This is going to be a strange stretch of days for New England. In a matter of minutes, the Patriots went from a team that had the inside track for a first-round bye to a team that will face serious second-guessing.
Thanks to a bizarre decision by Bill Belichick that saw New England fail to convert a fourth-and-2 from its own 28-yard line, the future is uncertain for a young defense.
For three quarters, it seemed New England's defense was going to firmly establish itself as one of the top units in the league. Through three quarters, Peyton Manning and the Colt offense was held in check, limited to 14 points. Indianapolis was just 4 of 11 on third-down conversions heading into the final 15 minutes.
With 13 minutes to go, New England led by 17. Even after Manning hit Pierre Garcon for a touchdown with 12:14 remaining, the lead was 31-21. When second-year corner Jonathan Wilhite intercepted Manning later in the quarter, it seemed the defense had made a play to kill momentum and secure a victory.
Instead, the defense blew a 13-point lead with less than three minutes to go. Perhaps Belichick was showing faith in his young defense when he sent his offense out to win the game on fourth-and-2 from his own 28.
Whatever the thought process, the team finds itself at a critical juncture. Can this young defense bounce back and play like the unit that held the vaunted Colts offense to just 2 of 8 on third downs in the first half, or will the confidence of the group be shattered by the crushing nature of this loss?
Only time will tell. With two AFC East games (home against the New York Jets and at Miami) sandwiched around a visit to New Orleans, there is not much time for the Patriots to lick the deep wounds from a loss that will sting for quite a long time.
LINEUP WATCH: Already without linemen Ty Warren and Jarvis Green, the defensive front took another hit when outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain went down with a rib injury in the first quarter. As New England's top pass rusher this season, Banta-Cain has emerged as a steady performer. Rob Ninkovich replaced Banta-Cain and managed to get some pressure on Manning in his first series on the field, but then Ninkovich got injured late in the second quarter, leaving New England very thin on the edge. The depleted pass rush got very little pressure on Manning late as he heated up in the fourth quarter. This is a spot to keep an eye on.
BY THE NUMBERS: For the first time in his career, Tom Brady has thrown for more than 300 yards in four straight games. Next week, he faces a New York Jets defense that held him to 216 yards in Week 2, his second-lowest total of the year. The Jets were also the only team to hold Brady without a touchdown pass, but he is going in hot, having thrown 13 touchdowns in his last four games.
--OL Sebastian Vollmer made his fourth straight start at left tackle in place of the injured Matt Light, and the rookie left tackle shut down the dangerous Dwight Freeney. Freeney did not touch Brady all game, snapping a streak of eight games with a sack for Freeney.
--WR Randy Moss and Tom Brady's connection is looking an awful lot like it did in 2007 lately. In the first five games of the season, Moss had 367 receiving yards and one touchdown. In his last four games, he has 524 and six touchdowns.
--RB Laurence Maroney has run for a touchdown in four straight games, but Maroney still has not established himself in the backfield. A crucial fumble as he appeared to be heading in for his second score of the night showed he is still not consistent enough for a lead back.
--RB Kevin Faulk set a season highs with 12 rushes and 79 yards, but he was stopped just shy on the key play of the night, a fourth-and-2 pass from New England's own 28.
--LB Jerod Mayo recorded his first career sack when he got to Manning early in the second quarter. It was only the eighth sack of Manning this season.
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