In a Football Night In America segment, former Patriot Rodney Harrison was asked what coach Bill Belichick would be telling his players as they suited up for this fierce rivalry.
The answer ran something like this; “He’s telling them to play all 60 minutes, to really finish the game.”
In the highly anticipated showdown between what may be the two best quarterbacks to ever run out onto the field, that’s exactly what the Patriots failed to do.
The meeting between Indianapolis and New England has been circled on every football fan’s calendar since September. As last year’s meeting was sans Brady, there may have been even more excitement leading up to the game as the rivalry was renewed.
It might not have been exactly the game we expected, but what looked like a rout early on turned into a down to the wire battle with a stunning finish.
Yet in this back and forth, intense game, a single call by Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has stolen all the thunder from the Colt’s comeback win.
Brady and the Patriots began the game by putting up a lot of offense fast, scoring twenty four unanswered points over the first half.
If the Colts couldn’t stop the Patriots offense, they would have to put up points of their own if they wanted to stay in the game.
With Peyton Manning at the helm, scoring wouldn’t seem like a problem. But while Brady missed last year’s game, at some points it looked as though Manning didn’t show up for this year’s showdown.
After scoring early, Manning and the Colts were uncharacteristically sloppy. Manning threw an unprecedented two interceptions as well as a few wobbly passes.
But there was a reason Harrison stressed finishing as a key to the Patriots victory.
There was also a reason why former Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said he would take Peyton Manning over Tom Brady with little time left on the clock and the game on the line.
Even though they were trailing by seventeen at the start of the fourth quarter, the Colts were never out of the game.
The Colts came alive on both sides of the ball in the second half. They finally got some pressure on Tom Brady, coming up with two sacks and a crucial interception in the red zone.
The Colts D also held New England to a field goal with roughly four minutes to go in the fourth quarter, keeping the game winning touchdown within reach for Manning.
Trailing by 13, Manning led the Colts down field with the cool efficacy we’ve come to expect from him. His scoring drives took roughly two minutes each.
Still, the Patriots had the lead, and the ball, with 2:23 to go in the fourth. If they converted on third down, the game would essentially be over. The Pats could run out the clock, or at least hand the ball back to Manning with too little time even for him to score.
But the Patriots failed on third down. Then came the decision that everyone has been picking apart. With a little more than two minutes to go, Bill Belichick went for it on fourth down.
This is the call that has become central to analyzing this game. The Patriots didn’t get the first down as Brady’s pass to Kevin Faulk was bobbled and he came up short.
That gave Peyton Manning the ball with two minutes to go and a short field. It seemed inevitable then that Manning would lead his team into the end zone. In a few seconds, the Colts went from holding their breath to not wanting to score too fast, purposely delaying their victory to burn down the clock.
After a bullet from Manning found Reggie Wayne in the end zone for the winning TD, there was approximately 13 seconds left for Brady to try to make a comeback. Even for a future hall of famer, that wasn’t enough time.
When the clock expired, the Colts were on top by one, winning the highly touted match 35-34.
Yet in the aftermath of the game, the call to go for it on fourth down has received much of the attention.
Granted, it was an important decision, and in retrospect it doesn’t seem to be a good gamble. It gave Manning a very short field to work with, and since he had gone 79 yards in two minutes, going 28 in the same amount of time would be easy for the reigning NFL MVP.
At the same time, Belichick’s decision seems to show a lack of confidence in his defense.
However, Belichick has a history of going for it on fourth down against the Colts, and in the past it has paid off.
In their regular season meetings, Belichick has done this 12 times, and eight times out of those 12 they have converted on fourth down.
In the postseason, Belichick has gone for it four times. All four times the Patriots have converted.
If it had worked this time, the Patriots most likely would have won the game. If it didn’t work, the New England defense would still have a chance to stop the Colts. It didn’t go his way this time, and exactly what he feared would happen did; Manning marched down the field and scored the game winning touchdown.
This one call has drawn most of the attention, but it should be remembered that outside of this fourth down decision, there were about 57 minutes of good football played, and the outcome of the game was largely a result of what transpired in that time.
Forget Belichick’s call. How about Peyton Manning having an off game (for him) but still being able to put together a win facing his arch rival?
The mental toughness of the Colts is coming through week after week as they are able to come from behind to win. Even though they haven’t all been playing together long, and they are under the leadership of a rookie coach, this Colts team has gelled together into a cohesive unit.
It is also clear that these Colts players believe if they can keep the score close, Peyton Manning will win it for them in the end. And Manning is delivering.
As for the Patriots, they played well enough to win this game. Tom Brady looks like he’s all the way back from his injury, and he and Randy Moss seem to have their old chemistry back.
The Patriots defense managed to get pressure on Peyton Manning and even picked him off twice.
But the Colts aren’t 9-0 because they are a bad team. The Colts have won 18 straight regular season games because they are a great team.
That is why this rivalry is what it is, that is why a meeting between the Colts and the Pats is so exciting. It is because these teams are so well matched, and a close game should be expected.
This time, Manning and the Colts had what it took to win out. They played well enough to put themselves in a position to win, and in the end they were able to do just that.