Monday, November 5, 2007

Fourth Quarter Rally Preserves Patriots' Perfect Record

In perhaps the most anticipated regular season NFL game ever, the New England Patriots flipped the script from their playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, mounting a late comeback from a 20-10 deficit to post a thrilling 24-20 victory; New England led Indianapolis 21-6 at halftime in last season's AFC Championship Game before losing 38-34. This time, New England did not lead in the second half until Tom Brady connected with Kevin Faulk for a 13 yard touchdown pass with 3:15 remaining in the game. Jarvis Green forced a Peyton Manning fumble on the next series, Rosevelt Colvin recovered the ball and the Patriots ran out the clock to hand the Colts their first loss and thus become the NFL's last remaining undefeated team (9-0)--and if you thought that this was just another game to the Patriots, you were wrong: Coach Bill Belichick smiled broadly and congratulated his players as if they had just won the Super Bowl--or at least clinched home field advantage for the AFC Championship Game, which this victory probably did.

Brady completed 21 of 32 passes for 255 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions; he accumulated 158 of those yards and two of those touchdowns in the fourth quarter. With seven games left in the season, Brady broke the franchise record for single-season touchdown passes; he now has 33, giving him an excellent shot to smash Manning's NFL record of 49. Brady also broke Manning's NFL record by tossing at least three touchdown passes for the ninth straight game. New England wide receiver Randy Moss caught nine passes for 145 yards and one touchdown. He had one of the most amazing one handed receptions you will ever see, snaring the ball with his body vulnerably exposed at full extension as easily as a child picking low hanging fruit from a tree. Moss tied the franchise record for single-season touchdown receptions (12). Manning--who outplayed Brady for the majority of the game but not when it mattered most--completed 16 of 27 passes for 225 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Indianapolis running back Joseph Addai was the dominant player on the field for most of the game, becoming the first player in franchise history to compile more than 100 yards rushing and more than 100 yards receiving in the same game; he carried the ball 26 times for 112 yards and he caught five passes for 114 yards and one touchdown.

This game did not follow the template of dominance that New England had forged in the first eight games of the season. Indianapolis controlled the ball for most of the first quarter but only led 3-0 after the first 15 minutes. New England capped a 62 yard drive with a four yard Brady touchdown pass to Moss to take a 7-3 lead with 12:06 left in the second quarter. Indianapolis answered with a 73 yard drive but again had to settle for a field goal. New England's next drive was short circuited when Brady's pass to Donte Stallworth was intercepted by Antoine Bethea at the Indianapolis two yard line with 1:55 remaining before halftime. Two Addai runs and a couple short passes advanced the ball to the 27 yard line. Addai then caught a short pass, made a couple tacklers miss and sailed 73 yards to score the Colts' first touchdown.

The first half statistics suggest that the Patriots were fortunate to not be trailing by more than seven. Indianapolis did not punt in the first half and the Colts had just one penalty for five yards, while the Patriots committed five infractions for 102 yards; New England eventually racked up a franchise-record 146 penalty yards, breaking the old mark of 139 that was set on November 6, 1983 versus Buffalo. The longest play that the explosive New England offense produced in the first half covered just 14 yards. Brady went 8-12 for 59 yards with one touchdown and one interception, while Manning went 9-15 for 145 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 114.6 passer rating.

After New England opened the third quarter by going three and out, Rodney Harrison intercepted Manning on the Colts' first offensive play, marking the eighth straight game that Manning has thrown at least one interception versus the Patriots. New England now had the ball on the Colts' 30 yard line but after a penalty and a sack the Patriots lost 10 yards and had to punt. The Colts then went three and out. New England marched 73 yards but had to settle for a field goal that pulled the Patriots to within 13-10 with 2:26 left in the third quarter. Brady, not known for his mobility, kept the drive going with a season-long 19 yard run on a third and seven play from the New England 41; at that point, this was New England's longest play of the game. Statistically, this was Brady's worst game of the season; he threw as many interceptions in this game as he did in the previous eight but when he had to make plays in the second half he did. Brady's performance brings to mind an old quote from Larry Bird, the three-time NBA MVP who once explained that what he lives for on the basketball court is not scoring 30 points or having a triple double but simply that moment when he has the ball in his hands and he knows that he controls the outcome of the game.

The Patriots then forced the Colts to punt but three plays later the Colts got the ball back after Gary Brackett intercepted Brady. A penalty moved the ball to the New England 32 and the Colts eventually took a 20-10 lead on Manning's one yard touchdown run. New England now needed two scores in 9:42. Naturally, the Patriots turned to Brady and Moss to save the day. Brady's next six passes were directed toward Moss, with the duo eventually hooking up for a 55 yard bomb that brought the Patriots to the Indianapolis three yard line. A penalty moved the Patriots back 10 yards but Brady completed two passes to Wes Welker, including a three yard touchdown that made the score 20-17 Indianapolis. New England's defense stopped the Colts and Brady drove the Patriots 51 yards for the winning score in just 43 seconds.

It almost seems like the Patriots and Colts have traded places. The Patriots used to be built around their physically punishing defense, while the Colts were a finesse team that relied on a precision passing game. Now, the Colts' defense is flying around the field delivering big hits, while the Patriots' passing attack is on course to obliterate every aerial record known to man. Colts' fans will no doubt take solace in the fact that their team almost won despite playing without Pro Bowl wide receiver Marvin Harrison, starting left tackle Tony Ugoh and starting linebackers Freddie Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler. Also, rookie Anthony Gonzalez, who took Harrison's place in the starting lineup, dislocated his thumb on the first play of the game. The larger story is that New England acquired Moss to help win games like this; mission one is accomplished but further missions remain in the AFC playoffs and the Super Bowl; just as the Colts can cite a missing player or a pivotal play that could have swung the outcome of this game, the Patriots can cite missing players or pivotal plays that could have changed the result of the AFC Championship Game. These two teams are head and shoulders above the rest of the NFL and we can only hope that they meet again in this season's AFC Championship Game.

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