How the Colts managed to lose this game 28-31 is really hard to figure out. Sure, there have been Colts-Patriots showdowns in the past that have gone down to the wire, amazing comebacks, and memorable last minute drives. In some regards, it would make more sense for fans to expect that kind of situation each season.
The difference in this game is that heading into the contest there was a strong sense that the Patriots were the steady favorites. As the game got underway, it was really clear that the Colts were going to struggle to have any balance offensively and that the Patriots offense was going to have its way against a defense that could too easily be manipulated, made porous, or have its weaker players regularly exploited.
Midway through the third quarter, there was very little life left in a lot of Colts fans who were embarrassed and frustrated, but coming to terms with the fact that the game cast heavy doubt on the team’s future against legitimate opponents, and possibly even on its playoff chances. No, not because the game would cost the Colts the division, but because the team was playing against one of the best teams in the AFC and was getting pounded relentlessly.
Then something magical happened and the Colts started to turn things around. The Patriots offense started to misfire and sputter. The Colts defense managed to slow down the machine and get the ball back to Peyton Manning. Manning leaned heavily on players like Reggie Wayne and undrafted rookie free agent Blair White. The run game started working. The Colts were right back in it.
Just as fast as the whole turnaround occurred, the ride was over. What is fascinating about the end of the game is that Colts fans, who had no earthly business feeling robbed of a victory after that game, come away thinking that not only could the Colts have won, not only can the Colts compete with the best teams in the NFL, but that the Colts had the game in their hands with less than a minute to play, two timeouts, and the best possible quarterback in the league at leading game-winning two minute drives on the field against the Patriots.
The biggest trick of the night may be that Manning should carry such a heavy portion of the responsibility for the loss. None of his interceptions in this contest are really “excusable” in the way Colts fans would like them to be. The interception in the first quarter was an overthrow to Blair White that was really not even close, there was no way White could make a play on the ball. The interception late in the third quarter was a result of a mis-communication between Manning and Pierre Garcon, and believe it or not, Garcon is the one who read the play correctly and who was where he should have been.
The final interception made no sense at all. Sure, some blame belongs to Ryan Diem for allowing pressure from Manning’s right side, but the fact is that the Colts had more than 40 seconds to play, two timeouts, were already in field goal range, and were on first down. The pass was forced into an area of the field with three defenders and two potential receivers, was no where close to either of those receivers, and the smart play would be to throw the ball away if there wasn’t a sure thing in that situation. Manning knows this and has played a very intelligent career, smartly protecting the ball and not turning it over, particularly during times like those, but he did it anyway.
Don’t get me wrong, without Manning the Colts would not have even been in the game. His four touchdowns and nearly 400 yards of passing played a huge role to keep the Colts in it and nearly stole another game in this storied rivalry. It was because of Manning that the huddled masses in Foxborough were almost silent as their team punted the ball away to #18 for a potential last minute game-saving drive. They had seen it too many times before, but in many ways the wolf that scared them bailed them out when it mattered.
Outside of Manning, the Colts were really unable to do what they wanted to do in just about any aspect of the game for the better part of three quarters. The offensive line was getting dominated at the point of attack during any attempts to get the run game going. Donald Brown had little room to run but continues to draw harsh criticism from much of the Colts fanbase for getting tackled too easily, not keeping his legs driving, and generally not playing up to his draft position. Pierre Garcon and Jacob Tamme had their share of frustrating drops.
The Colts passing defense looked like one of the most inviting zone coverage schemes the Patriots could ever request. Large holes presented themselves all over the field. Kelvin Hayden and Jerraud Powers played with so much cushion that Brady and the Patriots offense just took what the Colts were willing to give them. Each drive was a march down the field with quick passing patterns, drawing the defense up and to the outside of the field only to run Danny Woodhead or Benjarvus Green-Ellis right at the cornerbacks who were on their heels much of the game, even though they were given very little reason to be afraid of the long ball.
The defense’s tackling woes continued. Aaron Francisco either missed tackles, failed to take appropriate angles, stood in cement, or played on-field spectator on too many occasions. On Woodhead’s critical touchdown late in the third quarter Francisco stood motionless staring him down as he made a cut for the sideline and completed a 36 yard touchdown run. There is no excuse for that. Colts fans must have thought to themselves, would Bob Sanders or Melvin Bullitt really have allowed that to happen?
The game still leaves a lot of question-marks. It is unclear whether the Colts will be able to survive their late stretch of games with a good enough record to get into the playoffs. It is unclear whether the Colts will be healthy enough to return to the dominant form of football they have displayed on occasion earlier in the year. What is clear, it seems, is that the NFL has no real dominant teams right now and that the Colts can play with anyone and have a real chance to win.
In the end, the Colts and fans in Indianapolis walk away with a bad taste in their mouths and a lot more questions than answers. For those fans who quit watching early, expect dialogue similar to this: “The Colts should have won that game. WHAT?!? Yeah… I know… crazy… but they should have.”