There almost seem to be two games now, looking back on it. The first three quarters, and then the fourth.
Throughout the first three quarters I was sitting there diligently making notes as usual, anticipating writing this game post. I noticed that though the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady matchup was capturing most of the attention, several other one-on-one matchups were having an even bigger effect on the game, most notably, in those first three quarters, Sebastian Vollmer vs. Dwight Freeney. Brady only had the room to launch those long bombs to Moss because the rookie left tackle was frustrating the Pro Bowl defensive end all night.
I also took note of the matchup between Pierre Garcon and Leigh Bodden. The Patriots defense was either doing a good job in coverage of Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, or the Colts had assumed those guys would be taken away and planned to pick on Bodden, but either way, for those first three quarters Bodden held his own against the much taller wideout. Garcon also did us a few favors by dropping a few key passes, as did Austin Collie.
Nick Kaczur vs. Robert Mathis on the other side of the line didn't go so well -- Mathis got to Brady a couple of times. Laurence Maroney also earned the golden sombrero for the first three quarters, having fumbled a touchdown in the end zone which the Colts recovered with about three minutes left in the third.
It's arguable that this, and the ensuing Indianapolis drive, in which Garcon finally beat Bodden for a touchdown to make it 31-21, were every bit as key to the outcome as what would happen in the fourth quarter. Add to that the ensuing drive in which the Colts drove from their own 20, facilitated by a key pass interference call against Darius Butler, to make it 34-28, and the Patriots defense obviously did not shower itself in glory as the game wore on.
Also, the offensive line that had stood stout through the whole game appeared to be flagging in the final fifteen minutes, the pocket that had given Brady latitude for big plays to Moss and Welker now collapsing in around him. Overall, before it came down to just over two minutes in the quarter, the game had the sensation of the end of a marathon, with the leader flagging and a challenger putting on a final burst of speed.
But all of that was bumped from the forefront of the New England fan mind by what would happen at the tail end of the fourth quarter, with the Patriots still leading and a 4th and 2 with the ball on the 28 yard line. A 4th and 2 that will live in infamy.
They took a time out. That's the first, most inexplicable thing. Regardless of what they planned to do, why give the defense a chance to set up?
Then they came back to the line. I thought they might be trying to draw the Colts off-side, and then they would punt. And then, unbelievably, Tom Brady was snapping the ball.
If you were going to go for it on fourth and two on your own 28 up by less than a touchdown, why not fake a punt? This game was so bad I fell off the wagon vis a vis sports talk radio this morning, and on Dennis and Callahan they raised the good point that a punt in that situation was so expected a fake punt might have worked well.
But that's not what they did. Instead, Brady lobbed a short pass to Kevin Faulk, who bobbled it as he came down, causing the referees to mark it down where he'd fallen rather than his forward progress--in other words, they marked it short of the first down. And really, at that point, everyone watching knew that was the ball game.
The same New England defense that had been subliminally snubbed on that fourth-down play, the same New England defense Peyton Manning had begun carving up on his last two drives like a Thanksgiving turkey, now faced the Colts starting at the New England 28. This was not the goal line stand of 2005, that much was obvious going in.
Even so, at the time I thought the fourth and 2 had been a kind of reprise of the game against the Denver Broncos where Belichick had allowed them to score a safety with a long snap off the goalpost so that the Patriots would get the ball back. Except once the Colts took over on downs, the Patriots obliged in chewing up the clock by attempting to stop them, which ultimately didn't work, and left them with 13 seconds to make a Hail Mary attempt to salvage the game.
And again, another inexplicable decision, and this time it's difficult to tell whose it was, but when the Colts kicked off, the Patriots ran it out instead of letting it go in the end zone and stopping the clock. Instead of the full 13 seconds to take a Hail Mary shot, the Pats were left with 9 seconds, stayed in bounds, and watched time run out with the ball in their hands.
This was one of those mornings as a fan when you wake up and don't even have those few blissful seconds of forgetting exactly why you feel like you've been hit by a truck. This was the kind of morning where it's right there, right in your face, instantaneously.
It reminds me in feeling of the Super Bowl against the Giants, which was both better and worse, depending on your perspective. The Patriots lost that game fair and square by being outplayed rather than the worst coaching decision New England has seen since Grady Little, but then again, it was the Super Bowl and ruined the perfect season. Pick your poison -- the feeling looking back on both games, like staring into the sun and being gutpunched at the same time, is the same.