FOXBOROUGH - When you’re 0-2 and you play football in New England, you have to expect the ugly chatter to begin. The comment heard most often last week was, “Why did Bob Kraft hire Bill Belichick?”
Yesterday, following a 44-13 upset win over the Indianapolis Colts, people who asked that got their answer.
Belichick, along with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, have been able to shut down Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, the most prominent offensive weapon in the division, the conference, and perhaps the league, as well as any coaching tandem in the league.
Without that happening, the Patriots, who improved to 1-2, may have been 0-3 and heading into oblivion. Now there is at least some hope.
While the New England offense was capably handled by second-year quarterback Tom Brady, with the injured Drew Bledsoe on the sideline holding play sheets after spending most of the week with a tube in his chest at Massachusetts General Hospital, Belichick’s defense froze the Colts’ Big Three.
Manning, now 0-4 at Foxboro Stadium, was 20 for 34 with 196 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. Edgerrin James ran 17 times for 55 yards. Marvin Harrison caught only three passes for 49 yards, with no touchdowns.
It was almost a complete role reversal by the teams. But this was more than the Patriots finding a needle in a haystack. They beat up the Colts in every way, shape, and manner possible.
“It was hard to move the ball downfield when you can’t throw on third down,” said Manning, who was victimized by several dropped balls as hits by linebacker Bryan Cox and safety Lawyer Milloy seemed to create some fear in the Colts receivers.
“They rushed three guys the whole time and dropped eight guys. That’s a lot of guys to throw against. It’s hard to get the big play,” said Manning, who had two of his interceptions run back for touchdowns (Otis Smith and Ty Law).
While statistics often don’t tell the whole story, they told everything about yesterday’s game. The Patriots had 177 yards rushing (4.5 a carry), led by Antowain Smith’s 94 yards on 22 carries (he had two of the team’s three rushing touchdowns) and exhibited run-blocking not seen here in some time.
Brady didn’t turn the ball over, made a few key first downs, and just when it seemed as though the Colts might come back, Brady connected on two quick hits early in the fourth quarter (17 yards to David Patten, 38 yards to Antowain Smith) that led to the score that broke Indianapolis’s back.
In what may be the best half they have played under Belichick, the Patriots were dominant in taking a 20-0 lead into intermission.
For one thing, when you start with a gusting wind at your back, as the Colts did, and don’t score, that usually spells trouble. But the Patriots never allowed the Colts’ passing game to get on track.
And when was the last time the Patriots accumulated 141 yards rushing in a half?
Smith had a 39-yard burst in the first quarter, on beautiful blocks by Matt Light on the left side and Damien Woody on the right. Smith capped the drive on the next play with a 4-yard run with 4:23 remaining.
“My job,” said Woody, who shrugged off a stiff neck, “was to hit anybody in my way. Nothing fancy about it. Antowain made a cut off my block and then he did the rest.”
Light, who has replaced Bruce Armstrong as the team’s left tackle (Armstrong had his No. 78 retired yesterday), said, “Antowain’s run was an outside quick toss. He got around the corner and took off.”
The first half was highlighted by Otis Smith’s impressive interception and 78-yard run for the score. It was already 10-0, and Smith’s play seemed to take the air out of the Colts. Manning was directing a decent drive, but on a second and 24 from the Patriots 42, he threw toward Jerome Pathon. Smith stepped in the way at the Patriots 22, then went on a long journey, directing traffic as he zig-zagged into the end zone for a 17-0 lead.
“I had the coverage [on Pathon] and it came to me,” said Smith. “I just went up and got it. I turned it upfield and got some good blocks [one devastating one by Law] and I started to run out of gas around the 10. I was glad to get in.”
Of his perfect orchestration, Smith said, “Offensive players aren’t used to tackling, so if you can set your run up the right way, it makes it tough for them to catch you.”
Even with the Patriots in control at the half, it was hard to believe they would hold on. They had had second-half letdowns the first two games. But they even solved that problem.
One expected the Colts to take the second-half kickoff and drive downfield. But James took a tough hit from Roman Phifer, coughed up the ball, and Ted Johnson recovered on the first series.
The Patriots couldn’t capitalize, but the tone was set.
On the Colts’ next possession, Manning again tried to dump it to James, but he never had possession. The ball bounced off Terrell Buckley’s hands and Phifer intercepted. The Patriots added a 35-yard field goal from Adam Vinatieri, his third of the game, making it 23-0.
The Colts began to solve the Patriots, but it was too late.
Indianapolis put its first score on the board with 53 seconds remaining in the third quarter, after a 64-yard drive, getting into the end zone on Manning’s 10-yard scamper.
But the Colts’ comeback was hindered by a stiff wind in their faces in the fourth quarter, and the fact that the Patriots’ offense remained very aggressive.
Instead of sitting on the lead, the offense added to it. Brady completed a key third-down pass to Patten, then hit Smith for a 38-yard run-and-catch, the longest of Smith’s career. From there, the Colts allowed Kevin Faulk to dance in from 8 yards out with 13:24 left, making it 30-7.
“The line played great, we had a solid running game, and we caught the ball,” said Brady. “I really didn’t have to do much. I just made sure I didn’t mess anything up.”
Law ran his interception in with 12:24 remaining, and Otis Smith had a hand in helping him into the end zone.
When it was over, many game balls were handed out. One went to Cox, who set the tone in the locker room with tough talk that he backed up on the field.
“We aren’t a bad team,” he said. “Sometimes we just lack confidence, but we’re a good team.”
Yesterday there was no way to dispute that.