Indianapolis’ inability to stick its boot (or maybe its horseshoe) on the Patriots’ neck when it had the opportunities — and there were many — was less a referendum on Manning and more an indictment on his offensive mates’ sloppiness, a particular no-no when playing the team that halfway through the season has earned the right to call itself the NFL’s best. For most of the game, the Colts’ defense bailed the team out again and again, but finally went kaput with 10 minutes left, blowing a 20-10 lead in the process as the offense couldn’t sustain one more long drive to keep Brady off the field.
Being the defending Super Bowl champion will keep the whispers of “he can’t win the big one” at bay from Manning. That, and Manning having plenty of, er, help in the Colts’ blowing a golden opportunity to be in control of the AFC.
Manning had a right to, as he did after the top-seeded Colts lost at home to eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh in the 2005 playoffs, say he didn’t want to be a bad teammate, then critique others’ play. But Manning was a good teammate, and didn’t assign blame to Anthony Gonzalez for bobbling a sure, third-down touchdown catch in the first quarter. Nor did he excoriate Reggie Wayne for dropping a third-down pass that could well have turned into a touchdown in the third quarter. Manning avoided castigating guard Ryan Lilja and tackle Ryan Diem for fourth-quarter penalties that helped kill one key drive. He showed his greatest restraint in not calling for the immediate dismissal of backup left tackle Charlie Johnson (in for the injured Tony Ugoh) for a critical first-quarter penalty that forced Adam Vinatieri to try (and miss) a 50-yard field goal, and for showing himself a master of the lookout block, which allowed linebacker Rosevelt Colvin to force Manning’s fumbles.
Then again, Manning threw one bad-old-days interception in the third quarter, a dart directly to Rodney Harrison, so even if he wasn’t most at fault for the loss, he couldn’t stand like he had done nothing wrong.
That’s the alternately encouraging and maddening thing for Indianapolis. Even with all the offensive miscues, and with some key players missing because of injury (along with Ugoh, wide receiver Marvin Harrison, and linebackers Tyjuan Hagler and Freddy Keiaho) , the Colts appeared to be doing everything else they needed to derail what looked to be an unstoppable New England juggernaut.
They kept the ball away from Brady. They hit the Patriots (9-0) hard and harder. They sacked Brady twice, hit him to misdirect passes other times, and intercepted him twice, including an acrobatic, leaping, juggling catch by linebacker Gary Brackett that set up the Colts’ final touchdown in the fourth quarter, and seemed to put the Patriots down for good. Brackett’s run ended with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on Patriots tackle Matt Light, one of many instances where it appeared New England was losing its poise as it faced being knocked out of contention for greatest team of all time.
“It’s not the end of the world,” defensive end Dwight Freeney said. No, but it is the end of any hope that in January, Indianapolis can host New England in the playoffs and have a slightly easier road to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
The Colts outgained the Patriots 229-114 in the first half. They held New England to only four possessions — a three-and-out, a touchdown drive, a series that ended with an interception near the end zone by Antoine Bethea, and an end-of-half kneeldown. Indianapolis had only five penalty yards, while the Patriots had 102. Yet Indianapolis only led 13-7, settling one more time for two short field goals after failing to reach the end zone (including one after Gonzalez’s drop), and only getting the touchdown because running back Joseph Addai swiveled his hips and jump-stopped his cuts enough to make five Patriots miss while turning a three-yard dumpoff into a 73-yard touchdown pass with 13 seconds remaining in the half.
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