FOXBOROUGH - It isn’t often that football players get the chance to re-write the finish to a game. Typically, once it is done, it’s done - no re-takes allowed. They have to live with the final result, whether it was a happy ending or a horror show.
But yesterday, the Patriots got that rare chance against the Colts, and this time turned 2009 tragedy into 2010 triumph, the type of result that got two enthusiastic thumbs up from all involved.
New England needed a game-clinching interception from safety James Sanders with just over 30 seconds left to play to claim a 31-28 win over Indianapolis, which had scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns and was driving for a potential third.
If you felt it bore a striking resemblance to last year’s Patriots end-of-game collapse in Indy, the infamous fourth and 2 and 21 fourth-quarter points from Peyton Manning and the Colts, you weren’t alone.
"It was starting to look that way," Sanders said of watching Manning lead his team on consecutive 73-yard scoring drives to whittle a 17-point Patriots lead down to just 3.
"As a defense, we huddled up at midfield and told each other: `If we don’t make a play, we’re going to lose this game, because Peyton is not going to give it to us,"’ said Sanders, the secondary’s most experienced player.
The unit was certainly being tested.
With the Colts - who are 6-4, with all four losses on the road - facing first down at the New England 24-yard line, rookie linebacker Jermaine Cunningham applied pressure to Manning, getting in his line of sight.
Meanwhile, cornerback Devin McCourty was lined up one-on-one with Pierre Garcon, Manning’s intended receiver, and linebacker Gary Guyton was jamming tight end Jacob Tamme, allowing Sanders to focus on Manning and where he was looking.
Sanders peeled off his route as Manning threw, jumped high, and stretched behind him, pulling in his second interception in as many weeks. The quiet and highly respected leader was mobbed by his teammates while on the Gillette Stadium turf clutching the ball.
"I’m sure they’d like to have that back," coach Bill Belichick said. "But it was a heck of an interception by James. He went up, `high-pointed’ the ball, and it was a terrific catch."
The victory was the Patriots’ eighth of the season, but just the second in their last seven meetings against the Colts.
And this one had all of the drama of the most recent ones: each of the last six Patriots-Colts games has been decided by 7 points or fewer.
"I’m just sick about not extending the game," Manning said. "There’s just no excuse not to extend the game there and give [Adam] Vinatieri a chance for a field goal. We had some time, had some timeouts, and felt like we had a good play call. Just a poor throw and it’s really sickening."
Manning walked out of the stadium with a terrible feeling in the pit of his stomach; though Patriots cocaptain Alge Crumpler wasn’t part of last year’s loss, he knew the feeling thanks to watching film.
"I knew every bit of it," Crumpler said. "We had been down that road. Even though I wasn’t there [in Indianapolis in ‘09], it boils down to 60-minute football. That’s never more important between two teams than it is between the Patriots and Colts.
"Our style of football won today. We were definitely more physical, we created turnovers and we were able to win. You can’t take anything away from Peyton Manning and the Colts - they’re a damn good team."
New England got out to the early start it needed.
Brandon Meriweather got the first of three interceptions on the Colts’ first possession of the game, pulling in a third-down pass for Blair White that went too high. Meriweather credited Sanders with disguising the coverage on the play, and he was there for the pick, returning it 39 yards.
The Patriots started at the Colts’ 32, and in four plays found the end zone. With traffic all around him on first down from the 22, quarterback Tom Brady stood tall and delivered the ball to Wes Welker, who was being covered by middle linebacker Pat Angerer - a complete mismatch. Welker fell over the goal line for his fourth touchdown of the season, and first since Week 2.
New England doubled its lead on its second possession, a 15-play march that culminated with an 8-yard Aaron Hernandez score.
But the Colts would get on the board, and put up two touchdowns before halftime. The culprit for New England on those? Third-down coverage. Indy was 5 for 5 on the two scoring drives on that money down.
The Patriots were ahead, 21-14, at intermission and got the ball to start the second half, though that drive ended with their first punt of the day. The next, however, doubled the New England lead.
Every action movie has an unheralded hero, and not surprisingly Danny Woodhead filled that role. Facing second and short from the Colts’ 36, Brady handed the ball to Woodhead. While everyone else went toward the middle of the field, Woodhead bounced right and picked up speed. He stumbled, but held his balance and got great downfield blocking from Deion Branch and Welker as he made his way to the right pylon, eventually getting in.
"When you get a crease or a hole it makes things a lot easier," Woodhead said. "The offensive line, receivers, tight ends - everyone was blocking, doing their job, and it makes it a lot easier for the running back."
McCourty claimed the evening’s second interception for the defense shortly thereafter, and that turned into a short field goal from Shayne Graham, putting New England up, 31-14, early in the fourth quarter.
That’s when things started to get interesting.
A seven-play, 73-yard drive that took just 2:26 and ended with Manning threading a 5-yard play-action pass to White got the Colts closer. The Patriots responded with their first three-and-out of the game, about as bad a time as there was to do so.
Manning took his team down the field once again, converting again on third down and getting an assist from a personal-foul penalty on Tully Banta-Cain, who shoved an Indy lineman in defense of Gerard Warren.
The four-time NFL Most Valuable Player looked to White again, who this time went belly-to-the-turf for the touchdown from 18 yards out.
At that point, things were almost silent at Gillette.
The silence turned to cheers when Sanders grabbed that interception a few minutes later. Script re-written, ending re-shot, the home customers go home happy.
"It’s not about last year," Sanders said. "It is about this year. This year, we made the plays to win."