FOXBOROUGH -- Tom Brady threw a pick at home. Yikes.
Mike VanDerJagt missed a late game-tying field goal. Double yikes.
The first one was actually Daniel Graham's fault for running the wrong pattern. But the second was brought about by a key sack by Willie McGinest, and the All-Pro Colt kicker had his celebrated string of 42 straight made field goals snapped at the most inopportune time from a Colt standpoint. The missed field goal, which VanDerJagt pushed wide right, allowed the Patriots to escape with a wild 27-24 win over Indianapolis in a rematch of the 2003 AFC Championship Game to kick off the 2004 NFL regular season. It was a shocking finish to a game which featured several shockers all evening long, many of which took place in the final quarter.
Despite the interception, Brady enjoyed a fantastic evening which once again got his kisser posted on some horse trailer. He completed 26 of 38 passes for 335 yards and three touchdowns to three different receivers. He withstood a heavy pass rush all game long, and still managed to wriggle free on most every occasion and find his targets. He once again exhibited the trademark cool which makes him the best quarterback in the league, in a game where he once again was pitted against the most celebrated quarterback in the league.
To his credit, Peyton Manning had a good game and looked like he does against the rest of the league. He hit on 16 of 29 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns, and like Brady, suffered one interception. Brady merely outplayed Manning in this game, but in this case it was not so much a slamdunk like in January.
What did the Colts in, other than VanDerJagt's miss, was an astonishing three turnovers in the red zone. Manning's pick was at the goal line which ended the opening drive by the Colts, a play where Tedy Bruschi made a nice diving catch but miraculously did not return it for a touchdown (if he had it would have gone for 99 yards). Edgerrin James, who finished with 142 total yards rushing, suffered two fumbles inside the Patriot 20, one of them being at the one yard line late in the fourth quarter.
What nearly did the Patriots in was the running game, on both sides of the ball. The Colts scored a touchdown on a second quarter nine-play drive, all of them runs by James and Dominic Rhodes. James and Rhodes combined for 184 yards, making Patriot Nation wonder if the bad old days of 2002 are back in this title defense year. Meanwhile, with a three-point lead and the Colts down to one timeout coming down the stretch, the Patriots refused to pound Corey Dillon at the Colts and run down the clock. The last two Patriot drives (not counting the final kneeldown) ended in an interception and a sack of Brady, when the Patriots had a chance to get first downs and run out the clock.
In the end, the champs outlasted the almost-champs, and did more things to win the game than the Colts did. The defense, despite getting gored by the Colt running backs, made the plays they had to and should be commended for inducing all those key turnovers. Brady was simply being Brady, and once again was able to pull off what Manning can't seem to do.
Brady had his string of 264 straight passes at home come to an end with a fourth quarter interception by Nick Harper. Graham ran a 20-yard pattern which required him to slant out to the left. But Graham slanted in to the right just as Brady released the ball. Nobody in blue was near Harper when he made the interception. The biggest problem with this play was that the Patriots were in a third and eleven following an incompletion to Bethel Johnson and a failed right end run by Dillon.
The play of the Patriot nose tackles is going to be looked at closely by Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel, as well as the rest of the league. For most of the game, Keith Traylor looked overmatched and out of position and was bested by Colt center Jeff Saturday, who much of the game pushed Traylor aside and let James and Rhodes work off him. Vince Wilfork, who recovered the fourth quarter James fumble at the Patriot one, saw some time at end. The nose tackle position remains a major question mark for the Patriots.
Another perplexing matchup problem for the Patriots was Matt Light against Dwight Freeney. Freeney pressured Brady all game long and beat Light for a second quarter sack with a neat spin move. Light has had a history of trouble with speed rushers, and it is puzzling why Light didn't receive more help from a tight end. Often times Light was left to block Freeney one on one.
Dillon came away as advertised, and enjoyed a decent first game as a Patriot. He finished with 86 yards on 15 carries, and averaged a yard per carry better than James (5.7 to 4.7). He ripped off a 38-yard run in the second quarter which ignited a Patriot touchdown drive, and had a tasty fourth quarter ten-yard scamper which he bounced and deked around and off of two would-be tacklers. But with 10:58 left in the game and the Patriots up by three and the Colts with one timeout left, Charlie Weis elected to pass on five of seven plays, the last of which was the Harper pick. Then, with 3:43 left, the Patriots went six and out, with four of the plays calling for the pass. Dillon might have run out the clock had he been featured in the fourth quarter.
The two teams traded mistakes in the fourth quarter. Brady's pick was followed later by a stop by the Patriot defense, only to have Deion Branch fumble the punt away. Manning led the Colts to the Patriot one, but James fumbled the ball back to the Patriots. VanDerJagt completed the parlay with his historic miss. It was a most uncharacteristic show of mistakes by two of the better teams in the league.
Graham may have contributed to Brady's pick, but he had a great game otherwise. He tied Branch for the team lead in pass receptions with seven, and made a touchdown catch in the third quarter which reminded everyone of Ben Coates. With David Thornton draped all over him, Graham hauled in a nice eight-yard scoring grab in a seemingly impossible play. Graham could very well have a breakout season in 2004, and Thursday's game was a nice preview.
This was still another example of the Patriots winning because they are simply better at it than Indianapolis. The Colts played well enough to win, and played a lot better against the Patriots than they are given to do. It simply came down to a team which has won its championships by making just a wee bit more plays than the opposition, and once again the Patriots came out ahead in both big plays and the scoreboard.
The Patriots will be up against opponents all year long who will be tougher on the field than they might be on paper. The Patriots have the history against the Colts, but they got a lot tougher game than they may have expected and won anyway.
And when you can begin your title defense with a win like this against a great opponent like the Colts, it's as great a positive as you can get.
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