FOXBORO — The ball was hanging in the air over Gillette Stadium, and it seemed like it was taking an awful long time to come down.
The Patriots were up 31-28, with less than a minute remaining, when Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who had gotten Indy down to the New England 24-yard line with 37 seconds left, flung the football down the Patriots sideline in the direction of wide receiver Pierre Garcon.
Veteran safety James Sanders, who had left Garcon to go help on tight end Jacob Tamme, saw the ball heading to the receiver, and bolted back in the direction of Garcon. As Gillette Stadium held its’ collective breath, Sanders leaped high, grabbed it with both hands, fell backwards and maintained possession of the ball.
In a year where there was relatively little pregame buzz, the Patriots and Colts had again showed they can consistently produce the best theater the NFL has to offer. Forget the rest of the November sweeps — these two teams are always must-see TV. After building a 17-point fourth-quarter lead, New England held on for a 31-28 win over Indianapolis (click here for the complete recap) that deserves to stand next to the epic Patriots-Colts regular-season tilts of 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2009.
“As it always does with the Colts,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the game, “it came right down to the wire.”
And as always, it came down to the quarterbacks. Where to start? With the ruthlessly efficient Brady, who gutted the Colts early on by going 17-for-19 out of the gate and leading the Patriots to three touchdowns on their first three drives? Or the relentless Manning, who threw a mighty scare into New England when he, despite being down 31-14 with just over 10 minutes left, got the Colts to their doorstep of their second straight miracle comeback, throwing for almost 400 yards?
“When we play these guys, we know it’s going to come down to the end, as always,” said Brady, who ended up going 19-for-25 and delivering touchdown passes to Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez. “We started fast. I wish we would have executed a little better there in the second half. But any time you play these guys, you’ve got to play to the end and that’s what it came down to.”
Brady and the Patriots indeed started fast, building leads of 21-7 and 31-14, but Manning and the Colts counterpunched. In the end — as was the case in the 2003 regular-season epic that ended with Willie McGinest stuffing Edgerrin James at the 1-yard line — New England stood firm, making a play in the shadow of its own goal line with time ticking away to help secure a victory.
“It feels kind of like the one seven years ago when we were behind, had a chance there at the end to come back, and we didn’t do it,” Manning said after the game.
Excluding a 40-21 mismatch in 2005 that was won by the Colts at Gillette Stadium, they have always delivered the goods, and Sunday was no exception.
“It felt good — we haven’t beat those guys in a while,” said Sanders. “It seems like we always get a nice lead and they always come back at the end. We knew it wasn’t over until the end, and we just kept fighting and we made the plays we had to make at the end.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium:
AS THE GAME CAME DOWN THE STRETCH, EVERYONE, INCLUDING THE PLAYERS, WAS THINKING ABOUT LAST YEAR
It was impossible not to take note of the parallels: A 31-14 lead in the fourth quarter, a fast start by Manning and the Colts in the final frame to narrow the lead, a stalled-out New England offense unable to put anything together and a couple of quick scoring strikes by Indianapolis. You couldn’t help to start to connect the dots that would ultimately lead back to fourth-and-2.
“For a minute I was thinking, ‘déjà vu,’” Sanders said. “As a defense, we knew that if we didn’t make a play, we were going to lose the game. [Peyton Manning] wasn’t just going to give it to us, so we had to go out there and take the win. We made a play at the end and we came out on top.”
“We put ourselves in that situation at the end. I’m sitting on our sideline saying, ‘We did it to ourselves,’” said Brady. “If they scored a touchdown, we’ve got to go out there for a two-minute drive. If they kick the field goal, it’s going to overtime. That’s what I was thinking. You can’t … you know, you just say, ‘Well, this is the situation. Let’s go out there and try to get it done.’ But our defense came up with a big play. That was a great catch by James [Sanders]. It was unbelievable.”
“[It] certainly felt like it, yeah,” said Manning when asked about comparisons to last year’s game. "Certainly felt like it.”
“It looked like we had been here before,” acknowledged Indianapolis defensive back Antoine Bethea.
It won’t be chewed over as much as fourth-and-2, but the decision to go for it there instead of kicking a field goal and settling for overtime is a question that now must be answered by Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell. The Colts were staying aggressive in that situation, looking to win in regulation, and it appears as though the decision ended up backfiring on them.
“Well, you got to go and try to score touchdowns in that situation,” Caldwell said. “Obviously, if you get into a situation, you are forced to kick a field goal, that’s what you want to do. But, you are trying to put it in the end zone.”
“I’m just sick about not extending the game. There’s just no excuse just not to extend the game there and give [Adam] Vinatieri a chance for a field goal,” Manning said. “Certainly, we were going for the win. We had some time, had some timeouts and felt like we had a good play call. [It was] just a poor throw and it’s really sickening.”
MISSED SECOND-HALF OPPORTUNITIES CAN LEAVE TOM BRADY A LITTLE MIFFED, EVEN IN THE WAKE OF A WIN OVER THE COLTS
While there was genuine excitement over the win, especially on the defensive side of the ball, there was lots of lamenting about the second-half offense issues, especially from Brady. As good as the New England offense was in the first half — zero punts, three touchdowns — there were just as many problems in the third and fourth quarter, with three punts and just one touchdown. It left Brady a little peeved after the game.
“In the fourth quarter, we had an opportunity to go up three touchdowns on them and we had a couple of third downs that I wish we would have converted,” Brady said of the fourth-quarter drives that went three and four plays, respectively.
“Believe me, we’re happy we won. You beat the Colts; you’ve got to be happy you won. But it also means we’ve got to do a better job there. There are games that we have closed out in the fourth quarter, but they have such an explosive offense, when we have the opportunity to end the game, it’s what we’ve got to do.”
The offensive issues put more stress on the defense down the stretch, and while they did force one second half punt by the Colts, they had two interceptions, including Sanders’ pick — arguably the defensive play of the season – that iced the game with less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter.
“There were some missed [opportunities],” Branch said. “I think we put a strain on our defense, a little bit more than what we wanted to in the fourth quarter. The drive-stoppers. Not starting off with positive plays. We had a first and 10 and then it went to second and 10. That’s not good. Not against this team.
“I think that the way the game was going earlier, we need to have a little but more of a sense of urgency to us at the end of the game when things aren’t going so good. We have to pick it up. And I think we let our guard down toward the end.”
THIS PATRIOTS TEAM CONTINUES TO DO THE LITTLE THINGS NEEDED TO WIN
These are relatively small stats, but taken together, the product is a snapshot of what has helped make this Patriots’ team so good thus far:
1. They take care of the football. They remain perfect (7-0) when they are at least plus-one in the turnover department. On Sunday, they forced three turnovers on Manning interceptions — they had a pair of fumbles, but both were recovered on fluky plays. In addition, Brady has now gone five consecutive games without an interception — the last time he threw a pick was against the Ravens on Oct. 17, when he tossed a pair.
2. They have stayed away from bad penalties. On Sunday against Indianapolis, they were penalized just once for 15 yards, a defensive holding call on cornerback Kyle Arrington in the first quarter that turned out to be harmless. In comparison, the Colts were penalized six times for 48 yards. Indianapolis’ special teams was the most egregious culprit, picking up three flags on the night, including two on kickoffs.
3. They keep moving forward. The Patriots did not have a single negative rushing play all evening. It marked the second consecutive game where New England hasn’t had a play for negative yards in the running game.
4. And with a three-point win over the Colts, the Patriots improved to 4-0 this year in games decided by one score (8 points or fewer), and improved to 3-0 in games decided by three points or fewer in 2010. The 2009 Patriots were 1-5 in one-score games, and were 0-3 in games decided by three points or fewer.
SOME DAYS, IT FEELS LIKE DEION BRANCH NEVER LEFT
On the wall of the Patriots’ locker room, some Photoshop master has created a picture with the heads of Deion Branch and Tom Brady on the bodies of Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega from “Pulp Fiction.” While the two aren’t going to be debating spirituality in a diner anytime soon, the symbiotic relationship between the two is really amazing to watch.
“They are both really good players. They are both really instinctive players,” Belichick said of the duo. “Deion almost always makes the right decision and does the right thing on his routes based on the corner’s technique or the coverage. And Tom, of course, does a great job of reading that stuff. They’re two good players.”
On Sunday — his fifth game back in a New England uniform — Branch was targeted 10 times and had seven catches for 70 yards, all team-highs. With the Patriots, he has 30 catches for 320 yards and a touchdown. While he likely won’t surpass Wes Welker for the team lead in receptions (Welker's currently got 57), he’s a good bet to pass rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez (he has 35) sooner rather than later, a remarkable feat for someone who didn’t show up in New England until mid-October.
“It’s always great to play with a guy like Tom and the guys in this locker room,” Branch said.
A BIG PART OF BEATING DWIGHT FREENEY AND ROBERT MATHIS IS ABOUT GETTING THE BALL OUT AS FAST AS POSSIBLE
Freeney got his first sack against the Patriots since 2004 when he dropped Brady for an eight-yard loss early in the third quarter. Lined up opposite left tackle Matt Light in a third-down situation, he delivered one of the sweetest spin moves you will ever see, leaving Light on his backside and forcing the Patriots to punt for the first time all day.
But that was the high point of the afternoon for the Indianapolis pass rush, which only had the Freeney sack and a pair of quarterback hits to show for their efforts. As he did against Freeney in their 2009 matchup, Vollmer (who was left tackle last season and was at right tackle on Sunday afternoon) appeared to have little trouble negative Mathis.
“It’s always important,” said Brady when he was asked how important it was to get the ball out of there quickly when facing Freeney and Mathis. “I think those guys are game-changing type players, so that’s always a part of the thought process. They made some plays. Our guys did a great job of blocking them and that’s what it takes against them.”
“I don’t think you ever want to hold the ball against those guys. You try to get that out as quick as you can,” Belichick said of Freeney and Mathis. “But you’ve got to mix in some downfield routes or the defense will sit on everything. [If you] throw all two-yard patterns, they’ll just sit on top of those, so somewhere along the line you’ve got to mix it up and get the ball down the field. But blocking those guys is a challenge.”
KYLE ARRINGTON IS PRETTY VERSATILE
After giving up a couple of big plays at the end of the first half to Indianapolis wide receiver Reggie Wayne — a 29-yard pass play where he badly missed on a tackle and an 11-yard touchdown pass with four seconds left in the half that cut the New England lead to seven — Arrington was moved from his cornerback spot to the role of hybrid defender who was, essentially, an outside linebacker. He spent most of the second half at that position, playing with his hand in the dirt and getting off the line quick enough on more than a few occasions to put some pressure on Manning.
The sight of the 5-foot-10, 196-pound Arrington lined up on the outside shoulder of a tackle with his hand on the ground was a bit of a shock, but the change had its origins in a training camp drill, according to Arrington.
“We did a drill one day in training camp with the edge rushers — the DB’s against the running backs — and I guess we put on a good enough show for them to incorporate it into the game plan. And this was the week we tried to get as much pressure on Peyton as possible,” said Arrington, who had three tackles on the afternoon. “[If] not sack him, force him to make a bad throw or two. The coach is very confident in my ability to rush the quarterback.”
THE PATRIOTS’ SECONDARY DIDN’T HAVE ITS BEST DAY AGAINST MANNING, BUT IT WAS ALWAYS INTERESTING
In the days leading up to Sunday’s game, several Patriots defenders were asked how realistic it would be if they could “trick” Manning into making some mistakes. To a man, they all said, “It’s difficult, but we’ll try.” And the New England secondary nearly pulled it off on several occasions on Sunday … as much as you can confuse a quarterback who almost threw for 400 yards, anyway.
“New England was moving their coverages, mixing them up, moving them around,” said Manning, who finished 38-for-52 for 396 yards and four touchdown passes. “I had a couple misreads on the coverages.”
“We were trying to disguise the whole game and keep them guessing,” said safety James Sanders. “At times, our disguises worked, other times, it didn’t work. [Manning] is one of the best quarterbacks to play this game, and it’s tough as a defense to hold those disguises. It you’re not sound, he can hurt you.”
There was certainly a lot of shifting bodies in the secondary, which was in nickel and dime packages most of the evening. That action started early with the moving of Arrington from corner to hybrid outside linebacker late in the first half, which coincided with the return of Darius Butler to regular duty at corner. Considering the tumultuous season he’s been through — he was a starter in Week 1, benched after Week 2 and was a healthy scratch last week against the Steelers — Butler played well, matching up mostly against Reggie Wayne. He had some help, but Wayne had just 30 receiving yards in the second half.
In addition, there were three different interceptions, with the first coming in early in the first quarter when Manning appeared to overthrow Blair White or wasn’t on the same page as Pierre Garcon. Regardless, Brandon Meriweather came away with the ball, setting up New England’s first touchdown of the day. The second came late in the third quarter when it appeared Garcon gave up on a route down the Indanapolis sideline and Devin McCourty did a terrific job of going up and getting the football, and also having the presence of mind to come down with the ball inbounds. And the third was the game-saving pick by Sanders with less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter on another ball meant for Garcon.
“I thought I had a chance,” Sanders said of his interception, his second in as many weeks. “[Linebacker] Gary Guyton and I had a double-team on the tight end, and looking through [Jacob] Tamme to Peyton, I saw that he saw that once I stepped down that he had one-on-one with the corner. So I tried to drop back at the last second and help. Luckily, I got enough depth to make the play.”
All of that absolves the group of some bad breakdowns in coverage in the secondary, including Arrington’s missed tackle on Wayne that set up Indy’s touchdown late in the second half as well as the fact that the Colts were 11-for-14 on third down. But as a group, when measured against one of the best pure passing quarterbacks of his generation, it was a good night for New England’s defensive backs.
“Peyton is a smart, terrific, intuitive quarterback that’s one of the best in the game and a future Hall of Famer,” Arrington said. “We knew that they were going to make some good plays, and the goal was just for us to compete and fight for 60 minutes.”
NO POSITION ON THE PATRIOTS CONTINUES TO EVOLVE LIKE RUNNING BACK
It seems about a million years ago, but when New England opened the 2010 season, Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris figured to get the bulk of the carries, while Kevin Faulk would be the third-down back who could catch passes out of the backfield. Meanwhile, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was considered lucky just to have made the final roster and Danny Woodhead was days away from being a castoff by the Jets.
But Maroney has moved on, Taylor spent most of the season fighting turf toe, Morris has evolved into a short-yardage fullback and Faulk went on season-ending injured reserve after a Week 2 injury against the Jets. Meanwhile, for the bulk of the season — including Sunday’s win over the Colts — the Green-Ellis/Woodhead duo has exceeded all expectations.
Entering Sunday’s game, they led a rushing attack that averaged 4.1 yards per carry, and against the Colts, they combined for 165 rushing yards (Green-Ellis had 96, while Woodhead had a career-best 69), gashing the soft underbelly of the Indianapolis pass defense and allowing Brady to operate the play-action game with a problem. As a group, the Patriots’ running game ended the afternoon with 168 rushing yards and a 4.9 yards per carry average (tied for third-best on the season).
While Green-Ellis plunged over from the five in the second quarter for his seventh rushing touchdown of the season, it was Woodhead who provided the most electric moment of the afternoon. Late in the third quarter, the Patriots faced a second-and-3 at the Indianapolis 36-yard line. On a draw play, Woodhead sharply cut over right to avoid the pileup, broke a tackle by Indianapolis defensive back Aaron Francisco and picked up great blocks from Deion Branch and Dan Connolly to get to the end zone. It was the longest run of the season for New England, and it was Woodhead’s second touchdown run of 20 or more yards.
“When you get a crease or a hole it makes things a lot easier,” said Woodhead, who made the tackle on the ensuing kickoff. “The offensive line, receivers, tight ends, everyone [was] blocking doing their job, and it makes it a lot easier for the running back. I just try to do what I do and run the ball and when you have great people around you it makes things a lot easier.”
“That kid is a great player,” said tight end Aaron Hernandez. “He's amazing, and no one thinks a little kid like that is going to be able to get through the line and make people miss and break tackles. Woodhead can do it all, passing game, coming out of the backfield, running the ball. He does it all.”
IT WILL BE A SHORT WEEK FOR THE PATRIOTS
The Patriots will now face a quick turnaround — with a game in Detroit in Thursday afternoon, the usual six days of preparation will be crammed into three days. It’ll be a challenge, even against a team like Detroit.
“It’s tough. We’ve got to go quick. [Monday] is going to be a scouting report and get going on Detroit day. And Tuesday it will be a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday combined, and Wednesday we’re travelling, so we’re going to have to cram a lot in here and do a good job on preparing for the Lions.
“They’ve got a lot of stuff to get ready for. [They’re] a real explosive team offensively, so we’ve got our work cut out for us on the preparation for that. That’s the way it is. With every long week comes a short week; with every short week comes a long week, so it all balances out in the end. But that will be a big challenge, preparation challenge for us this week.”
Although for the players, it’s not such a bad thing.
“I actually like it,” said Branch with a smile. “You’ve got to understand, guys just want to play the game. Guys don’t really want to practice. We play games like this, what, two in five days? Something like that. One day of practice, so you don’t have to worry about coach Belichick cursing us out all the time. That’ll be great.”