The Patriots just seem to have the Colts' number. Entering Sunday's game, the Patriots had won 10 of 12 against the Colts. New England head coach Bill Belichick was 5-3 in his career against the Colts, including 3-1 at the helm of the Patriots. Coach Belichick also has shown a particular ability to defeat Indianapolis' star quarterback Peyton Manning, who had as many interceptions against the Belichick-led Patriots as he did touchdowns (six) heading into Sunday's contest.
New England's 38-34 win only added to the Patriots' advantage. It gave New England a league-best record of 23 straight wins when leading after three quarters. They also have a 6-0 record in 2003 against teams with a winning record and an 8-game winning streak. Their 10-2 record is the best in franchise history and second-best in the AFC. More importantly, Sunday's win gives the Patriots a critical tie-breaker over Indianapolis and Tennessee in playoff seeding (if the playoffs were today, New England and Kansas City would have the first round byes).
How did they do it? By doing their homework. Anyone paying the least attention to the NFL this season knows that the Colts boast an exceptionally talented offense and that the Patriots would have to put points on the board to survive their visit to Indianapolis. New England answered that call, with 31 points on offense and another 7 from special teams (more on that later).
But only someone with the work ethic and attention to detail of New England's head coach could have found the key to winning this game. It all came down to a goal-line stand, the Colts needing a touchdown to win in the waning seconds and having four tries at it from inside the New England 2-yard line. The Patriots stopped them on three consecutive downs; could they do it on the fourth?
Yes, they could and did, because Coach Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel knew what the Colts would do. He said after the game that the Colts had been in 4th and 1 at the goal line three times this year including in last week's win over the Bills and earlier in a dramatic come-back against Tampa Bay, and each time the Colts attempted to run. The coach expected they would try to run again should they face a similar situation. So when Manning handed off to running back Edgerrin James, he was actually playing right into the Patriots hands, as the attempt was snuffed out and the Patriots held on to a narrow victory.
The Patriots won because they did their homework, studying film and their opponent's tendencies. Once again, the Patriots and Coach Belichick found a way to frustrate the Colts and Manning. And for the second week in a row, the Patriots pulled out a heart-stopping win
Some of the principal players and events in the victory:
The Patriots' veteran linebacker gets individual attention for the second week in a row. Against Houston, McGinest led the team in tackles and provided the key back-to-back stops (including one for a loss) of Texans' running back Domanick Davis that gave the Patriots a chance to win (which they did).
This week, McGinest only had four tackles, barely registering in the top ten among his teammates, but his last tackle was the biggest of the game. Coach Belichick's scrupulous preparation may have had his team ready for a Colts running play, but it was the players who had to execute the coach's plan, and McGinest did just that.
McGinest toughed out an injury that had taken him out of the game with 1:09 remaining. He missed three plays including the Colts' first two at the goal line. But he came back in for the last one: fourth down, one yard to go for a winning score with 14 seconds remaining.
McGinest lined up at outside left defensive end, trying to convince Manning that he was going to drop into coverage to defend a play-action pass. But he saw Manning tap his rear end and recognized (again, thanks to great coaching) that this "tell" usually signaled a running play. When the ball was snapped, he exploded into the Colts' backfield, abandoning coverage and risking a Colts pass. But he (and the coaches) guessed right, came clean off the edge, and dropped James for a 1-yard loss. Game over.
McGinest sprinted down the field in celebration of his game-winning play, causing inquiring minds to wonder just how injured he really was back at the 1-minute mark. The Patriots were out of timeouts but were not penalized for the stoppage of time that resulted from McGinest collapsing on the field, clutching his knee. Was it just a ruse to buy his defense an extra moment to catch their breath and regroup?
"My leg got caught in the turf," McGinest said of his knee injury. "I would never fake an injury to come off the field and miss a couple of plays. Not during a game like that."
Regardless, McGinest made the play of the game in a contest filled with spectacular moments from both teams.
McGinest's play was almost identical to one he made on the Rams' Marshall Faulk in Super Bowl XXXVI. After his holding penalty cost the Patriots a fumble return for a touchdown, the Rams lined up on the New England goal line. McGinest shot out of his left defensive end spot to nail Faulk in the backfield. Because the Rams scored on the following play, McGinest's effort on the stop is often overlooked. But it was nonetheless an incredible individual effort that hadn't been seen often enough from McGinest until these past two weeks.
After catching his first touchdown pass as a pro with the regular offense last week, Patriots rookie receiver Bethel Johnson had only 2 catches for 7 yards this week.
Johnson's impact in this game came on kickoff returns.
He had a breakout performance with 192 yards on 5 returns on Sunday. Two of those returns resulted in Patriots scores, including one that went all the way for a touchdown and another that went for 67 yards to set up an eventual 13-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tom Brady to receiver Deion Branch. In a game won by a narrow four points, Johnson's return production was vital to the team's victory.
Additionally, Johnson's score provided a key momentum swing for New England. Up 17-0, the Patriots allowed the Colts to score 10 points before the half including a touchdown with 12 seconds left. That should have given the Colts tremendous enthusiasm entering the locker room but Johnson sucked the air of the Indianapolis dome with his return.
Johnson's speed was evident on his touchdown run. The fastest player in the 2003 draft with a sub-4.4 40-yard dash, Johnson turned on the jets to pull away from his pursuers. But he didn't do it alone: running back Kevin Faulk was running ahead of Johnson as a blocker and bumped Colts coverage player David Macklin just enough to prevent his laying a hand on Johnson.
Still, Johnson's tap dancing along the sideline to stay inbounds while avoiding tacklers was incredible. Also, the clock went to double-zero while Johnson was just crossing the Indianapolis 30-yard line: had he been stopped, the half would end without the Patriots having a chance to try another play. Johnson's speed never let that be a consideration.
Welcome back, Dedric Ward. After a stint with the Patriots in training camp this summer that resulted in his cut on the last day of roster evaluations, Ward wandered in the darkness. The Baltimore Ravens picked him up but released him. And just in time, too, as the Patriots' receiving corps was rapidly being diminished by injuries.
Ward knew the offense already and fit right in. He caught his first pass of the season last week against Houston after just five days back in New England.
And against the Colts, Ward had two enormous catches. With less than 10 minutes remaining in the 3rd quarter, Ward caught a pass to convert a first down from a tough 3rd-and-14 position. He dragged across the field and toe-tapped the field just inside the right boundary to make the catch.
Even more important was his touchdown catch. The 31-yard strike gave the Patriots a 17-to-nothing lead in the second quarter. It was Ward's first touchdown catch of the season and his first in fact since the 2000 season. Congratulations, Dedric, and welcome back.
Opportunities Missed and Made
The Patriots squandered a 21-point lead in part due to their miscues. For instance, the Colts turned 2 interceptions into 14 points, rapidly erasing the Patriots' advantage.
But there were many other plays that prevented the game from becoming a blowout, and also a few plays that helped the Patriots hold on to win.
On third down with 3:12 remaining in the fourth quarter, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw a pass right into the chest of Colts linebacker John Thornton. But Thornton could not hold onto the gift and the Patriots were spared another turnover.
But the turnover might have been the better of possible outcomes: the Patriots were forced to punt and the much-maligned Ken Walter managed an awful 18-yarder that actually spun back into Patriots territory. The Colts practically had better field position following the punt, at the New England 48-yard line, than they would have had Thornton made the interception.
Earlier in the game, just before the half-way mark of the third quarter, the Patriots drove deep into Colts territory. Brady put a pass right on the money to a leaping J.J. Stokes, who managed to get both feet down in the end zone as he fell out of bounds. But the play was called incomplete and the Patriots did not challenge and ask for a replay. A penalty on the Colts had given the Patriots a first and goal at the 1-yard line anyway and they seemed to be satisfied with that.
But they almost regretted not cementing the touchdown with a review of the Stokes play. On the next down, Brady's pass to tight end Christian Fauria was tipped at the line and bounced up in the air. It hung there for an eternal second, a possible drive-killing interception on the fingertips of both teams' linemen. Luckily for the Patriots, their guard Joe Andruzzi was the one who made the grab. The Patriots were able to score on the following play, a 1-yard run and great second effort by Mike Cloud (with a lead block from Dan Klecko). It turned out just fine for New England but not challenging a clear officiating mistake nearly cost them dearly.
Another interception-that-wasn't did hurt the Patriots. New England had the Colts stopped with 2:25 remaining in the first half, when an illegal contact penalty on linebacker Roman Phifer kept New England's defense on the field. Additionally, the penalty nullified a sack. On the next play, a tipped ball fell right into the hands of rookie free safety Eugene Wilson but he could not hold onto it. The Colts went on to score on this drive kept alive by Patriots' penalties and an inability to capitalize on a possible turnover. The scoring drive made the score 17-10 and only Bethel Johnson's kickoff return for a touchdown kept the Colts from entering the locker room with all the momentum.
On December 7th, New England hosts its chief division rival Miami in a clash of monumental proportions. The Patriots can clinch the division next week with a win over the Dolphins. The 9-3 Colts travel to Tennessee (which is 9-2 pending Monday night's game against the New York Jets) in another battle to determine a division's supremacy. The schedule makers could not have asked for a better set of match-ups at this point in the season.
To win next week, the Patriots need their quarterback to be the one who dominated the first half against the Colts, not the one whose turnovers almost cost them the game in the second. Brady completed his first 12 passes and went 16-of-18 in the first half for 161 yards and a touchdown. He spread his passes to 9 different receivers and on one drive his 5 complete passes went to 5 different players. But in the second half he completed only 10 of 17 passes and had 2 interceptions, both of which led to Colts scores. Were the "first half" Brady from Sunday's game to appear next week, the Patriots would be in great position to take a major step forward towards the playoffs.