By: Bob George/
November 07, 2005

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FOXBOROUGH -- So, this is the real Peyton Manning?

The way things were going out there on Monday night, you and I could throw on the Patriot secondary. Even when Duane Starks was mercifully replaced by Randall Gay, giving the Patriots the same cornerback tandem which held Indianapolis to three points in January, the Patriots simply did not have the material to stop the Colts this time. The Colts punted only once during the entire game, and Manning threw a second quarter interception. Other than that, the Patriot defense simply had no answers for Manning and the Colt offense.

And thus, Indianapolis comes into their den of personal Hell and finally laid a sticking on the two-time champions, 40-21. All the plays that the Patriots were able to stop in the past, they were not able to Monday night. Manning simply showed the Patriots what happens when you cannot put the adequate material out there to stop him. All the coaching smarts of Bill Belichick simply could not stem the tide. It's like the levees in New Orleans breaching. When the breach happens, you can't stop the water from coming.

Indianapolis came out right from the get-go and unloaded on the Patriots. On the game's second play, Marvin Harrison scooted downfield right past Asante Samuel and hauled in a 48-yard pass. Three plays later, Harrison beat Samuel again, this time on a fade pattern to the right corner of the end zone. It was 7-0 Colts with only two and a half minutes gone in the game.

Tom Brady came back and did exactly what he had to do to give the Patriots their one chance to win this game, if only for this one drive. The Patriots took over on their 31, then drove 69 yards for a touchdown while chewing up nearly six minutes of game clock. What the Patriots needed to do all game long was, given the Colts never needing to punt the ball, to score touchdowns as much as possible against a defense which they could make hay against. In other words, Brady needed to be perfect, which fortunately he can be.

Indianapolis came charging right back, and regained the lead with a Patriot-esque drive that took 17 plays and just over nine minutes. The Colts converted one fourth down and three third downs along the way. Edgerrin James finished things off with a two-yard run to make it 14-7 Colts.

The Patriots had a golden opportunity to change the complexion of this game during a key stretch in the second quarter. After being stopped three and out, Manning drove the Colts to his own 38 before firing a pass over the middle with Ty Warren bearing down on him. Mike Vrabel picked off the pass, and the Patriots took over near midfield and in a great position to tie the game.

After moving to the Colt 17, Brady handed off to Dillon up the middle. Bob Sanders smacked Dillon, who failed to put the ball away, and Dillon coughed the ball up. Jason David recovered at the 27, and Manning took the rest of the first half driving towards another touchdown, a ten-yard fade pass to Reggie Wayne in the left corner of the end zone, making a juggling catch with Starks watching helplessly. It was 21-7 Colts at the half. Of the six touchdowns the Colts scored tonight, four were on fade passes.

And so on it went into the second half. The Patriots went three and out in 26 seconds, the Colts came back with another touchdown scoring drive to knock out the Patriots. Eleven plays, 5:55, a four-yard run by Dominic Rhodes to cap it off. It was 28-7 Colts, and pretty much everything after that was same old same old. Colts convert on third down time and time again (12 of 17 for the game), receivers wide open (Harrison and Wayne had 128 and 124 receiving yards respectively), James running up the gut (104 yards rushing), all of it added up to an offensive juggernaut (453 total team yards) the Patriots simply could not stop.

So, how did Indianapolis finally get it done this time? You can't say "If only we had Ty Law”, because he wasn't there in January. You can't say "If only we had Richard Seymour”, because he wasn't there either. How was Indianapolis finally able to stick it to the Patriots this time when they weren't able to do it before?

It looks like the Patriots really miss Rodney Harrison more than anyone else. Harrison's style of play seems to set the tone for the defense, especially in the secondary. You don't see defensive backs flying to the receivers like in past games. You don't see the physical edge the Patriots usually have against the Colts. You don't see Manning standing there in the pocket, wondering who to throw to, and grounding the ball (legally) in frustration, when he isn't throwing a pick.

The way to beat Manning is to punish his receivers, not blitz Manning. Without Harrison there, you don't see the punishing. When Gay came into the game in the second half to spell Starks, it helped only a little bit. But Gay and Samuel, who were able to lay the wood to the Colt receivers in January, were nowhere near as effective Monday night as they were in January.

Could the coaching be better? In this case, perhaps, but one has to wonder how far smarts can go. The Patriots have perhaps finally reached their injury limit. Belichick has been able in the past to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but in this case the sow might just be too fat and ugly to do anything with. One guy who might ultimately have to answer for all this is Eric Mangini, the new defensive coordinator, and why his defensive schemes aren't working. If Gay is indeed back for the long term, he and Samuel might just stabilize the cornerbacks. But not having a viable strong safety is perhaps too much for any scheme to overcome.

And so, the Colts finally get the Patriot monkey off their back. The Colts took it to the Patriots hard and deserved to win. But all these Patriots were missing from that 20-3 win in January was Rodney Harrison. Maybe this reveals the strong safety as the key position in the Patriot defense, rather than middle linebacker or nose tackle.

The Patriots can take some comfort in that their schedule gets far, far easier as the season wears on. The Patriots can still win their division, and the rest of the conference has no dominant teams so as to rule out a two seed for the Patriots down the road. But if the Patriots cannot stabilize the strong safety position in time, all the Patriots can hope for is to win the division and go home early in the playoffs.

As for the Colts, they now know how the 2004 Red Sox feel.