DENVER — What was supposed to be a magical night featuring an inspirational MVP comeback and the beginning of a new Mile High era ended with a subdued celebration.
Ed McCaffrey, whose popularity is evidenced by hot-selling brands of cereal, mustard and horseradish, was preparing for season-ending surgery while his Denver Broncos teammates exchanged hugs and handshakes after their 31-20 victory over the New York Giants on Monday night.
"When he's out there, a part of me is out there," fellow Broncos receiver Rod Smith said. "From this point on, I dedicate everything to him."
Playing their first game in a new stadium, the Broncos welcomed back former MVP Terrell Davis but lost McCaffrey to a broken left leg. They overcame the injury and showed why they are considered Super Bowl contenders.
Davis, who had missed 24 games due to injury since 1998, rushed for 101 yards on 21 carries and went over 7,000 yards for his career as Denver ran through a New York defense that was second in the NFL against the run last year.
"I said before the game that the team that rushes the ball better was going to win this game," Giants coach Jim Fassel said. "The defense has to get itself off the field."
The Giants were holding their own before the devastating injury to McCaffrey seemed to inspire the Broncos. Smith caught a 25-yard touchdown pass that gave Denver a 21-14 lead three plays after McCaffrey was injured midway through the third quarter.
The Broncos also scored on their first two possessions of the fourth, ensuring they would open $400 million Invesco Field at Mile High on a winning note.
"The intensity level picked up 100 percent," said McCaffrey's replacement, Eddie Kennison, who had a 36-yard catch that set up Denver's final touchdown.
Smith, one of McCaffrey's best friends, finished with nine catches for 115 yards, and Brian Griese, eight months removed from reconstructive shoulder surgery, was 21-of-29 for 330 yards and three touchdowns.
"It's kind of a bittersweet feeling for me now because we won the game but lost a great player," Griese said. "It was probably the hardest game I've ever had to play."
The Giants, still seeking respect after winning the NFC title last year, had trouble running the ball and were hampered by the absences of starting cornerback Jason Sehorn (sore knee) and starting receiver Ike Hilliard (sore foot).
New York had 308 yards total offense — 90 coming in the final five minutes — and Sehorn's replacement, rookie Will Peterson, repeatedly was beaten by Smith and McCaffrey. Dave Thomas also struggled to contain Denver's receivers — even after McCaffrey left the game.
"We're not going to beat teams like Denver in spurts," Giants receiver Amani Toomer said. "For one reason or another, we just didn't get it done."
In a telling sign for New York, one of its best players was first-year punter Rodney Williams, who set a team record with a 90-yard punt in the third quarter and two more kicks over 60 yards.
Toomer also had a big night with two touchdown catches for the Giants, who lost their season-opener for the first time in five years under coach Jim Fassel.
For the better part of three quarters, it seemed like the Giants would gain the respect they have been seeking from pundits who dismissed last year's playoff run as aberration.
New York tied it at 14 on Toomer's contested 11-yard touchdown catch less than five minutes into the third quarter. The Broncos challenged the score, saying Toomer stepped out of bounds at about the 3, but the replacement officials upheld the touchdown.
The replacements had a sloppy but otherwise unassuming night in the national spotlight. The Broncos lost two replay challenges, the referee spotted the ball incorrectly before a field-goal attempt, and an offsides call against New York appeared to be caused by a false start by Denver.
Supported by a boisterous crowd intent on creating Mile High mayhem, not much fazed the Broncos as they took the lead for good on Smith's touchdown catch.