INDIANAPOLIS - With all the hype washed away - the Rivalry Of The Decade and Manning-Brady story lines set aside - it all came down to an eye-popping, unforgettable gamble by Bill Belichick. The Patriots’ lead had been chopped to 6 points, just more than two minutes remained, and it was fourth down. And their punter was running off the field.
Bravado, guts, madness - call it what you want. As the Colts streamed from their sideline last night after the clock struck zeros, still undefeated and still the team to beat in the AFC, one thing was clear: It didn’t work.
Just when the Patriots seemed poised to announce themselves as one of the best teams in the NFL, the Colts erased a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit, stunned the Patriots with a last-minute touchdown, and won, 35-34. The result came to pass, depending on one’s interpretation, because Peyton Manning snatched the victory from the Patriots or their own coach handed it over.
With the Patriots, Belichick never before had lost a game when leading by 13 points or more in the fourth quarter largely because his unconventional decisions such as the one he made last night have only left people shaking their head in awe - How does he do it?
This morning across New England and the nation, those who watched last night are still asking themselves, What was he thinking? Manning gave the Colts the winning score with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne with 13 seconds left, but the Patriots’ fate was sealed minutes earlier, when they went for it on fourth and 2 with just more than two minutes remaining. Tom Brady hit Kevin Faulk near the first-down sticks, but the officials ruled Faulk down inches before the marker, and the Colts took over on the Patriots’ 29-yard line.
“We tried to win the game on that play,” Belichick said. “I thought we could have made that yard. I thought we had a good play. We completed it. I don’t know how we could not get a yard on that completion, but I guess we didn’t.”
Belichick wanted to keep the outcome in the hands of Brady, who threw for 375 yards, and out of Manning’s. Make the play, kneel three times, keep Manning on the sideline, and celebrate.
The plan, unlike so many Belichick decisions - remember Lonie Paxton snapping the ball off the goal post in Denver? - never materialized.
Before Belichick went for the win, the Patriots had sent their punting unit on. It scrambled off the field in favor of the offense, making a timeout necessary. They spread the field, sending Faulk in motion out of the backfield as the fifth receiver. Surely, though, they were at least trying to draw the Colts offsides.
No. The Patriots had called one of their favorite, most trusty plays. The ball snapped, and Brady fired to Faulk on a quick out pattern. Two Colts defenders dropped him as soon as he caught the ball.
“I thought I had it,” Faulk said.
But officials spotted the ball inches from the first-down marker. The ball was snapped before the two-minute warning, so the only challenge could come from the Patriots. Because they had burned all three timeouts, the Patriots could not challenge.
The decision will engender chatter for as long as they play football. As soon as the game concluded, the second-guessing had already started.
“I’ve been around Bill Belichick a long time, and he’s made a lot of great coaching decisions,” former safety Rodney Harrison said on NBC, in his role as an analyst. “But this was the worst coaching decision I have ever seen Bill Belichick make.”
The players still inside the locker room, though, supported the decision.
“I love the call,” Brady said. “I love the fact that we’re out there with a chance to win. The coach has confidence that we can make it. I had confidence. We all did.”
“He’s the head coach,” Faulk said. “He makes all the decisions. We are players. We just execute. Or try to.”
The rest was at once dramatic and inevitable. The Colts took over with 1:57 remaining. Manning hit Wayne for 15 yards. The clocked ticked ... ticked ... ticked away. Joseph Addai bulled his way to the 1-yard line. The Patriots stuffed him once, but then Manning called a play at the line and drilled Wayne on a slant. Lucas Oil Stadium, all 67,476 fans, erupted. The impossible had happened.
The Patriots had blown two 17-point leads, letting their 24 straight points in the first half and Randy Moss’s 179 receiving yards and two touchdowns go for naught.
With 14:18 left in the game, the Patriots took a 31-14 lead on Moss’s second touchdown. With 4:12 left, the Patriots took a 34-21 lead on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. First, Manning answered with a 1-minute-49-second touchdown drive. Second, he watched the Patriots come up short on fourth down, then took the Colts the scant 29 yards.
In the end, the Colts scored 21 points in the fourth quarter and erased 17- and 13-point deficits. The result may be as disheartening as the 2006 AFC Championship, also played in Indianapolis, when the Patriots squandered a 21-3 second-quarter lead.
“Let it go,” said defensive end Mike Wright. “Just let it go.”
The Patriots, 6-3 and still in first place in the AFC East, have six days to do that before they face the Jets. From now until then, all they can do is stew and try to think about one play and one decision.
“We have a chance to go out there and make the play to win,” Brady said. “It’s easy to second-guess. If we gain seven more inches, it’s a good call.”