INDIANAPOLIS - Down the Atlantic Coast in Charlotte, N.C., they like to call their Carolina Panthers the “Cardiac Cats.” Yeah. The Panthers have been known to pull out a close win here and there this year. But, man oh man. They’ve got nothing on New England’s “Palpitation Pats.”
For goodness’ sake, the Patriots nearly lost their starting left guard in the final fast-and-furious moments of a 38-34 victory yesterday at the RCA Dome in which they denied the Colts the winning touchdown three times from the 1-yard line. “I was about to have a heart attack out there,” Damien Woody said. He didn’t, obviously, although Colts fans are suffering from a severe case of heartache after their team’s rally from a 21-point second-half deficit fell short.
As for the Patriots, another week, another way to win. There’s getting to be lots of variety in the “New Releases” section of the video room back at Gillette Stadium. You’ve got your action/adventure flicks, such as “Tennessee” and “Miami.” Your love story in “Dallas.” And your mystery/suspense thrillers like “Denver,” “Houston,” and now “Indianapolis.”
The Colts had an alternate ending planned when they got the ball at New England’s 48 with 2:57 to go. But Willie McGinest and Ted Washington ruined the scene by stuffing Edgerrin James on fourth and goal from the 1 with 14 seconds to go.
With that, New England avoided its first loss since Sept. 28. The “Palpitation Pats” have won eight straight and lead the AFC East by two games heading into next week’s division championship game against the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. A victory and New England (10-2) clinches its second division title in three seasons.
Yesterday’s game was the Patriots’ fourth in six weeks to be decided in the final minute of regulation or overtime. We all knew the defense could bend without breaking. Just not that far. “I’m sitting here, still exhausted and totally surprised at what happened,” Rodney Harrison said. “The way this team continues to dig deep inside and find ways to win. Unbelievable. I’ve never been a part of something like this.”
As it turned out, this game was decided three weeks ago, during the bye week, when the Patriots paid extra attention to their goal-line defense. “We couldn’t stop anybody the first half of the season,” coach Bill Belichick said.
The Patriots couldn’t stop the Colts in the second half of yesterday’s game - until they absolutely had to. Following a curious selection of play calls (Indianapolis was down to its final timeout with about 3 1/2 minutes left, yet the Patriots passed three times - all incompletions) and an 18-yard punt by Ken Walter, the Colts took over at New England’s 48 with 2:57 left. Six plays later, it was first and goal at the 2.
Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel combined to hold James to a 1-yard gain on first down. Clock running. The Colts hurried to run the next play, but Bruschi was there again, this time with help from Harrison, to stuff James for no gain. “We’ve done things like that in the past when we’ve just punched it in the end zone before [the defense] had a chance to get set,” said Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. Indianapolis called its timeout with 18 seconds left to talk it over.
On or near the goal line is when teams usually run their goal-line offenses. But promising rookie fullback/tight end Dallas Clark, fullback Detron Smith, and occasional fullback James Mungro all were hurt, so the Colts had little choice but to remain in their three-receiver package. “We didn’t have `goal line’ because the whole team is hurt,” Manning said. “We had no fullback and no tight end. That’s what it came down to. We had no personnel options.”
For third down they brought in 6-foot-3-inch rookie receiver Aaron Moorehead. Tyrone Poole, the Patriots’ 5-8 corner and a former Colt, guessed fade. He guessed right. Incomplete.
Fourth down. Fourteen seconds to go. Three feet to go. The Colts were still in their three-receiver set. McGinest was back in the game after leaving a play earlier with what he said was a left knee injury, although Belichick said McGinest was “cramping up.” McGinest had left the field to boos from most of the 57,102 at the RCA Dome for delaying the game. He would leave again to cheers from the Patriots fans in the crowd for making the play that decided the game.
“I came in and I told them, `Guys, listen, this is what football’s all about. This is what championship teams are made of,’ “ McGinest said. “To be the best, you’ve got to stop the best, and we did that.”
McGinest came free from the offense’s right side because he picked up Manning’s run audible. “I saw him tap his butt and turn around,” said McGinest, who lined up as if he was going to jam one of the wide receivers. “I was coming regardless, whether it was run or pass. I was just trying to make it seem like I was helping on the jam.”
Just when it seemed as though the Patriots were on their way to a rare easy victory - they led, 31-10, midway through the third after Mike Cloud’s second touchdown - the Colts came back with three touchdowns in, oh, 5 minutes to tie it. And just when it looked as if New England was out of big plays, Bethel Johnson, he of the 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to end the first half, returned another 67 yards to set up Tom Brady’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch for a 38-31 lead.
Kevin Faulk fumbled on the Patriots’ next possession, giving Indianapolis possession at the Patriots’ 11. Just when it appeared certain the Colts would tie it again, New England forced three Manning incompletions, and Mike Vanderjagt kicked a 29-yard field goal for the game’s final points.
“It’s just the type of heart and character that makes up this defense and this team,” said Harrison, who was in on only one tackle yesterday because he and Eugene Wilson spent the game protecting against the deep pass. “ `Never say die.’ Guys understood that it was going to be up to us to stop them.”
“When the going gets tough,” Woody said, “we raise our level of play. When things started going bad and they started gaining momentum, all the guys pulled together and were like, `Hey, let’s just keep our composure. We’ve been in this situation. Let’s see how they react in the same type of environment.’ And we came up big in the end.”