By the time the second half of this game opened, I had already begun composing my post for this blog in my head about how, exactly, the Colts had managed to beat the Patriots.It wasn't just that the Colts were ahead 13-7 as the third quarter began; they had also been outplaying the Patriots in most phases of the game in the first half.
This especially included the running game (identified in pregame prediction posts as one of the keys to the game) from Joseph Addai, who would finish with 112 of the team's 118 yards rushing. The Colts had a much more balanced attack than the Pats, achieving 10 of their first downs rushing and 9 of them passing; the Patriots achieved 6 rushing first downs and 14 on the pass.
Then there were the penalties, which had both me and my Dad reaching for things to huck at the TV screen throughout the game. It was an uncharacteristically mentally lax first half for the Patriots, including Tom Brady, who was picked off once and forced to punt entirely too often. The Patriots also finished the first half with a completely unheard of 5 penalties for 102 yards, to the Colts' single five-yard penalty.
We won, so this is going to seem less like sour grapes, and for that I'm glad, because it's just the truth that outside of lackluster execution from the Pats in a few cases, those numbers were racked up through absolutely atrocious officiating. For example, apparently the definition of "defensive pass interference" now includes being tackled by the wide receiver (Ellis Hobbs v. Reggie Wayne in the second quarter). By the third quarter, Tom Brady couldn't contain his frustration when Kevin Faulk was clearly interfered with on a passing route and it was not called. Randy Moss was grabbed in midair by a defensive back in the end zone in the fourth quarter...and it was ruled offensive pass interference.
I believe in the conventional football wisdom that you never win or lose a game through the officiating alone, but I will say it did not bolster my confidence that the calls weren't going in the Patriots' favor. Penalties wound up being a big advantage for the Colts in this game, regardless of outcome. Four of their first downs--they had 23 total, two more than the Patriots--came on penalties, and the Patriots conceded close to six times as many yards as the Colts to penalties, 146 to the Colts' 25.
Otherwise, the teams were evenly matched, making such a large penalty differential even more glaring. The Colts also had a slight advantage over the Patriots in some categories, from time of possession (30:14 to the Pats' 29:44) to total yards rushing (119 to 105) to total first downs (23 to the Pats' 21). In most other statistical measures, the Pats barely edged the Colts: 342 total net yards to 329; 237 passing yards to 218 (the Patriots most certainly did not stop the out route as Jamie had recommended).
What it finally came down to was situational execution. In other words--making the big plays. Tom Brady was intercepted twice, and Peyton Manning lost a fumble once. But it's when those turnovers occurred that turned out to make a bigger difference. The Colts would score go-ahead points on each of their possessions following Brady's interceptions, but it was at a more crucial point in the game that Manning's gaffe occurred--with less than three minutes to go in the game, behind by four points.
Here the relentless Patriots defense combined two delicate maneuvers that wrested the ball from Manning--first Jarvis Green chopped the ball out of Manning's hands, and then Roosevelt Colvin reached out for it as it flew through the air, juggling it for a few heart-stopping seconds before he got a good grip on it. But he did.
Meanwhile, look at Brady late in the game: two of his three touchdown passes came in the fourth quarter. His two longest passing plays of the game were the ones that set up those touchdowns--one a 55-yard bomb to Moss before the score that made it 20-17 and another 33-yard completion to Donte Stallworth before the go-ahead points were punched in.
The two scoring drives in the fourth quarter were among the longest of the game; the first drive was the longest single drive at 71 yards and the second was the third-longest at 51 yards (only the Pats' 62-yard first-quarter drive was above it). And yet while they were the longest in terms of net yards, they were among the shortest of the game in terms of time of possession: 1:43 for the first fourth-quarter drive and an unbelievable 43 seconds for the second one.
Another place where the Pats and Colts' numbers this game stand in contrast to one another is in the red zone. In three trips inside the 20, the Colts were 1/3, and also 1/3 with goal to go. The Patriots were 3/4 in the red zone and 2/2 with goal to go.
The picture that's emerging here is one of a Patriots team that waited for the waning moments of the game to strike on a tired defense and a quarterback not known for clutching up late (with last year's AFC championship game excluded). Within that, there's also the sense of a defensive unit that stiffened up late in drives and in the red zone to minimize the damage from the Colts' offense.
Suddenly, the "running up the score" mentality of stomping the gas hard late in the game that's been so lambasted is starting to look like a training tactic. Suddenly, the Pats' emphasis on driving through the red zone--on both offense and defense, regardless of the game situation--is looking like a key element of their success today. Suddenly, it might be time to question whether there was a method to Belichick's madness this season after all.