DING! DING! DING!
On the game's final drive, I was sure that one of two things would happen. Either the Colts were scoring another touchdown and ending the game, or somebody on the Patriots' defense was going to have to come up with the big play to force a turnover. Just like last season, where Bill Belichick infamously chose to go for it on 4th and 2, the Patriots' defense was completely gassed and getting picked to shreds by Peyton Manning. With the Colts possessing plenty of time, three time outs, and four downs to work with, there was simply no way the Patriots were going to prevent Manning's inevitable march down the field using conventional means. There would be no surrender on Indianapolis' part due to downs. If the Patriots were going to win this game, somebody needed to step up and rip the ball away from the Colts.
Enter James Sanders, whose game-winning interception was greatly aided by a nice pass rush created by Jermaine Cunningham. Sanders pick put the exclamation mark on what was, until the fourth quarter, a dominat Patriots' performance. Yes, the Patriots were fortunate to walk away the victors by the time the sixtieth minute ticked off the clock, but looking at the entire picture, the better team clearly won tonight. For the better part of three and a half quarters, the Patriots offense had their way with Indy's defense. A strong ground game by BJGE and Danny Woodhead, opens up all sorts of opportunities for the New England aerial attack via play-action. On the other side of the ball, the defense was stuffing the run like a Thanksgiving turkey and coming up with some big-time INT's against the game's most cerebral quarterback.
As the fourth quarter rolled around, with the Jets' ridiculous win over Houston (their third straight bail-out game in a row vs. teams with a combined 9-21 record), and the Falcons seeming to have some trouble with the Rams, the Patriots appeared to stand alone as the league's top team, holding a 31-14 lead over the Colts. Then Jim Nantz decided to put a hex on us by reminding everyone that Indianapolis came back from the very same score in last year's debacle. At that very moment, the collective psyche of the Patriots Nation shattered. As much as we told ourselve, "nah, that was a different team" and "it can't possibly happen again", there we were, watching the horrific replay. New England stalled out on consecutive drives, leaving plenty of time for the Colts to score one touchdown, and then a second touchdown, and then...
This win was a huge win. Yes, all wins over the Colts are huge in their own right, and if you care about things like Tom Brady tying Brett Favre's consecutive regular season wins at home record, that's icing on the cake. But when you look at what this 8-2 Patriots team has accomplished - taking down Miami, San Diego, and Pittsburgh on the road, and notching two big home wins against Baltimore and Indy, it really puts things in perspective. By comparison, the Jets have beaten Miami, and they did beat the Patriots, which merits mentioning. However, you look at the other good teams that they've played... Baltimore, loss. Green Bay, shut-out. The rest of those six wins were against Buffalo, Minnesota, Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, and Houston. Color me unimpressed. In five of those six wins, they won because Brett Favre missed a wide open receiver and because the refs bailed them out with pass interference in Denver. A rookie D-Lineman shanked a field goal in Detroit to open the door for the Jet's comeback against the Lions. Two weeks ago, there were a multitude of plays in which Cleveland handed New York the game in overtime, and then there was today's meltdown in the final seconds by Houston, which caused Jim Nantz to say of the Texans, "That team is just a disaster." Seriously, when do you hear commentary like that from a play-by-play announcer? It was that bad.
I know that it's very un-Patriot-like to focus on the other team's in the league instead of just focusing on what this team is doing, but right now there's two 8-2 teams in the AFC. One of them got there by beating the best teams this league has to throw at them. The other is the beneficiary of a blooper reel of ineptitude by their bottom-feeding opponents. Tomorrow morning, the pundits will have you believe otherwise, but in my mind, and in the mind of anybody who's actually looked closely at either of these two teams, there's no question that the Patriots are the class of the AFC East, and the NFL.
They may have escaped by the skin of their teeth, but the bottom line is that the Patriots made that interception happen. There was no luck involved. There was no ghastly mistake by the opposition. There was no egregious call by the referees. They earned it. And while a lot of attention might be paid to the young defense for "blowing" a 17-point lead, they didn't get a whole lot of help down the stretch. For starters, let's not forget why the Patriots' offensive drive stalled out when they were up 31-21. On a critical 3rd and 6, Deion Branch got absolutely mugged by the defender and no flag was thrown. Were it not for the interference, the Patriots would have had a 1st down and continued to eat up the clock and changed the course of the 4th quarter. Instead, the refs turned a blind eye and gave Indy back the ball with plenty of time to work. It's far too easy to get down on the defense for almost blowing the game. However, I look at the bad hand they were dealt by the refs and their own offense, and I can't fault them too much. Instead, I'll chose to hang my hat on the fact that when crunch time came around, the Patriots young defense overcame their circumstances and willed themselves to victory.
And with Inday in the rearview, now it's time to take care of the Lions. T-minus 89 hours, from the end of tonight's game until the kickoff on Thursday. If you think that one is going to be a cake-walk, you've got another thing coming. It's a road game, being played at a weird time, on a short week, against a young and hungry team. It has all the potential in the world to be the Cleveland Fail 2.0. If the Patriots feast on some humble pie on Thanksgiving and get the job done, they will then have the opportunity they've been waiting eleven long weeks for. A potential battle between two 9-2 teams, with the AFC East crown and a playoff bye-week on the line. The loser? Well, they can all but pencil themselves in for the 5th seed and a road game in the wild-card round. Yup, the next 15 days are shaping up to be really interesting. There's not much in this league that you can count on, but I can guarantee you this - on Monday, December 6th, the New York Jets luck, will have officially run out.