skepticism in Denver about Plummer's ability to lead the Broncos back to the Super Bowl.

Despite a third consecutive solid season as the Broncos' starting quarterback, Plummer, who spent his first six professional seasons under center for the morbid Arizona Cardinals, hasn't yet shed his youthful reputation as a mistake-prone signal-caller.

The local media and fan base are seemingly waiting for a crucial mistake from Plummer to sink their season.

"There are still many inside and outside the local ZIP codes who wonder just exactly when Plummer will revert to his Arizona Cardinals ways," wrote Jeff Legwold in Saturday's Rocky Mountain News.

Talk about a glass half-empty.

Plummer, 33-13 with three playoff appearances as the Broncos' starting quarterback, has thrown 65 touchdowns against 39 interceptions.

That success, however, is credited to head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, the next head coach of the Houston Texans, who have tailored the offense to fit Plummer. It features lots of rollouts, feeding off the Broncos' outstanding running attack, giving Plummer run-pass options and getting him away from the pass rush.

To many, it obscures the "real" Plummer. The "real" Plummer, it goes around here, is the one who tossed 92 touchdowns and 114 interceptions with the Cardinals. Fans keep waiting for that Plummer to reappear.

More likely, a maturing Plummer, finally away from the Cardinals and the 218 sacks he suffered in 84 games, has simply become a better quarterback under the guidance of Shanahan and Kubiak. Plummer's very good play the past three years is no less "real" than erratic play in Arizona.

It's not as easy to get away from his postseason failings. Plummer has been intercepted at least once in all five of his postseason games, including lopsided playoff losses to the Colts in each of the past two seasons. His teams are 2-3 in the playoffs, including last week's victory against New England.

Another poor performance, another untimely interception, especially on this stage, and Plummer may well be remembered for being unable to deliver in the clutch, a heinous crime for NFL quarterbacks.

Right, Peyton Manning?

And throughout his career, from Boise's Capital High to Arizona State, even Plummer's best efforts have gone to waste on the biggest stages. His 11-yard touchdown scamper with 1:40 left in the 1997 Rose Bowl should have cemented his legend at Arizona State with a victory in the granddaddy of them all. But Ohio State then marched 65 yards for a game-winning touchdown and a 20-17 victory.

His bid for back-to-back state championships at Capital (and an undefeated senior season) collapsed on a missed extra-point attempt on the game's final play — after Plummer had thrown a touchdown to pull his team within a point at 28-27.

Such mitigating factors hold no weight in the court of public opinion when it comes to NFL quarterbacks.

Right, Dan Marino?

Though Plummer did lead the lowly Cardinals to their first — and only — playoff victory since 1947 in 1998, he departed the desert without ever having a quarterback rating above 79.6, pedestrian numbers for a second-round pick once dubbed "a bright young star in the NFL" by no less of a quarterback authority than Bill Walsh.

With that baggage in tow, Plummer arrived in Denver to replace Brian Griese as the team's starting quarterback. But Plummer is not — and will never be — compared to Griese.

No, Plummer's truly unpardonable sin, greater than all the interceptions to Denver fans, is that he's not Elway.

Elway delivered five AFC championships and two Super Bowl titles to the Mile High city, which in turn elevated him into a deity. Now a successful businessman, Elway's name adorns more than 15 car dealerships in the Denver area, and he is just as popular as he was in 1999, when he retired after winning back-to-back Super Bowls.

Thirteen pages of the Broncos' media guide are devoted to detailing Elway's accomplishments.

If asked who they'd rather have quarterback today's game, fans almost assuredly would choose Elway.

Instead it's Plummer who will be under center when the Broncos break their first huddle, facing the biggest game of his career with his legacy hanging in the balance.

No magical scramble, no patented Jake the Snake escape act can get him out of this one.

There's only one way out of this pressure — a victory.

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