I am stunned, but not surprised. I am stunned because as our biggest rival in the AFC, a win would've meant a lot: a chance to go 2-4 against Indy, a better face-to-face record for potential home field advantage (if tie breakers come into play), seeding... you name it. Most of all, I simply wanted to beat Indy. And for a large portion of the game, New England had the upper hand.
I am not surprised because the Colts are that good. When the Patriots get up on a team with as wide a margin as they had, it's usually lights out. Rivals simply can't recover and usually get stymied in all three phases of the game. Not so with the Colts, especially Peyton Manning. I remember thinking to myself that Manning just wasn't clicking with his receivers Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie. If he DID begin clicking, it would create problems.
For most of the first half, Tom Brady appeared to be firing on all cylinders and doing an excellent job of finding the weak spots in the Indy defense. As I discussed in my game preview, picking on the young, inexperienced Indy secondary was one of the keys to success and Brady did a good job of that. With the half coming to a close, Brady had managed 24 points and our defense held Peyton Manning and crew to 14, an admirable task. I remember thinking, "This is cool. We seem to have control of the game, but it ain't over until it's over." Boy, was I right.
The third quarter remained scoreless which was ok in my book; maintaining a 10 point lead against Indy for 15 minutes is a VERY good thing. Then, as if to guarantee the win, Wes Welker broke loose for a 69 yard punt return to the Indy 7 yard line. A 2 yard pass to Kevin Faulk was followed by a beautiful leaping grab by Randy Moss for a 5 yard TD. Brady put the ball where the 6-4 Moss could catch it and no one else. 31-14 - a 3 score lead with 14:23 left in the 4th quarter. As if in response, the Indy offense drove down the field with 5 plays in 2:04 minutes to reduce the lead to 10. I remember thinking, "Uh oh." The Patriots, working off of a Jonathan Wilhite interception, marched back down the field, only to settle for a Stephen Gostkowski field goal; 34-21.
Some call it momentum, but I call it pacing. NE seems to have a methodical, calculated approach to pacing a game - much like our head coach is perceived to be. After teams are lulled into this pacing, we switch it up. The Colts' hurry up offense is a major weapon in their arsenal and one that appears to win games on a regular basis. It's built for sprinting down the field and sets a frenetic pace that defenses have a hard time adjusting to. The result is a defense that can't work in substitutions, causing them to get gassed, especially the large defensive linemen.
In yet another sprint, the Colts scored on a 6 play, 1:49 minute drive; 34-28. A really big, "UH OH!!" NE would get the ball on their 20 after a McAfee touchback and before the drive even started, Brady burned timeout #2. Kevin Faulk went up the middle for no gain. Timeout #3. Then, Brady went to his old standby, Wes Welker, for an 8 yarder up the middle, putting us at third down and 2. Another pass to Welker was broken up by Powers, leaving us with fourth and 2. Decision time.
We've discussed the odds ad nauseam on this site. From a statistical perspective, going for it was the right thing to do. And Belichick trusted his offense to convert. Knee the ball 3 times, punt away, and Manning has almost no time to score. That was Bill's calculated risk. There's more. Belichick won't say this, but his defense was exhausted and he probably felt the offenses' chances of converting that fourth and 2 were better than the defense's chances of sustaining another Peyton Manning drive, even if a Chris Hanson punt would've planted Indy at their 30 or so. After all, the Indy offense had just demonstrated how they can score with a pair of 2 minute sprints. Hindsight is 20/20 and we now know Belichick's calculated risk more than likely lost the game. We all know what happened next. Handing the ball to a Manning lead offense on your own 29 is most likely suicide. And it was.
1 single play, player, or coaching decision does not win or lose a game; I have never subscribed to that theory because it ignores the hundreds of plays and decisions that lead up to it. But there are some that are certainly memorable.
- To correct a misconception, the Laurence Maroney fumble would not have been the difference maker in the game. Horrid to see, but Indy did nothing with that gift, punted away to Welker for a 69 yard return, and a 5 yard TD pass to Moss followed. The most a LoMo TD could've accomplished was to keep 2 minutes on the clock.
- The 31 yard PI against Darius Butler with 3:03 left in the fourth was questionable, but Austin Collie made a veteran play by recognizing he didn't have the ball and slowing down, allowing Butler to collide with him and giving the refs the impression Butler impeded his progress.
- A questionable timeout to start NE's last drive. We may never know what the reasoning was, but Brady felt he needed it.
- Not converting with 4:17 left in the fourth, forcing a field goal. RedZone efficiency (or lack thereof) strikes again.
There are a number of positives from last night:
- The rust appears to have worn off. Brady and his receivers are connecting well and didn't seem to make any mental errors like we saw in the beginning of the season.
- Sebastian Vollmer is a beast. Any rookie who can take on Dwight Freeney and be relatively successful is ok in my book. He's made a case for a starting position at left tackle while Matt Light should be moved to right tackle and Nick Kaczur benched; Colts DE Robert Mathis abused Kaczur, allowing too much pressure on Brady.
- The return of Julian Edelman was good to see. The more receivers we have, the more opponents have to worry about. Spreading the field is a good thing.
- This game was so close, it came down to a yard. If we can do that against Indy, just think what we can accomplish against the rest of the NFL.
That's all I can stomach for now. I'd like to send a shoutout to the Stampede Blue crowd for a fun week of cross blogging leading up to this matchup. We had many well mannered and thoughtful exchanges which is what it's all about for me.