Now at 6-4, the Indianapolis Colts are an injury-riddled team having trouble filling some of the gaps. But that didn't stop them from giving the Patriots absolutely everything they could handle today before running out of clock, or from knocking on the door, with a chance to come back and win, in the very last seconds of the game.
There were three factors that ultimately saved the Patriots: an aggressive game early, a two-dimensional offense, and forcing turnovers. But there were also a few things to be worried about going forward, with the Patriots still tied atop the AFC East at 8-2 and facing one more matchup with their bitter rivals to the south before the season ends.
Maybe they learned a lesson from the Browns in Week 9. Today, the Patriots were able to 'bump and run' against the Colts, so to speak, gaining enough scoreboard separation early to outlast the blistering counterattack Indianapolis would marshal later in the game.
The Colts picked up three first downs in quick succession on their opening drive, but just as they were crossing into Patriots territory, Brandon Meriweather jumped Blair White's passing route, snagged the ball out of the air and charged 39 yards back toward the Colts end zone before he was brought down.
Handed the ball at the Indianapolis 32, Tom Brady and the offense sliced and diced the Colts defense in four plays to put the Patriots up 7-0, neatly capitalizing on the turnover. The last of those four plays was a whistling bullet over the middle to Wes Welker, who leapt up between two defenders, snapped up the ball, and ran it in for the 22-yard TD.
When the Colts offense took the field again after that, Manning's very next pass was tipped, bobbled, and nearly picked off again, this time by Devin McCourty. After narrowly escaping back-to-back turnovers, Manning completed a short pass to Pierre Garcon, handed the ball off to Donald Brown for a paltry one-yard gain, and then went to the air again. This time it was Jerod Mayo who tipped the deep pass, intended for Reggie Wayne, after which Manning tried another shortie using Brown as a receiver. The Colts were forced to punt as Brown was tackled shy of the first down marker.
The Patriots offense took the ball again, and spent the next 8 minutes driving downfield, capping a string of 15 plays with a touchdown pass from Brady to Aaron Hernandez. The touchdown pass was the 244th of Brady's career, tying him for 15th all time among quarterbacks. And the Patriots had put up 14 unanswered points before the Colts even seemed to know what was happening.
Patriots offense delivers by air and by land
Another difference-maker for the Patriots was in the multidimensional strength of their offense compared to the Colts' pass-focused approach. Indianapolis failed to establish much of a ground game in the first half, having traveled to Foxboro without two of their runningbacks, Joseph Addai and Mike Hart. Fill-in Donald Brown showed improvement as the game went on, but was mostly stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage, keeping the Colts off-balance and the Patriots ready for the pass.
By contrast, the Patriots ran a more multi-dimensional offense. In the passing game, they spread the ball to six different receivers, principally Deion Branch and Wes Welker, and scored two touchdowns .
Despite the Colts' fearsome defensive front, the Patriots offensive line held their own today in pass protection, carrying forward the stubborn resolve they showed in Pittsburgh. Dwight Freeney only put his patented 'spin move' on Matt Light effectively enough to sack Brady once. Tight ends also deserve credit for neutralizing the Colts' top defensive weapons, especially Rob Gronkowski, who went toe-to-toe with Freeney on a few skull-rattling occasions and stood his ground, giving Brady time to work.
But the real edge for the Pats was the fact that they were also able to gain yards, chew up clock, and score touchdowns with the running game of rising star BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Benji was just short of being a true featured back today (and also racked up just short of 100 yards), but he would share the spotlight with one huge play for our favorite elfin enigma, Danny Woodhead.
After both teams were forced to punt in their first series of the third quarter, it began to grow more urgent that the Patriots add to the space, points-wise, between themselves and their opponent.That's when Woodhead took a handoff from Brady, headed for the left-tackle crease and, encountering a pile-up of linemen, ducked back around behind his bigger teammates to instead scamper up the right side. Woodhead showed incredible balance and resilience against the attempted shoves of pursuing Indy defenders on his way to the end zone, and also benefited from some vicious blocking by Wes Welker. In addition to scoring a crucial touchdown, Woodhead's 36-yard dash was the longest Patriots run of the season.
The mighty mite followed up this touchdown run with a display of his unique 'human speedbump' approach to blocking during the Colts' kickoff return, helping to make the stop on the 24 yard line and popping up after the play with Welker-like, howling triumph.
My friend Sam had come over to my place for this game after she had finished watching her Lions at home."What a wonderful, tiny little football player," she said then, watching Woodhead fist-pump and hop around the field in celebration.
Patriots secondary to Peyton Manning: "Do you like apples?"
Little by little, like a master safe-cracker, Manning began figuring things out. He compensated for the mediocre running game with short passes, and then used the element of surprise to get away with the odd handoff or two for a positive gain in the second half. He favored Wayne late and picked on cornerback Kyle Arrington, as well as Patrick Chung, who had a less-than-stellar day. The Patriots' pressure on Manning was also surprisingly weak.
For example, in the second quarter, on a second and 15 with less than a minute to play in the half, Tully Banta-Cain had his hands on Manning, who'd been flushed from the pocket, and failed to wrap him up. Instead, Banta-Cain flung himself aside uselessly, and Manning found Reggie Wayne matched up against Arrington on the far left side of the field, completing the pass for 17 yards and a first down. Arrington fell victim to Wayne again on the Colts' touchdown play shortly thereafter.
"Who let Arrington on the field?" demanded my father by text message.
Arrington didn't have a great game, but he and his fellow DBs were often left exposed by the Patriots defensive front, which had managed 4 sacks on Roethlisberger last week but almost completely failed to fluster Peyton Manning today. In the end, it would be the secondary that took advantage of the Colts' miscues to make key stops, and it was the secondary's third forced turnover of the day which finally sealed the game for the Patriots.
In those last heart-stopping seconds of this game, as the Colts walked the Patriots defense back, step by step, toward giving up the go-ahead points, Manning took another ambitious shot for the end zone, where Reggie Wayne was waiting.
But it was Patriots safety James Sanders who would come down with the pass, his second game-changing interception in as many weeks. This time, while still on the ground with the ball, Sanders was mobbed by a joyous pile of his teammates, as the clock wound down to zero.
Photo finish brings things to worry about
Some of the more maligned elements of the 2010 Patriots defense came up huge tonight, but a defensive point of strength last week against the Steelers, the D-Line and linebackers, did not have such a good game.
There were times Brady's passes were tipped, too, and nearly became interceptions. With the slightest bit more bad luck, even just one fewer interception, or just one turnover lost by New England, we might be talking about a fast start for the Patriots followed by a Colts comeback, just like last year. And that AFC Championship Game. And so on.
A W is a W, as they say, and the last two games against the chief Patriots rivals of the Belichick Era have had encouraging results. New England has a very short week this week with a Thursday game coming up against the Lions, but Detroit is a depressingly typical 2-8 so far this season, and hopefully won't challenge the Patriots very much.
As November turns to December, however, the dreaded Jets will make an appearance in Foxboro for the teams' second meeting of the season. After today's razor-thin margin of victory and many disconcerting moments, we may not be able to tell until then just what kind of team we have.