FOXBOROUGH - This is why the NFL doesn’t need Elton John, Lenny Kravitz, Jessica Simpson, or even the Boston Pops. There is no better show than the game, and though Patriots defensive players were criticizing themselves for a poorly played game, it was two magnificent plays in the fourth quarter - by Eugene Wilson and Willie McGinest - that enabled New England to claim a 27-24 victory in the season opener on a night when they raised their Super Bowl XXXVIII banner.
“We played a bad game,” said Rodney Harrison. “There’s so much to improve on. It’s so disappointing the way we played on defense. We had blown coverage and missed tackles. We’re just fortunate and very happy we were able to pull it out.”
The Patriots allowed 446 net yards - 202 on the ground - yet in the end, you could argue the only team that could stop the Indianapolis Colts was the Indianapolis Colts. But that wouldn’t be giving due credit to Wilson and McGinest.
Just as McGinest made one of the great goal-line stops of the year last season against the Colts to preserve a 38-34 win in Indianapolis Nov. 30, McGinest - on third and 8 from the Patriots’ 17 - came off the edge on the left side unabated and nailed Manning for a 12-yard sack. That made Mike Vanderjagt’s field goal 12 yards longer - a 48-yarder that Vanderjagt usually makes with his eyes closed. But the kicker, who had hit 42 consecutive field goals - missed it wide right with 24 seconds left.
“[Defensive coordinator] Romeo [Crennel] did a great job of calling the blitz,” said McGinest. “We figured we could go get them and be a little aggressive, and God willing, I just came in free. I didn’t want to miss so I didn’t try to knock the ball out of his hand. I just tried to take him down and tried to take them out of field goal range. But that guy [Vanderjagt] never misses.”
Except for last night.
As hard as Edgerrin James (34 carries, 142 yards) ran last night, he coughed up the football twice when his team had a chance to score, none more critical than at the Patriots’ 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter when it appeared the Colts were going to cash in the go-ahead score.
Instead, as James put his head down and ran straight ahead, Wilson poked the ball out of his hands, and rookie Vince Wilfork recovered.
“I was just trying to make the hit on Edgerrin,” Wilson said. “I looked up and the ball was out.”
The Patriots extended their winning streak to 16 games, two short of the NFL record, and it certainly wasn’t easy. The Patriots held a 10-point lead after trailing at halftime, 17-13, in a contest that featured superb offensive performances by Tom Brady (26 of 38, 335 yards, three touchdowns), David Patten, and Corey Dillon.
Trailing, 27-17, after three quarters, the Colts began their comeback, taking advantage of Ty Law’s absence (he was seen limping) as Tyrone Poole and Asante Samuel were the cornerbacks covering the Colts’ dangerous receivers. Poole and Mike Vrabel were flagged for interfering with receivers, and Law, who implored coach Bill Belichick to let him back in the game, finally was allowed to return to the field, and allowed a 7-yard touchdown pass from Peyton Manning to Brandon Stokley to make it 27-24 with 11:05 remaining.
The Patriots made two consecutive mistakes - a Brady interception by Nick Harper and a Deion Branch muff of a punt which gave the Colts great field position, until James’s fumble. Then the Colts stopped the Patriots, who couldn’t run out the clock in the final three minutes, only to watch Manning find Stokley for a 45-yard completion before McGinest’s great play and Vanderjagt’s unusual miss.
“I made a bad decision on that play,” Branch lamented. “I didn’t protect the ball. It was a bad mistake. Luckily, we were able to get past it.”
The Patriots came out with a sense of urgency in the second half, the defense stopping the Colts on three plays on the first series. The offense also appeared more determined. Brady struck for gains of 12 and 17 yards to Branch, and Dillon bounced off a tackler for a 10-yard gain before Brady spotted Patten open in the end zone and hit him in stride as the Patriots took the lead, 20-17.
A turnover then hurt the Colts, who drove from their 20 to the Patriots’ 22. James coughed up the ball after a hit by Warren, and it was recovered by Wilson. The Patriots made the Colts pay. Wide-open receivers all over the field allowed Brady to pick Indianapolis apart - 12 and 29 yards to Patten, 25 yards to Givens, and an 8-yard score to Daniel Graham with 1:23 remaining in the third quarter increased the lead to 27-17.
There were other big plays.
Tedy Bruschi intercepted Manning, thanks to a strong pass rush up the middle by Ty Warren, at the Patriots’ 1, after Manning had led them from his 28 to the Patriots’ 6 late in the first quarter.
With the Patriots clearly vulnerable against the run, the Colts ran it on nine consecutive plays, with James and Dominic Rhodes busting through the defense at will. Rhodes capped the drive from 3 yards with 8:02 remaining in the half, giving the Colts a 10-3 lead, the first time the Patriots had trailed in a regular-season game since falling behind, 20-13, to the Houston Texans Nov. 23.
Not to be outdone, the Patriots showed off their new toy - Dillon. Adrian Klemm threw a nice block that sprung Dillon for a 38-yard gain. Once Dillon blasted through the front seven, he made a move, leaving Idrees Bashir in the dust.
The Pats overcame a 7-yard sack by Dwight Freeney as Brady tossed the tying score to Branch on a pretty play-action, making it 10-10 with 4:04 left in the half.
But the Colts kept having their way with the Patriots’ defense. Manning directed the Colts from his own 18 to the Patriots 18’ on one 64-yard play to H-back Dallas Clark, who found a lot of running room in the middle of the field before he was knocked out by Law and Harrison. The Colts eventually took the lead on Manning’s 3-yard pass to Harrison just over the goal line on the right side of the end zone.
A nifty 34-yard kickoff return by Johnson set up Vinatieri’s 43-yard field goal as time expired, bringing the Patriots within 17-13 at the half.
In the end, “We gave the fans their money’s worth,” said Bruschi. Yes, every bit as good as Elton John, Lenny Kravitz, and Jessica Simpson.