New England Express - Sports Illustrated Vault |
Publish date:

New England Express

The Patriots marked the season's halfway point by blowing past the Colts late in their showdown to remain perfect. Now it looks as if the Pats have a clear run at history—until the decade's most dominant and evenly matched teams meet again, likely in the AFC title game

KELVIN HAYDEN awokein the middle of the night to the images that haunt defensive backs everywhere.They had already been consuming his mornings and afternoons. Now they wereinterrupting his dreams. The moment he opened his eyes, he saw Randy Moss,Donte' Stallworth and Wes Welker, running patterns at the foot of hisbed.

It was only a game tape, left playing on the television in his bedroom onTuesday night of last week. Hayden, a first-year starting cornerback for theIndianapolis Colts, quickly turned off the TV and went back to sleep. But hewas jolted nonetheless. "Playing the Patriots—it's a crazy week," hesaid. "You catch yourself doing a little more work, studying a little morefilm. I've had to tell myself a few times to relax."

For 50 minutes onSunday the Colts were the No. 1 team in the NFL. But in the final 10, all thoseimages that had disrupted Hayden's sleep sprang to life—Moss, Stallworth andWelker, running with no one to catch them. The New England Patriots wiped awaya 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, secured a 24--20 victory at the RCA Dome andlikely locked up home field advantage through the AFC playoffs. Indianapolis isNo. 1A again.

The prospect of anundefeated season, once so distant, suddenly seems very real. At 9--0 thePatriots still have conference dates remaining with the Baltimore Ravens (away)and the Pittsburgh Steelers (home); on Dec. 29 they travel to the Meadowlandsto face the New York Giants. If they're still perfect, the Pats may have todecide whether to rest their starters for the playoffs or use them for the sakeof history.

"I look downthe road, and I just don't see anybody who will beat the Patriots," saysJim Mandich, who played tight end on the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only NFL teamto post a perfect season. "They have distanced themselves from the rest ofthe league in a way that I have not seen in 30 years of watchingfootball."

That kind of soundbite must burn in Indianapolis. The Colts won the Super Bowl last season, wontheir first seven games this season, and all they have heard this year isPatriots, Patriots, Patriots. Now that the two teams have finally played, andthe Colts have lost, they must grind their teeth until the inevitablerematch—tentatively scheduled for the AFC Championship Game in Foxborough onJan. 20.

If there is anyhope for the rest of the AFC, it is that the Patriots at least were not able torun up the score on Indianapolis. They beat the Colts in a way that was morereminiscent of their championship seasons in 2003 and '04—depending on theirdefense, relying on timely draw plays and absolutely owning the fourth quarter.O.K., so maybe there really is no hope for the rest of the AFC. New England hasnow shown it can win in ways big and small. "It's nice knowing we stillremember how to do it," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said after the game.

To hear thePatriots, running up the score two weeks ago against the Washington Redskinswas only a form of preparation for Indianapolis. Coach Bill Belichick wanted tomake sure his team knew how to finish a game with ruthless authority, no matterwhom they might offend. "We've got to play 60 minutes, guys," Bruschigrumbled under his breath on Sunday night, doing his best impression of aBelichick pep talk.

Playoff atmosphereis a term that gets thrown around loosely in pro sports, but it applied in thiscase. Never before had two undefeated teams met so late in an NFL season. Andrarely had a defending champion with no losses been listed as an underdog athome. (The last team to suffer such ignominy was New England in the 2002 openeragainst Pittsburgh.) Super Bowl XLI 1/2, as it was called, had only slightlyless buildup than an actual Super Bowl—and significantly more suspense. Withnine minutes left in the game, the Colts led by 10 points, and Tom Brady wasdropping back on feet of clay. He had thrown two interceptions—matching hisprevious total for the season—and his team had scored only one touchdown. TheColts had reason to be cocky. "We were money," said cornerback TimJennings.

But anyone who hasfollowed the NFL even casually over the past six years could predict what wouldhappen next. Brady has staged far more difficult comebacks in his career, withfar lesser receivers. He lofted a 55-yard rainbow to Moss, setting up athree-yard TD pass to Welker. The tension filling the RCA Dome had a familiartexture.

In this rivalry itis better to be losing when there's still time on the clock. Last season, inthe AFC title game at the RCA Dome, Indy trailed New England by 18 in thesecond quarter. The Colts played free the rest of the way, the Pats playedtight; Indy won. Again on Sunday the lead was a burden. When the Colts gaveBrady the ball back late in the fourth quarter, after Welker's score had pulledNew England to within three, they were essentially handing Brady the game. Heonly needed 47 seconds to drive for the winning touchdown, the key play a33-yard go route to Stallworth.

"We didn't giveCoach 60 good minutes like he wanted," Stallworth said in the locker room."We gave him six or seven good minutes. But they were at the righttime."

It took three newreceivers—Moss, Stallworth and Welker—to restore a favorite New Englandtradition: Brady besting Peyton Manning. Brady completed more passes thanManning (21 to 16) for more yards (255 to 225) and more touchdowns (three toone). Most important, Brady also won the game, for the first time in the lastfour tries. "There was never really any loss of confidence ordetermination," Brady said.

Early in the weekIndianapolis coach Tony Dungy had compared the Colts to Joe Frazier and thePatriots to Muhammad Ali. The analogy, while apt, might not have resonated withthe Ultimate Fighting generation. The Colts' down-goes-Frazier moment came ontheir final possession, when Manning was wrapped up by defensive end JarvisGreen and fumbled into the arms of linebacker Rosevelt Colvin.

A small corner ofthe stadium erupted. Colvin grew up in Indy and worked concessions at thestadium back when it was the Hoosier Dome. He made cotton candy during Coltsgames, spinning his confections and then slipping away to watch a few downs.Asked after Sunday's game if he planned to sample some of his old product,Colvin said, "I'm going to get me some right now." He wasn't joking. Onthe way to the Patriots' bus, Colvin was carrying a plastic bag full of pink,green and baby-blue cotton candy, nourishment for a sweet ride home. He raisedthe bag as if it was a trophy.

While New Englandnow gets a week off—or rather, the NFL gets a week off from NewEngland—Indianapolis will be tested again at San Diego. The Colts are the onlyteam that really understands the scrutiny the Patriots are about to face. Andthey are not entirely envious. Two years ago they started 13--0, with the '72Dolphins looming over them. Once the Colts lost, they lost again. Then theylost their first playoff game. "Sometimes it can be good for you to loseearly," said Indy safety Bob Sanders.

At 7--1 the Coltsfigure they will be forgotten until January and then dismissed as easy playofffodder in Foxborough. But they showed on Sunday that they are superior to thePatriots in at least one area, which happens to be pretty important when itcomes to cold-weather playoff games: They have one of the most dynamic runningbacks in the NFL.

Joseph Addai isfrom Houston, one of the few cities in the U.S. that didn't get thePatriots-Colts broadcast. But he made plenty of the in-game highlights. Hefinished with 226 all-purpose yards, including a 73-yard TD reception at theend of the first half, when the Colts were trying to run out the clock andAddai declined to step out-of-bounds.

Should New Englandand Indianapolis play again this season, such details will grow insignificance. The Patriots will have to do a better job against Addai, findmore offense in the first half and contend with All-Pro receiver MarvinHarrison, who sat out Sunday with a bum knee. Even though the Patriots won thistime, Indianapolis may still be the most likely candidate to keep them from anundefeated season.

In other words,Super Bowl XLI3/4 could be even bigger.

O.K., so maybe there really is NO HOPE for the rest ofthe AFC. New England has now shown it can win in ways big and small.


Pursuing Perfection

Can the Patriots go undefeated? SI's NFL experts weighin on the chances.



Photograph by John Biever

SPREADING THE WEALTH After the new guys—Moss, Welker and Stallworth—did their part in the comeback, Brady found Faulk (33) for the winning score.



LATE SHOW The Colts brought more heat than Brady had seen this season, but he stayed cool and owned the fourth quarter.



CATCH YOU LATER Addai's elusiveness offered a glimpse of how the Patriots might be defeated come the postseason.