By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 21, 2007

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INDIANAPOLIS -- So this is what the other side feels like.

For the first 25:28 of the game, the Patriots did absolutely everything they needed to do to defeat the Colts and make it to Super Bowl XLI. Leading 21-3 towards the end of the first half, the Patriots went back to their soft defense which led to the two losses in Foxborough over the past two seasons, and Peyton Manning was able to take full advantage of it. Like the 2003 regular season barnburner here at the RCA Dome, when the Patriots squandered a 31-10 lead, the Patriots squandered this lead and the Colts had Miami dead set in their sights.

In the end, Tom Brady was asked to drive the Patriots 79 yards in 54 seconds with two timeouts. He made it as far as the Colts' 45, before Marlin Jackson stepped in front of Ben Watson and made the interception, sending the Colts to their first Super Bowl in 36 years. The Colts hung on for dear life, winning 38-34, sending the Patriots to their first AFC Championship Game loss in franchise history.

What should have been a Patriot blowout instead turned into a riveting battle, but a battle the Patriots could not withstand. Their defense, which played so well in the first half, wilted in the second half as players either came out hurting, cramping, tiring, or a combination of all three. The Colts riddled the Patriots with 32 second half points, and scored on six of their last eight possessions, not counting the final kneeldown. Manning was finally able to find receivers he couldn't find in the early going, and when he was finally able, it was like when opponents would come into Boston Garden to play the Celtics in May in a hot and humid building. The Patriots simply got gassed.

One single play turned the momentum in favor of the Colts. With 4:32 to play in the first half, the Patriots were driving on the beleaguered Colts, leading 21-3 and trying to deliver a potential fatal knockout punch. With the ball on the Colt 28, Brady hit Watson with a nine-yard toss towards the left sideline and a Patriot first down. But away from the play, Troy Brown pushed off on Jason David in making an in-cut, and was flagged for pass interference. Watson was called for illegal motion on the next play, and Brady wound up being sacked by Raheem Brock at the 49. So, first and ten at the 19 became fourth and 27 at the 49. The Patriots punted, and it was all Colts from that moment on.

Manning got the ball at his own 12, and cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs, who had been playing the receivers tight up to that point and had been succeeding, let up and started playing ten yards off, as if to hold Indianapolis to a field goal and run the clock out. It did go to third and ten at the 12, but the catalyst for the Colts was an 18-yard pass to Reggie Wayne, a square-out pattern with Ray Mickens in coverage, not Hobbs. This right here explains that the Patriots had zoned up on the Colts, hoping to at least give up only a field goal, questionable strategy since the Colts were dead and buried up to that point. Switching to a soft zone let the Colts back into the game, and it would cost the Patriots their season.

Manning led the Colts on a 15-play, 80-yard drive, which Adam Vinatieri finished with a 26-yard field goal to make it 21-6 Patriots at the half. But the Colts got the ball to start the second half, and Manning started it off right with two 76-yard touchdown drives, one 14 plays and one six plays. These drives were sandwiched around a three-and-out for the Patriots, begun with Brady lofting a high pass out of bounds on first down seemingly right after he took the snap. Manning sneaked it in from one yard out for the first touchdown, and former Patriot Dan Klecko hauled in a one-yard pass, with Marvin Harrison catching a pass for a two-point conversion to tie the contest at 21.

At this point, the Patriot defense was completely spent. They had been out there for all but 1:05 of the first 11:11 of the third quarter. Players were being treated for cramping, while players like Eric Alexander, Mike Wright and Rashad Baker were being asked to make varsity level plays with a conference championship on the line.

Being the champion Brady is, he held the Patriots together and stood toe to toe with Manning and his offensive juggernaut. He would toss a six-yard touchdown pass to Jabar Gaffney on a play where Kelvin Hayden was called for a pushout. But Manning answered back with a 7-play, 67-yard drive and a one-yard run by Dominic Rhodes, a play on which center Jeff Saturday fell on Rhodes' fumble for the TD. After an exchange of punts, the Patriots drove to the Colt 18. A drop by Reche Caldwell in the right flat, the second such drop he suffered when he was wide open, helped the Patriots settle for a 28-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. But a 52-yard pass to Dallas Clark set up Vinatieri from 36. It was 31-31 with 5:31 to go.

Needing to run clock, the Patriots eschewed featuring Corey Dillon and instead kept trying to attack through the air, thanks to another nifty kickoff return by Hobbs (who had an 80-yarder earlier and a 36.7 yard average). But the Patriots could move only 29 yards and kill 1:42. Gostkowski nailed a 43-yarder, and the Patriots had a 34-31 lead with 3:49 to go.

Incredibly, the Patriots held the Colts to three and out and got the ball back at their own 40, with 3:22 to kill and the Colts with only two timeouts. Seemingly with the Colts where they wanted them, Heath Evans was called for being the 12th man in the huddle before the drive even started, and the Patriots went three and out with zero runs from Dillon. The Colts got the ball back at their 20 with 2:17 to go.

Naturally, everyone is thinking about Vinatieri. What they weren't thinking about was an unknown receiver named Bryan Fletcher, who caught a 32-yard pass with Alexander providing lousy coverage. This led not to a Vinatieri field goal, but instead a Joseph Addai touchdown, a three-yard run up the middle through a gaping hole in the line. It was 38-34 Colts, their first lead of the game. But Brady had 54 seconds and all three timeouts, and he had to take the Patriots 79 yards for a game-winning score.

He made it to the Indianapolis 45. With 24 seconds left, he tried to hit Watson over the middle, but Jackson closed on the ball and snatched it just before it got to Watson at the 35. Unlike Marlon McCree, he fell down at the 41 as the RCA Dome exploded in celebration.

The Patriots had built their 21-3 lead on a stifling defense and a good run attack. Logan Mankins recovered a botched handoff to Laurence Maroney in the end zone to give the Patriots an early 7-0 lead. It was 14-3 after Dillon literally walked in from seven yards out, and two plays later Asante Samuel stepped in front of Harrison and returned an interception 39 yards for a score to make it 21-3 Patriots in the second quarter.

But that was it for Patriot domination. The Patriots let the Colts back in the game, and it cost them a world championship. The Colts should have no problem with the Bears in the Super Bowl. Manning will finally get his ring, and it will be thanks to finally overcoming the team and players which have dogged him his whole career.

As for the Patriots, there is never shame in getting at least this far. This simply is something Patriot folk aren't used to.

Put it this way. If you felt blasé over the win in Super Bowl XXXIX, shame on you.


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