INDIANAPOLIS — Sometimes, two yards can mean everything.
On Sept. 28 against the Falcons, the Patriots were able to convert a key fourth down at their own 24-yard line in the second half. Under the circumstances, the guts and guile that New England displayed under pressure were celebrated.
“There would have been plenty of criticism if we didn’t [get it],” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said when asked about the decision to go for it on fourth down against the Falcons that afternoon in Foxboro.
On Sunday night against the Colts, they were faced with a similar test, a fourth-and-2 from their own 28-yard line. A quick pass from Tom Brady to Kevin Faulk came up just short when Faulk was tackled by Indianapolis defensive back Melvin Bullitt less than a yard shy of the first-down marker.
It turned out to be the difference. Indianapolis, which had struggled to exploit New England turnovers all night, made the Patriots pay for falling short. Four plays after New England turned it over on downs, Peyton Manning found Reggie Wayne in the end zone for the final touchdown in an epic 35-34 ballgame (full game recap here) that will go down as one of the most unbelievable finishes in the history of the Patriots-Colts rivalry.
“It’s the difference between winning and losing,” said Brady, who had an impressive line: 29-of-42 for 375 yards, three touchdowns and one interception — rendered moot with the loss.
“Coach is being aggressive, and I love that about him. He gave us a chance to make the play. Like I said, we just came up a bit short.”
Some weeks, you can get the yard or two you need to win the game. Other weeks, you’re not so lucky. And so, as the gambles that Belichick have taken have paid off and burnished his legacy over the years, the decision to go for it Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium will haunt him for a long time.
In the end, Belichick’s decision to go for those two yards — and the Patriots inability to pick them up — could have serious long-term ramifications on this 2009 team, starting with the likely loss of any home field in the the postseason.
“We tried to win the game on that play. We tried to get the first down,” Belichick said when he was asked why New England decided to pull the trigger instead of punting the ball away. “That’s why I made the call.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday night in Indianapolis:
IF THEY HAD TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN, THE PATRIOTS WOULD GO BACK TO KEVIN FAULK
Faulk finished Sunday night with 86 yards from scrimmage. He would have dearly loved to finish with 87.
With just over two minutes remaining and his team holding to a precarious 34-28 lead, the veteran running back came up less than a yard from converting a fourth-and-2 situation, hauling in a short pass from Brady but falling just short of the first down. The Colts got the ball back, and four plays later, Manning hit Wayne with the game-winner.
Faulk was having an impressive night up to that point — including a 29-yard run in the second quarter that set up a New England field goal. And when the time came to go for it — and deliver what would have been the knockout blow to Indianapolis — Faulk made the catch on a short pass on the right side from Brady.
However, he was knocked down shy of the first-down marker by Bullitt on a play that many of the Patriots indicated was a straightforward call right out of their playbook. There was a question as to whether or not Faulk reached the first-down marker. According Brady, the referees said he didn’t have possession.
“I’m not going to say I think it was a bad spot because I really couldn’t tell where I fell, because I was trying to catch the ball,” Faulk said. “Disbelief? No. Disappointment? Yes. Especially when you know that was probably the game-changing play. It was a disappointment.”
“I thought I had it, but it doesn’t matter to me,” he added. “The officials make the call.”
THIRTY-FOUR POINTS STILL IS NOT ENOUGH TO BEAT THE COLTS
With 12-plus minutes of lousy football in the fourth, the Patriots defense managed to undo 3-1/2 quarters of a really impressive effort on both sides of the football, particularly on defense. Until Manning found Pierre Garcon with 12:14 left in regulation, the New England defense was solid, holding the Colts to just 14 points and allowing the Pats to take a 31-14 lead. The defense picked off Manning twice and shut down any semblance of an Indianapolis running game — the Colts finished with just 91 rushing yards on the night.
But a 21-point fourth quarter (that included one rushing touchdown and two passing touchdowns) left many members of the Patriots defense shaking their heads at what went wrong. Looking an awful lot like the group that yielded 38 points in the 2006 AFC championship game at the RCA Dome, the New England defense struggled for answers down the stretch, and their play in the fourth quarter likely played a major part in Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth down deep in New England territory.
“I think we played a pretty good game — they made a lot of plays and so did we,” said cornerback Leigh Bodden, who came away with an interception, two passes defensed and three tackles. “They came back in the second half and played well, which we knew they would do. They’re undefeated for a reason.”
“We have to play better. That’s all I can tell you,” said linebacker Derrick Burgess, who had a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit. “I don’t know what they did. All I can worry about it what we’ve got to do, and that’s get better.”
After the game, former Patriots safety and NBC analyst Rodney Harrison savaged Belichick for his decision not to trust his defense in that situation.
“It was a really bad coaching decision by coach Belichick. I have all the respect in the world for him, but he has to punt the ball,” Harrison said. “The message that you are sending in the locker room is: I have no confidence in my young guys on my defense.
“This is the worst coaching decision decision I’ve ever seen Bill Belichick make.”
LAURENCE MARONEY WILL BEAR SOME OF THE BRUNT OF THIS LOSS
Late in the third quarter, it didn’t look like the game was going to come down to a last-second play from Manning and Wayne. The Patriots were on the march, holding a 24-14 lead with just under three minutes left in the quarter, and they were looking to finish off the Colts. They had the ball on the Indianapolis 2-yard line in a second-and-goal situation when they decided to give the ball to Laurence Maroney.
In truth, while his overall numbers are debatable, Maroney had developed into a dependable red-zone threat. In fact, with Sammy Morris on the shelf, he had become one of the Patriots’ more established threats in the red zone — he had scored touchdowns from the 1-yard line against Tampa Bay and Miami, and added a 1-yard touchdown run late in the first on Sunday against Indy. So when the Patriots gave him the ball at the 2-yard line in the third quarter of Sunday’s game, they did so with confidence that he could help finish off the Colts.
However, Maroney was hit by Indy’s Philip Wheeler and fumbled the ball away into the waiting arms of Colts linebacker Gary Brackett. The turnover didn’t appear to be serious at the time — after all, the Patriots would add to their lead in the fourth, and appeared confident that a 31-14 lead would be enough to hold up, even against the Colts. But the missed opportunity certainly changed the tone and tenor of the game, and it opened the door for Indy’s comeback.
Maroney, who finished with 13 carries for 31 yards, waved off reporters after the game.
SEBASTIAN VOLLMER CAN NO LONGER BE CONSIDERED A SECRET
Of all the positives to come out of Sunday’s loss, the biggest may have been the continued improvement of Vollmer. The rookie left tackle was able to do his part to blunt the Indianapolis pass rush brilliantly for much of the night. The second-round pick out of Houston spent much of the evening lined up opposite Indy's extraordinary pass rusher Dwight Freeney, and held him without a tackle and a sack. It was an amazing feat considering that Freeney entered the game with at least one sack in his last nine games, one shy of tying an NFL record.
By my extremely unscientific count, the two engaged in one-on-one battles 43 times on the night. Vollmer did get plenty of help — left guard Logan Mankins was able to assist, and the Patriots often used an extra tight end on his side. In addition, Brady was able to deliver the ball quickly, keeping rushers from breaking into the backfield much of the night. But Vollmer’s work certainly will continue to fuel the debate that New England should think about finding a spot for the rookie somewhere on the offensive line, even after Matt Light returns from injury.
“They did a great job. They quick-counted when they needed to. They slid protection when they needed to. I was guessing wrong sometimes. I couldn’t there,” Freeney said of the protection that the Patriots had for Brady. “The big thing is about winning the game. I’m just happy that we won this game, and I get two days off now so I don’t have to come in.”
BRANDON McGOWAN CAN ADD ANOTHER NOTCH TO HIS BELT
The Patriots safety, who is gaining a reputation as a tight end stopper, had plenty of help Sunday night in his battle with Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark, but he played a large role in limiting him to four catches for 65 yards, one of the least-productive outings of the season for Clark.
New England started the game by using linebacker Gary Guyton on Clark on the line — Guyton would follow him for between five and 10 yards, then hand him off to McGowan. (When Clark was split wide, he was covered by a defensive back, usually Darius Butler.) Then they switched to a look where it was almost always McGowan bodying him directly off the line, being really physical with the tight end, an approach they stuck with throughout a large part of the second half.
Clark had an impressive 25-yard reception early on and had a nice grab early in the fourth quarter when he simply outraced McGowan downfield on a deep pattern for a 19-yard connection. But other than that, he was held in check.
RANDY MOSS CONTINUES TO SHINE, NO MATTER THE OPPONENT
As expected, Moss had a big day against the young Indianapolis secondary, posting nine catches for 179 yards and two touchdowns. There were two tremendous grabs in the first half that highlighted his evening: First, Moss and Brady connected on a 55-yard reception that looked an awful lot like his 71-yard touchdown catch he made the week before against Miami, when he had a great run after the catch to pick up big yardage. But the best catch of the year came on a truly epic 63-yard touchdown catch with 11:18 left in the first half when he was left in single coverage with Antoine Bethea.
Along the way, Moss passed a series of milestones on the night — he entered the game needing 87 receiving yards to become the seventh player in NFL history with 14,000 receiving yards, and he caught four first half passes for 144 yards to reach 14,000 yards. He reached the record on the 63-yard touchdown pass from Brady in the second quarter.
In addition, Moss became the 11th player in NFL history to reach 900 receptions with the nine receptions against the Colts. And he joined Wes Welker as the seventh player in New England history with 50-plus catches in three straight seasons. Moss had 98 receptions in 2007 and 68 receptions in 2008. He added nine receptions against Indianapolis and has 58 receptions for the year.
A GOOD NIGHT FOR THE NEW ENGLAND SPECIAL TEAMS WAS SPOILED
Can’t blame the Patriots special teamers for this loss. All the specialists did their jobs — kicker Stephen Gostkowski was as close to perfect as he could be, converting on all four extra points and two field goals, and putting six of his seven kickoffs into the end zone, with three touchbacks. Punter Chris Hanson averaged 44 yards on his four punts and dropped two of them inside the 20, with a long of 55 yards. And kick returner Matthew Slater averaged 27.3 yards on his three returns.
But the big star was Welker. Welker had five punt returns for an average of 117 yards, including a 69-yard punt return in the third quarter that was his longest in his tenure with New England, besting a 44-yard return vs. Denver (Oct. 20, 2008). It is the second-longest punt return of his career, trailing only a 71-yard return he had vs. the Patriots (Dec. 20, 2004) while with Miami. It is the longest punt return for New England since Troy Brown had an 85-yard touchdown return on Dec. 9, 2001, vs. Cleveland.
THE COLTS AREN’T SHOCKED BY THE PATRIOTS ANYMORE
When Manning saw the Patriots offense lining up on fourth down deep in their own territory late in regulation, he just kind of shrugged his shoulders. After all, when you’ve faced New England as often as he has, you learn to roll with the punches.
“Not much surprises me with New England. You kind of expect the unexpected,” said Manning, who finished 28-of-44 for 327 yards, with four touchdown passes and two interceptions. “When you see them going for it on fourth down, I can't lie to you, obviously you certainly get a little nervous because you realize you might get a shorter field, but the game might be over.”
While Manning took it in stride, the Indianapolis defense took the decision to go for it on fourth down as a personal affront. Defensive end Robert Mathis said his initial reaction was “disrespect,” a point echoed by Bethea and Freeney.
“To be honest with you, that's how we take it,” Freeney said. “Any defense should take it the same way. Whenever you go for it on fourth down in that situation, we’ve got to make a play.”
THE PATRIOTS WILL NOT HAVE MUCH TIME TO DWELL ON THIS LOSS
New England will continue with the toughest part of its schedule — a stretch that includes road games against Indy and New Orleans and division games against the Dolphins and Jets — on Sunday at Gillette Stadium against New York, which means the shocking loss to the Colts has to be placed squarely in the rearview mirror immediately. To that end, Faulk was asked how long it takes to get over a loss like this one. He gave a succinct answer.
“I have four letters for you: J-E-T-S,” he replied. “Now, you tell me.”
“There is a lot of football left. We’re 6-3 and still on top of the division,” Brady said. “Hopefully we learn from it. We certainly had a lot of plays to go out there and execute and win the game. A couple of turnovers in the red area, some missed opportunities where we kicked field goals, or else we do win.”