FOXBOROUGH - The changing colors of the fall landscape were in crystal-clear view from some perches at Foxboro Stadium yesterday. As was the changing landscape of the AFC East.
Still the doormats, the Patriots are making opponents wipe their feet before entering their home in the AFC cellar. After opening with four straight losses, the door seemed shut and the key nowhere to be found. After two straight wins, including yesterday’s 24-16 beating of the Indianapolis Colts, suddenly the Patriots can look out and see a clear view to the top.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick again succeeded in turning Peyton Manning into a speck of himself. The All-World quarterback threw three interceptions, and was forced to throw it 54 times (for 334 yards) because Edgerrin James was held to 75 yards on 24 carries. The only card-carrying member of the Big Three to perform up to par was Marvin Harrison, who caught 13 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown.
Mixing well-timed blitzes and coverages that were often too hard for Manning to discern was part of it. Conversely, the Patriots threw the playbook at the Colts. The two most important passes in the game were not thrown by Drew Bledsoe.
There was a 44-yard Hail Mary pass from Michael Bishop to Tony Simmons at the end of the half, and then punter Lee Johnson pulled off a fake field goal when he froze the Colts defense and completed a first-down pass to tight end Eric Bjornson which led to the clinching score.
“Usually when you do things like that they don’t usually work,” said Terry Glenn, who led all Patriots receivers with five catches for 51 yards and a touchdown. “We also got a Hail Mary pass that I’ve never seen since I’ve been around here.”
The Patriots took a 3-0 lead on a well-spun drive that started at their own 24 and ended at the 3. Bledsoe scampered for 16 yards on third and 11 and Glenn caught a 28-yard pass on third down to the Colts 23. But on third and 2 from the 3, Bledsoe’s pass fell incomplete and Adam Vinatieri booted a 21-yard field goal.
The Patriots were giving up yardage across the middle as Manning connected with his stable of receivers. But Greg Spires, the third-year nickel pass rusher who recorded two sacks and now leads the team with 4 1/2, decked Manning, forcing the Colts to punt.
The Colts broke through when Manning found Harrison for a 17-yard touchdown early in the second quarter, capping a seven-play, 60-yard drive. On the play, Harrison made a nifty move and faked Ty Law to the inside and then took off to the outside.
The Colts increased their lead to 10-3 with a methodical drive starting at their own 6, and stalling at the Patriots 16, where Mike Vanderjagt nailed a 33-yard field goal with 10 seconds left in the half.
At this juncture, the Patriots could have been content trailing by a touchdown, but Belichick has always stressed playing 60 minutes. With so little time left, many fans sought concession stands and restrooms, while the Patriots sought the edge.
Simmons took center stage and had two of his finest moments as a Patriot.
He fielded a squib kickoff cleanly at the 17 and turned on the burners to the Colts 44, where he went out of bounds with three ticks left.
Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis brought out the miracle team lead by Bishop. The second-year quarterback from Kansas State took the shotgun snap, rolled to his right and lofted a high spiral to the right side of the end zone. Simmons, Chris Calloway, and Troy Brown converged on the jump ball while Colt defenders Jeff Burris and Chad Cota were in the vicinity but hardly active. Simmons, the tallest of the bunch, leaped up and came down with the ball and a 10-10 deadlock.
Bishop, chosen for his strong arm and mobility, said “The offensive line gave me enough time and my job there is to throw it high and in the middle of the three people and Tony came up with it.”
The riddle of the game came in third quarter. How can you drive 22 plays, eat up 10:19 and only come away with 3 points? Only the Colts know the answer.
The Patriots kept the drive moving on penalties by Kato Serwanga (facemask) and Law (holding), but the result was only a 13-10 lead, courtesy of a 34-yard Vanderjagt field goal. As they had in Denver, the Patriots stopped any momentum their opponents thought they had. While Bledsoe might have been an afterthought at that point, he was the main ingredient as the Patriots marched 77 yards for the go-ahead touchdown four seconds into the fourth.
Kevin Faulk gained 36 of his 64 rushing yards on the drive. Bledsoe converted a key third down with a 4-yard pass to Tony Carter early on, and completed a 10-yard pass to Troy Brown to make it first down at the Colts 22. After a 20-yard pass to J.R. Redmond, Bledsoe threw what looked like a “skyhook” to Bjornson for a 2-yard touchdown and a 17-13 lead the Patriots would not relinquish.
The Colts were moving on the ensuing possession but Ted Johnson tipped a second-down pass from the Patriots 48 and it was picked off by Law, who returned it to the 39. After the Patriots failed to execute a third and 2 when Faulk was stuffed for a yard loss at the 22, the field goal team came out, Bjornson hanging around the outer perimeter hoping not to be noticed. The ball was snapped by Lonie Paxton and Johnson rose quickly and planted a throw to Bjornson that went for 18 yards to the 4.
“It’s a momentum destroyer and demoralizer,” said Lee Johnson. “I wanted to create a hurry-up feeling at the line of scrimmage. I don’t think they were ready.”
On the next play, Bledsoe came back out and found Glenn at the back of the end zone for the score. Glenn bobbled the ball near his helmet, but stayed with it in an amazing balancing act as he got his feet inbounds as he was falling backward out of the end zone.
“It was a spectacular catch by Terry,” said Bledsoe.
The Patriots’ only assignment now was to hold on. Late interceptions by Tebucky Jones and rookie Antwan Harris sealed the win.
A win with a view.