FOXBOROUGH -- Patriots players had called last night’s game against the Colts their most challenging test of the season. It was a test they didn’t come close to acing.
The mistakes were plentiful. Quarterback Tom Brady threw four interceptions. Running back Corey Dillon lost a fumble. The team was called for eight penalties, five of which led to first downs. There were breakdowns on kickoff coverage. And the defense was carved up in the air by a lethal Colts attack.
Put that together, and it’s no mystery why the Patriots dropped a 27-20 decision to the undefeated Colts last night before a disappointed sellout crowd of 68,756 at Gillette Stadium.
“We’re not going to win many games that way, giving up big plays on defense, special teams, turn the ball over five times, third-down penalties,” said coach Bill Belichick. “We just didn’t coach well, didn’t play well. They did a better job, it’s as simple as that.”
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning finished 20 of 36 for 326 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. Receivers Marvin Harrison (8 catches, 145 yards) and Reggie Wayne (6 catches, 90 yards) were the primary targets. On the flip side, Brady was 20 of 35 for 201 yards, no touchdowns, and the four picks. His passer rating was 34.
It was a night that had a little bit of everything.
Former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri heard boos, then cheers after he missed two field goals. Troy Brown became the Patriots’ all-time-leading receiver. Safety Rodney Harrison left in the first quarter with an arm injury and didn’t return.
By the end of the game, the Colts had established themselves as the class of the AFC, improving to 8-0, and giving themselves the inside track for home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Patriots, who never held a lead, fell to 6-2. On a night in which they were uncharacteristically sloppy, the Patriots still had a chance to tie late in the fourth quarter, but their final drive ended with an interception on a tipped ball.
The tone for the night was set on both teams’ opening drives. Brady was intercepted on the Patriots’ first march, which had initially shown promise, then the Colts appeared headed for a three-and-out, facing a third-and-15 situation from their 27. But Manning, while being flushed out of the pocket to his left, connected with receiver Marvin Harrison over the middle for a 44-yard gain. Rodney Harrison injured his arm on the play, a hookup that also seemed to energize the Colts’ attack.
“That was a huge play,” said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. “We had it going a little bit, then he hit that scramble on us. That was a big play on their part; that really started the night for them.”
Five plays later, Manning connected with Harrison on a 5-yard touchdown pass, giving the Colts a 7-0 lead with 4:30 left in the first quarter.
But the Colts’ initial blow was then answered with a decisive counterpunch by the Patriots, who strung together an 11-play, 68-yard drive that included a key fourth-down conversion. Running back Corey Dillon capped it off with a 1-yard run, evening the score at 7 just 35 seconds into the second quarter.
Back came the Colts, who started their next drive at their 18 and carved up the Patriots in the air, with Manning connecting on passes of 18, 16, and 33 yards, all to Wayne. The explosive Indianapolis attack needed just eight plays and 4:29 to drive 82 yards, opening a 14-7 lead on Joseph Addai’s 2-yard run just more than five minutes into the second quarter.
Once again, the Patriots responded with another 11-play drive, this one covering 66 yards and dominated by the run, as the offense attempted to power past the Colts’ NFL-worst rush defense. Dillon capped off the grind-it-out march with a 4-yard plunge, tying the game at 14 with 4:14 left in the first half.
The Colts then took back the momentum with a 70-yard kickoff return by Terrence Wilkins up the right side, starting at the Patriots’ 29. A key play came on third and 17 from the 17-yard line, when cornerback Asante Samuel was penalized for illegal contact, giving the Colts a first down at the 12. But the Patriots’ defense stiffened, holding the Colts on two straight plays from the 5, as Vinatieri came on for a 23-yard field goal with 1:46 left.
The half ended with Brady throwing an interception and the Patriots trailing, 17-14.
Vinatieri missed a 37-yard field goal on the Colts’ opening possession of the second half, but the Patriots handed the ball right back, with Dillon losing a fumble on a first-down run at the New England 31.
Manning eventually came back to put together an eight-play, 76-yard march, with seven of the plays passes - the two biggies a 29-yarder to Harrison and a 35-yarder to tight end Dallas Clark. On third and 4, Manning found Harrison in the righthand corner of the end zone, with Harrison making a dazzling one-handed grab while dragging his feet inbounds. That made it 24-14 with 6:56 to play in the third.
“That’s why Marvin is Marvin,” said cornerback Ellis Hobbs. “Even if I had a good hand on my left side, I don’t think I could have got that. Peyton and Marvin have this connection where he put it where no one else could get it. He almost put it so well that Marvin couldn’t get it.”
The Patriots countered with a 49-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal with 5:18 to play in the quarter, then got the ball right back when Artrell Hawkins forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, and also recovered it. But Gostkowski missed a 36-yarder and the Colts took a 24-17 lead into the fourth quarter.
The teams traded interceptions, then field goals, with the Colts holding a 27-20 lead with 6:01 left in the fourth quarter. Indianapolis then attempted to ice the game with a 44-yard Vinatieri field goal with 1:55 left, but it was wide to the right.
The Patriots’ final drive, however, ended with Brady’s fourth interception of the game, with Cato June picking off the pass.