FOXBOROUGH - Bill Belichick spent the entire week leading up to yesterday’s game telling anyone who would listen that the Indianapolis Colts, despite their winless record entering their matchup with the Patriots, would pose a challenge.
Turns out he wasn’t just blowing smoke.
The Patriots headed home from their first 1 p.m. home start of the season with their ninth victory in their back pockets, but judging by the brevity of Belichick’s comments at his postgame news conference and the atmosphere in the locker room, few were in a celebratory mood after the 31-24 win.
“I know what losing feels like, and this isn’t that,’’ said guard Brian Waters. “But are we disappointed? Yes.’’
The disappointment comes from the way the Patriots finished the game, on both sides of the ball. Ahead, 31-3, at the end of the third quarter, New England took its foot off the gas. The offense totaled just 11 yards - all on the ground, with Tom Brady going 2 for 5 for zero yards - in the fourth quarter and didn’t collect a first down, failing to convert three third-down chances.
“We played good for 45 minutes and then didn’t do anything offensively in the fourth quarter, so we’ll hear about that tomorrow,’’ Brady said.
Indianapolis racked up 266 total yards of offense in the final 15 minutes. Dan Orlovsky, the third quarterback the Colts have started this season and who hadn’t started a game since 2008, completed all but two of 20 pass attempts for 240 yards and two touchdowns in the quarter, though he was intercepted by Jerod Mayo.
“We’ve got to finish games,’’ Patriots safety James Ihedigbo said. “It was good [enough] today, but against other teams it won’t be good enough. Even though we won this game, and we’re sitting here at 9-3, there’s a lot we have to work on.’’
Added cornerback Kyle Arrington, “Poor execution. Lack of execution, lack of focus.’’
The performance was so poor that one player quietly called it “embarrassing.’’
New England had just one possession in the first quarter, though it resulted in the game’s first points, a 39-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski. The Colts got the ball back and began a 19-play drive that ate the final 9:30 of the first quarter and nearly a minute of the second off the clock.
Indianapolis was moving the ball well, earning first and goal at the 1 after a 5-yard third-down carry by Joseph Addai.
But New England stopped Addai on first down, and Mayo tipped a ball intended for tight end Jacob Tamme on second. Orlovsky was sacked by Rob Ninkovich on third down, forcing the Colts into a field goal try from Adam Vinatieri.
The 39-year old Vinatieri, the hero of several New England playoff games, including two Super Bowls, was booed by the crowd when he made the chip-shot 31-yarder.
New England didn’t get far on its second possession, so on the third it ran some plays in the no-huddle. One of the plays the Patriots did huddle for, not surprisingly, was before Chad Ochocinco’s lone catch of the day, a third-and-8 reception on the sideline for a 12-yard gain.
It led to the Patriots’ first touchdown of the day, an 11-yard Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski connection on which Gronkowski was wide open in the end zone - a scene that was repeated in the third quarter when Gronkowski again was left open in the end zone, this time from 21 yards out.
The touchdowns were the 12th and 13th of the season for the second-year player, who tied the record for most touchdowns in a season by a tight end.
A few minutes later in the third quarter, it appeared Gronkowski had No. 14, on a 2-yard catch that gave the Patriots a four-touchdown lead. But the play was ruled a lateral, so it counted as the first rushing score of Gronkowski’s career.
Still, no tight end ever has totaled 14 touchdowns in a season, and there are four games left for Gronkowski to get the receiving mark and separate himself from San Francisco’s Vernon Davis (2009) and San Diego’s Antonio Gates (2004).
“I thought it was a forward pass - I threw it,’’ Brady lamented.
Of course, as a counter to Belichick’s declarations that Indianapolis was a tough opponent was the fact that he started special teams ace and sometime receiver Matthew Slater at safety along with Nate Jones, whom the Patriots signed off the street during the week, and Ihedigbo, and that Niko Koutouvides, another special-teamer who hadn’t played a snap on defense this season, started at linebacker.
It was his first start since 2004, when he was a rookie with the Seahawks.
The 24 points tied the highest output of the season for Indianapolis, which entered averaging just 13.6 points per game.
“We felt confident going into the game that if we stayed patient we could move the ball,’’ said Orlovsky, a Connecticut native who starred at UConn. “That’s kind of what happened. Throughout the first half we were able to do some decent things. In the second half, [we were] kind of forced into making some plays.
“We fell short. I wish we had more time on the clock.’’
As it was, the Colts made things uncomfortable for the Patriots and their fans. They scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns, one a Donald Brown 5-yard run to cap a 15-play drive, the second an Orlovsky to Pierre Garcon 33-yarder, and the final one, with 36 seconds to play, again going to Garcon, this time from 12 yards.
Indianapolis tried an onside kick, and Deion Branch came up with the ball, allowing the Patriots to take a knee and end the game.
“That wasn’t the way we wanted to finish the game. At all. On either side of the ball,’’ Branch said.
Generally, Belichick will give players Monday off after a victory in the second half of the season. But everyone will be back to work today, and the players know what’s coming.
“We definitely didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish, and I’m sure that’s something that’s going to be emphasized this week,’’ Waters said. “I haven’t been here long, but it’s been long enough to realize when things will be a point of emphasis.’’