This matchup was tough to judge leading up to the game. The Patriots are without Brady, but we've seen how they've shown steady improvement in the absence of their marquee player. Peyton Manning is still hobbled from an infection in his knee (or at least that's the speculation), but he's still Peyton Manning, and our secondary is still decimated. In the past, watching these teams play was like watching two heavyweights go toe-to-toe; this time around it was more like those heavyweights each had an arm tied behind their back.
In the aftermath, there's the sense--as there often is after Colts-Patriots showdown, however banged up the personnel involved--of just-missed opportunity. Maybe there's an irony to this razor-thin margin of error given the demolition derby these teams have been through leading up to it, but it turned out to be the same as it ever was: a tense contest, and full of turning points it was all too easy to imagine having gone the other way.
On their opening possession of the third quarter, the Patriots cobbled together short passes and runs on a sometimes clumsy, but persistent, touchdown drive. Then they failed to convert two points (running off right tackle...coincidence?), which came back to haunt them on the Colts' very next series. Indy gobbled up the field with mid-depth passes from Manning and strong runs by Joseph Addai--and the Colts' two-point conversion was good.
The conversions would wind up being irrelevant, as after that the Patriots tied the score, 15 all, with another field goal. But they demonstrated for anyone watching who had the edge in this particular game--who could score and drive at will, who could move downfield quickly and with precision, as well as who was, as Football Outsiders' Mike Tanier put it, "feeling their way down a dark corridor."
The Patriots held their own in this game, and whether or not you find that encouraging or irrelevant depends on how you answer the glass-half-full-or-empty question. But after that first drive of the third quarter, they clearly did not execute at the same level as the Colts.
First there was the secondary. After the Patriots tied the game, the defense had Manning in a third-and-nine situation on his own 39 yard line, and gave up a deep pass to put the Colts in field goal range.
Perhaps it might've been different if Patriots CB rookie Terrence Wheatley was still in the game. Wheatley had stood between Manning and deep completions to Marvin Harrison, but sacrificed his body in the process and left the game before the half with a trainer gingerly holding the bones of his left hand in place. The story of our lives this season.
The fact that it was Adam Vinatieri who lined up to kick what would be the winning field goal stings a bit, I'll admit. Hoist by our own petard.
But where the Patriots really shot themselves in the foot was the series that followed the Vinatieri field goal. They would get the ball back one more time after that, but this was the last series where the Patriots had a chance to come back with time on the clock, a situation better suited to their West Coast offensive style this year.
It looked for a while like they were driving again, with more short passes and runs that pushed New England all the way down to the Colts' 32. They WOULD have been facing a third-and-1 there, had the team's recent knack for avoiding penalty yardage not picked that time to quit.
This is where David Thomas, in my opinion, became the goat of this game. You can argue that Brady woulda haddit about the ensuing third and 16, you can fault Cassel for his spectacularly unsuccessful deep passing attempts on that final possession, you can fault receivers like Jabar Gaffney, who dropped what would've been a deep touchdown pass on a previous series.
But in my book, there's just no excuse for stupid penalties, especially in a third-and-short situation in enemy territory down by three points. Thomas earned a 15-yard personal foul for popping a Colts defender who was off his feet at the time, putting a hand in his chest and slamming him down to the ground--all of it after the whistle.
There were more strong supporting factors in the loss from here, like the Patriots' lack of time-outs by the time the fourth quarter began (a surprising coaching misstep) and Cassel's circus-like shots in the rough vicinity of the end zone (and Bob Sanders) in the final seconds. It's also reasonable to wonder why the Pats didn't at least tie the game with a field goal after Thomas's gaffe. I know how woulda-coulda-shoulda- it sounds; maybe this is just the way losses to the Colts will always feel.
But today, I just can't shake the feeling that facing a third-and-1 rather than a third-and-16 in that situation would've changed the whole complexion of the game.