By: Bob George/
November 02, 2008

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INDIANAPOLIS -- You knew the depleted defensive back corps would have a tough time with Peyton Manning.

But when they write the epitaph of this 18-15 loss by the Patriots to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, it will come down to a very questionable personal foul call on David Thomas. The penalty killed off a potential scoring drive by the Patriots which was certain to at least tie the game or perhaps give them a 4-point lead with about three minutes left in the game, forcing Manning to answer with a touchdown.

Matt Cassel looked very good on the national stage, a terrific audition for the free agent-to-be if Tom Brady comes back to reclaim his job next year. The Patriots found ways to move the ball well through the Colt defense, and a game which favoured the Colts in so many ways was another tough battle between these two AFC superpowers who are smarting from injuries in 2008.

Except that an official's bad call decided this game. True, the Patriots defended the pass poorly overall, as Manning ran a lot of pick plays which the defensive backs were powerless to stop. But the penalty on Thomas turned out to be a backbreaker, and it was the mother of all ticky-tack calls at the worst possible time for the Patriots.

The Patriots had gone seven quarters without getting a penalty until Nick Kaczur was called for a false start early in the third quarter, but that proved inconsequential. On the 52-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri which turned out to be the game-winner in the fourth quarter, Adalius Thomas lined up over center illegally, but the penalty was refused. The Patriots got the ball back with 8:05 left in the game, and out of timeouts thanks in part to lost challenges by Bill Belichick (and the third that the head coach took robbed the Patriots of a first and goal at the six, forcing a field goal attempt just prior to Vinatieri's winning FG).

Taking over at their own 19, Cassel hit Randy Moss for 13 yards up the left side, then finally made a quick screen work as Wes Welker caught one for eight yards up the right side. BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran four yards for a first down at the Patriot 40, then Thomas caught a 16-yard strike over the middle, putting the Patriots into Colt territory. On first down, Kevin Faulk ran for eight yards, setting up second down and 2 from the Colt 32. Green-Ellis ran for a yard and it was third down and one.

When the play was over, a flag was thrown. Thomas was nailed for a late hit on Robert Mathis. Replay showed that the hit was barely after the whistle blew, and there was no way Thomas could have stopped his momentum. Because the play was over when the foul took place, the down counted and the Patriots were now stuck with third down and 16 at the Colt 46. Cassel tried to dump one off to Faulk over the middle but he was stopped right away by Antoine Bethea. On fourth down, out of timeouts, Belichick decided to go for it, and Cassel heaved one deep right. Bob Sanders intercepted a ball he should have dropped on purpose, but at the 25 it turned out to be like a punt anyway.

With 3:54 left and the Patriots out of timeouts, the Patriots faced the daunting task of needing to stop Manning on three-and-out. No such luck, as on the second play Manning hit a wide-open Anthony Gonzalez in the right flat for 14 yards. By the time the Patriots did get the ball back, there were only 29 seconds and not enough time to do anything at all. Two long incompletions and a fumble on a lateral attempt by Moss ended the game.

In reality, the game ended on the bad call on Thomas. The Patriots had found the right offensive mix against the Colts, moving the ball well, especially in the second half. The first two Patriot drives were both 15 plays, eating up 7:48 and 6:39 respectively. Green-Ellis capped off the first drive with a touchdown to make it 12-7 Patriots (the Patriots went for two and came up just short on a Faulk run out of the shotgun). The second drive resulted in a 25-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski to tie the game at 15, the field goal attempt coming because Belichick called a time out just before the Patriots went for it on fourth and one at the Colt 7 and made it. The time out wiped out the play, and the Patriots took the field goal instead of a potential touchdown to give them the lead back.

All game long, the Patriot struggled to defend the pass. Manning was 21 of 29 for 254 yards and two touchdowns, both to Gonzalez, and both on identical plays. The Colts' second offensive possession of the game was a 15-play, 91-yard drive which featured quick slants to Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne. Wayne and Gonzalez would often line up next to each other on the right side, then Wayne would run a pick left for Gonzalez, who would run right behind Wayne and be wide open. The Colts got their first touchdown just this way, as both Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite were confused on the play and Gonzalez hauled in a 12-yard pass to make it 7-0 Colts.

The Patriots were able to hold the Colts off the scoreboard for the rest of the first half, but it was more thanks to conservative play calling by Tom Moore than anything else. The first drive of the second quarter featured nothing but runs by Joseph Addai. The Patriots caught a break on the final drive of the first half, as Wayne and Marvin Harrison worked slant routes to perfection against a prevent zone defense, but Manning snapped the ball too early on a spike with one second left, and the ten-second runoff ended the half with the Colts enjoying a 7-6 edge.

The Colts only had the ball three times in the second half, and scored on the first two of them to put the game away. Clark and Wayne ran slant routes for 18, 11 and 14 yards respectively, and facing third and goal at the nine, Mike Richardson was burned on the same pick play as in the first quarter. Gonzalez caught a touchdown pass to make it 13-12 (Manning hit Wayne with a bullet at the back of the end zone for a 2-point conversion to make it 15-12).

On the game-winning drive, Clark began by catching a left flat pass, but a missed tackle by James Sanders turned the short gain into a 20-yard play. Three plays later, Gonzalez got the Colts into field goal range by catching a 24-yard pass on a curl route with Brandon Meriweather getting burned in coverage. The 52-yard bomb by Vinatieri was his first field goal of the season from beyond 50.

The Colt passing attack was well balanced. Wayne caught five passes for 65 yards, Clark was 4 for 63 yards, Gonzalez was 4 for 55 yards, and Harrison was 4 for 50 yards. The Patriots were able to contain Addai, as he gained only 32 yards on 17 carries. But Manning was able to run his entire passing game. The Patriots put little pressure on Manning all game long (no sacks in the entire game for either team), as the Patriots opted to try and cover the receivers more than to attack Manning, a strategy most teams employ if they don't have super speed rushers.

The Patriots have nothing to be ashamed of offensively. Cassel was 25 of 34 for 204 yards. Faulk and Green-Ellis combined for 25 carries and 117 yards rushing. Cassel himself rushed five times for 20 yards. Welker had seven catches, Moss six and Faulk five. Gostkowski was perfect on all three field goal attempts.

But the Patriots will wonder about this game, which partly they let get away and partly were burned by that bad call on Thomas. The Colts needed the game more, and the Patriots are still tied for first. But this was a game the Patriots could have, and should have, stolen.

And once again, this much is clear. The Patriots will go as far as their secondary will take them, not Cassel.