Every so often the Patriots will play a team that needs to leave with a victory. It will be a team that New England has a long history against. It will be a team in the dumps that has nothing else to lose on the season. It will be a team that dedicates months of preparation that will feature some great wrinkles into their game plan that would make Kevin Kelly blush.
Usually Rex Ryan is on the other sideline, but the game against the Colts yielded the same result: a Patriots victory in crushing fashion.
Buried beneath the vitriol between these two franchises were a few under-heralded storylines. The Patriots just won a truly Buffalonian 7th consecutive game against the Colts, cornerback Malcolm Butler went on a pass defending rampage, defensive tackle Dominique Easley looked like a heralded top ten pick, linebacker Jamie Collins found another way to do the impossible, Cameron Fleming stepped in at right tackle after being elevated from the practice squad and the offense didn't miss a beat, and running back LeGarrette Blount played his first regular season game against the Colts while in a Patriots uniform.
There's a lot to evaluate when you strip the game of its Deflarthyism overtone, but no factor is more important than the Colts needing to win this game.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck didn't turn the ball over for the first time this season and threw for three touchdowns. Running back Frank Gore averaged 6.0 yards per carry on the ground. The Indianapolis defense collected a pick-six off a ricochet from wide receiver Julian Edelman. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was held without a catch in the first half.
The Colts executed their game plan and went into halftime with the lead at home.
But for any moment did it feel like this game was in jeopardy for the Patriots? New England opened up the game, scoring on five of their first six drives (the pick six the lone exception). After the bizarre Colts special teams play led to a New England score, the Patriots ran the ball on seven of their final nine snaps in a conservative attempt to preserve the lead.
It was a fairly clockwork performance that lacked any real explosive component to the offense, no singular calling card like the 200+ yard rushing performances of games past.
Maybe this was a game for the Patriots defense. Chandler Jones and company stymied the Colts to allow just two scores on Indianapolis' first ten drives, and only four of the Colts drives extended beyond 20 yards (before the garbage time touchdown).
This was finally supposed to be a true test for the New England defense. Andrew Luck was back at the helm and the Colts featured a ridiculous array of talent with T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Andre Johnson, Phillip Dorsett, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, and Frank Gore. The Patriots just placed their #2 cornerback Tarell Brown on the injured reserve and linebacker Dont'a Hightower was unavailable.
The Colts picked up just 199 passing yards and two touchdowns before the Patriots switched to their prevent defense (and allowed another 113 yards and a touchdown). The pass rush disrupted Luck's throws and the coverage by Malcom Butler and Logan Ryan was tremendous. This was a total team performance by a defense that wouldn't allow their personnel losses to affect their production.
Indianapolis gave the Patriots everything they could. They tried a trick onside kick. They went for a ridiculous punt formation. They sold out to remove Rob Gronkowski. They emptied out their playbook to try and beat the Patriots for the first time in the Andrew Luck era and they still couldn't do it.
Yes, the Patriots won by seven points and most wanted the victory to be more decisive. More importantly, the offense produced when asked, the defense carried the day when needed, New England didn't play their best game and they were adjusting to the loss of starting tackle Nate Solder, his replacement Marcus Cannon, starting linebacker Dont'a Hightower, and starting cornerback Tarell Brown, and they still won in Indy's house.
So forget about the narratives prior to the game. Ignore the final score differential. This was the Patriots winning on both sides of the ball with key starters on the sidelines, against a conference opponent, on the second of a back-to-back away game series.
This is the real takeaway: a likely playoff team just gave the Patriots everything they could and still couldn't get the job done.