Pats and Colts: Then and Now
This time around, it was the team with red trim to complement its white and blue that made the plays when they counted most. It was only Week 9, but the Patriots proved beyond a reasonable doubt that they are again kingpins of the NFL.
For the time being, after a 24-20 defeat, the still-defending champion Colts are number two.
Until matters are settled once and for all in January, the Colts will have to live with the fact that the script got flipped in this rivalry. Again. After all, when you’re playing at home in the fourth quarter holding a 10-point lead and you happen to be Peyton Manning, the script is usually yours to pen. Especially in light of the demons the Colts were able to slay last January in that same Heat Dome.
In the 2006 AFC Championship Game, the Patriots played 40 minutes of superb football before collapsing to a superior Indianapolis team. Despite playing so well for so long, the game came down to two plays for New England: a failed third-down conversion at the 2:17 mark, which gave the ball back to Manning; and on the ensuing Colts drive, the inability of linebacker Eric Alexander to cover a sideline flag pattern run by tight end, Bryan Fletcher.
The impact of those two plays on the depleted and exhausted Patriots was season-ending. The third down that would’ve iced the game was ill-fated because of an unprecedented miscommunication between Tom Brady and Troy Brown. Mr. Old Reliable simply ran the wrong route. The 32-yard strike to Fletcher, which accounted for the bulk of the Colts championship-winning drive, was inevitable. Alexander, starting his first NFL game at linebacker, was nowhere near nimble enough to contend with the down field presences of Fletcher and Dallas Clark (who singlehandedly torched the Pats linebacker corps and secondary).
In that game the Patriots out-schemed, out-executed and thoroughly outplayed the Colts for the majority of three quarters, but it wasn’t enough. Two more plays and it would have been.
Lest we forget, that was then and this is now. What a difference an offseason makes.
Subsequent to that defeat the Patriots went on a talent-feeding frenzy, making it clear that lack of viable personnel would never thwart them again. As fast as you can say “Randy Moss for a fourth rounder plus CameraGate”, the entire mindset of the team and its fans morphed. No longer would games be played merely to win, they’d be played to conquer.
What we knew before Week 9 was that the Patriots could pretty much systematically destroy any opponent, and show no mercy in doing so. Any opponent, that is, but the Colts. What we discovered after this regular season’s Pats-Colts installment was that these Patriots still remember how to win close games in the fourth quarter, which used to be the team’s m.o.
Playing consistent sound football was also a requisite of past-Patriots teams; that’s how they won an NFL-record 21 games straight between the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Many of those games were won by Brady leading a late go-ahead drive or the defense making a game-saving stop. Their average margin of victory was just a shade over a touchdown. However those teams didn’t have a receiving corps of Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte’ Stallworth. But these new Patriots do, and last Sunday against the Colts they showed they’re capable of beating the best even while playing almost their worst.
Let’s be honest: the Patriots had no business winning this football game. They were down 20-10 with 9:42 left. The first fifty minutes were sorry. Tom Brady had thrown not one, but two interceptions (although the second was a “play of the year” pick by Gary Brackett), only his third and fourth of the season. The noise level in the RCA Dome was so high the only way the coaching staff could get plays to Brady was via signals, and it’s evident that Brady himself had to call at least a handful of plays.
The defense was suspect too. At the end of the first half it allowed a check-down play to Joseph Addai to go for a 73-yard touchdown, and the Patriots lost the lead. The severity of giving up an uncharacteristic big-play in quasi-kneel time was augmented by the defense’s lack of discipline. The unit was penalized four times for 30 yards, and that doesn’t even include two pass interference calls (one mediocre and one terrible) on Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs that tallied 77 yards. Each one placed Indy on the doorstep of the Patriots goal line. Within character, the D tightened when manning the red zone against Peyton, and the Colts were only able to add a few “3’s” onto the scoreboard.
The Colts continued to let the Patriots hang around and they paid for it. It took all of four plays (a Moss 55-yard catch setting up a Welker 3-yard touchdown and a Stallworth 33-yard reception setting up a Kevin Faulk 13-yard score) over two successive fourth quarter drives for the dynamic Patriots offense to turn a 10-point deficit into a four point lead.
And just like that it might as well have been 2003, because this lead–unlike typical ’07 Pats leads–had to be protected. Protect it they did, as a team. The one play the defense had to make came at the 2:34 mark: it had to prevent Manning from converting a third and nine from midfield. Rosevelt Colvin accomplished that and more, charging Manning from his outside linebacker position and strip-sacking the helpless quarterback. Then the offense needed to gain one more first down before the two minute warning, and Brady found Welker on a quick-out (or the Troy Brown special), sealing the deal.
While CameraGate is due its fair share of credit for inspiring the Patriots to grind teams into the ground over sixty minutes, the concept itself is longstanding in Foxborough. The teams in ’01, ’03 and ’04 won Super Bowls because every time they took the field they were ready to fight for all sixty minutes. They lost the AFC Championship game last year because they didn’t have the talent and stamina to go the distance. This season they have both, and ever since CameraGate turned a philosophy into a vendetta, the Patriots have been downright nasty. Over the first eight weeks, they played from start to finish every Sunday and won each game by an average of 25 points.
Then they returned to the house of their demise last year; the place where they were taught the harshest of lessons, lessons that would’ve been many touchdowns harsher had that ’06 squad come out the way the Patriots did Sunday. While cumulatively the most recent sixty minutes they played was a far cry from their collective performance over the first eight games, the common thread of finishing what was started remained. That’s clearly been the message this season. It was the same message the 2006 Patriots couldn’t heed. But that team didn’t have a Moss. It didn’t have a Welker or Stallworth or Adalius Thomas. It didn’t have CameraGate.
This team has all those things, and apparently, a little bit of each can go a long way. Even against the best.
NFL Top Five Power Poll: Week 9
1. Patriots (9-0)
2. Colts (7-1)
3. Cowboys (7-1)
4. Packers (7-1)
5. Steelers (6-2)