INDIANAPOLIS - On their magical ride to three Super Bowl victories, the Patriots’ trademark was their ability to finish strong and come through in the clutch.
This time, there was no magic.
After building a 15-point halftime lead, the Patriots couldn’t withstand a furious charge from the Indianapolis Colts last night, as a game they were seemingly in control of early turned into a wild shootout. Rookie running back Joseph Addai scored on a 3-yard run with one minute left, giving the Colts their first lead of the game, and the Patriots’ final drive ended with a Tom Brady interception as Indianapolis posted a thrilling 38-34 victory before a supercharged crowd of 57,433 at the RCA Dome.
The Colts advance to face the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI Feb. 4 in Miami, while the Patriots were left to swallow a bitter disappointment.
New England had been 15-0 all time in the playoffs when leading at the half.
"We never closed the door, and when you don’t close the door on a good football team, they’re not going away," said Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour. "They kept fighting, and they made the plays when they needed to make them. Usually, we’re on the opposite end of the stick. We were 30 minutes away and just couldn’t seal the deal."
The Patriots had led, 21-6, at the half, controlling much of the action. But quarterback Peyton Manning, who had been dogged by his inability to lead the Colts to the Super Bowl, finally had his day. He finished 27 of 47 for 349 yards and one touchdown, leading a final 80-yard drive to give the Colts the go-ahead score.
It was a stunning turn for the Patriots.
"It’s hitting all of us in this locker room pretty hard," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "We know our season is over this year. It will take a little while to swallow this one."
Brady had promised a classic last week and the teams didn’t disappoint. This was an indeed an instant classic. The second half was simply sizzling, adding another epic chapter to this still-growing rivalry.
In the end, it came down to this: Holding a 3-point lead with 2:17 left, the Patriots couldn’t run out the clock and faced the challenge of stopping the Colts, who started at their 20-yard line. It was too tall a task, with the big strike coming when Manning found tight end Bryan Fletcher down the left side of the field for a 32-yard gain.
After Addai scored the go-ahead touchdown - with Manning thrusting his arms into the air in celebration - the Patriots had one final chance. Taking over at their 20 with two timeouts, Brady marched the team to the Colts’ 40 before he was intercepted by Marlin Jackson with 16 seconds left, setting off an eruption in the RCA Dome.
It capped a fourth quarter in which the Colts tied the score, fell behind, tied it again, fell behind, then went ahead for good.
The stunning, momentum-swinging second half started with Indianapolis opening the third quarter with a 14-play, 76-yard drive that chewed up 6:47. It was a nice mix of running and passing from the Colts, who kept it on the ground for eight plays, while throwing six times on a tempo-setting march. Manning capped the impressive drive with a 1-yard sneak, helping the Colts close to 21-13.
After the Patriots went three-and-out on their next possession, Manning and Co. kept the pressure on, suddenly finding a rhythm that had been missing throughout much of the first half.
Taking over at their 24, the Colts needed just six plays to cover 76 yards. Manning hit tight end Dallas Clark for 25 yards over the middle, then running back Dominic Rhodes ripped off a 19-yard run over the right side. When cornerback Ellis Hobbs was called for pass interference in the end zone on second and 7, the Colts took over at their 1, and Manning found defensive lineman and former Patriot Dan Klecko for a 1-yard score on a pass to the right side.
The Colts went for the 2-point conversion, and Manning hit receiver Marvin Harrison along the right side of the end zone to tie the game at 21 with four minutes left in the third quarter.
Yet the Patriots had an answer, and it came from the unit they refer to as the "Answer Team" as Hobbs raced 80 yards with the ensuing kickoff, cutting his return up the right side. That gave the Patriots the ball at the Colts’ 21. Brady hit receiver Jabar Gaffney for 17 yards over the middle, setting up first and goal from the 5. After a run by Laurence Maroney for minus-1 yard and a dropped pass by receiver Reche Caldwell in the end zone, Brady hit Gaffney along the back of the end zone for a 6-yard score. Gaffney landed out of bounds, but was ruled to have been pushed out by defenders, which the Colts challenged. The call stood and the Patriots led, 28-21, with 1:25 remaining in the quarter.
But back came the Colts.
Starting at their 33, they sliced through the Patriots’ defense once again. Seven plays later, the game was tied at 28, with two receptions by Rhodes (10 and 13 yards) getting things started and a 23-yard catch by Clark the biggest gainer on the drive. The Colts scored the tying touchdown when center Jeff Saturday recovered a Rhodes fumble in the end zone.
The teams traded punts before the Patriots went back ahead, 31-28, on a 28-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal after starting with terrific field position at the Colts’ 43.
The Colts answered, with Adam Vinatieri hitting a 36-yard field goal. A 52-yard catch by Clark over the middle set it up.
The Patriots had taken a 34-31 lead with 3:49 left, when rookie Gostkowski booted a 43-yard field goal. But Manning had the final answer.
"The second half was all about momentum swings," Bruschi said, "but theirs was the one that finished it."
The Patriots, who had defeated the Colts by the same score in the 2003 regular season at the RCA Dome, controlled much of the first half.
After both teams punted on their opening possessions, the Patriots struck first, putting together an eight-play, 75-yard drive that covered 3:36. Sparked by a 35-yard run by Corey Dillon on fourth down, the Patriots advanced to the Colts’ 4. Maroney got a handoff to the right side, but the exchange was never made, the ball was loose on the ground, and left guard Logan Mankins recovered in the end zone for an unconventional touchdown at 7:24.
The Colts responded with a 42-yard Vinatieri field goal with 48 seconds left in the opening quarter.
The Patriots came back with their own lengthy drive, an 11-play, 72-yard surge that was once again sparked by a fourth-down conversion, this time a 27-yard catch by receiver Troy Brown over the middle on fourth and 6 from the Colts’ 34. On the next play, Dillon went into the end zone over the left side, untouched by the defense on a 7-yard run at 10:18.
Leading, 14-3, and having quieted the raucous crowd, the Patriots then built on their lead in sudden fashion. On the Colts’ second play of their next drive, cornerback Asante Samuel stepped in front of a Manning pass intended for Harrison and raced 39 yards untouched to the end zone. It was a Ty Law-esque play, giving the Patriots a 21-3 lead with 9:25 left in the second quarter.
The Patriots then appeared ready to deliver an early knockout punch, pinning the Colts at their 3 and forcing a punt. But the offense couldn’t cash in on the ensuing drive, moving into field goal range (Colts’ 27) before penalties knocked them out range, forcing a punt.
The Colts got the ball at their 12 with 3:06 remaining in the half, and went to the no-huddle attack. It proved effective, with Manning leading the team to the Patriots’ 6. But the Patriots’ red zone defense, which ranked second in the NFL during the regular season, held its ground, dropping Rhodes for a 2-yard loss on first down before forcing two incomplete passes, the second of which drew protest from the Colts as they felt a penalty should have been called on Hobbs in the back left corner of the end zone.
The Colts settled for a 26-yard Vinatieri field goal and coach Tony Dungy walked off the field still chatting with the officials, seeking an explanation for the non-call.
Bruschi compared the turn of events in the second half to Super Bowl XXXVIII, when the Patriots beat the Panthers, 32-29.
"It was a defensive struggle in the first half and in the second half it was an explosion," he said.
"They made the plays, and that’s what wins championships. We’ve come out on top in a lot of these, against them also in the playoffs, and they got us this year.
"I wished all of them congratulations and wished all of them luck.
"You reflect on your season and you realize there is only one successful season in the entire league, the one that’s holding the Lombardi Trophy."