New England Patriots come into this game at 5-2, facing a struggling Indianapolis Colts, who desperately need a big victory at 3-4. This game marks Tony Dungy's 200th regular season game as the Colts head coach. The Colts really needed this win to get the players back in a winning mentality. Weather permitted the Colts retractable roof to open up, but they decided to partially close it to keep the noise level up. Joseph Addai, Colts starting running back, comes back after missing the last two games due to injury. BenJarvus Green-Ellis starts at running back for the Patriots, as Laurence Maroney is out for the season with a shoulder injury. It is interesting the way Colts quarter back, Peyton Manning, calls the plays at the line-of-scrimmage, and typically in a no huddle setup. Tom Moore, offensive coordinator, will give Manning a concept to play out, Manning then calls the specific play, and tells his offense at the line. The wide receivers don't come in for the plays, so the guys in the slot will tell them the play that is being run. Manning is one of few quarter backs that could be trusted to run a team's offense in a similar way.
On the other side of the football, as most of America knows, Tom Brady is out for the season, and Matt Cassel is standing in. John Madden explains the difference between Cassel and Brady: "Matt Cassel takes what the defense gives him; Tom Brady was a guy that would take what he wanted."
The Colts got Addai a lot of touches early, to get him back into the flow of the offense. Their opening drive consisted of some hard running from Addai, a nice middle-of-the-field pass to Dallas Clark, and capped with an outside pattern by Anthony Gonzalez, for his first touchdown of the season. Gonzalez was the Colts first pick last season, and is already showing promise as another option for Manning in the slot. His touchdown was the 15th play of a 9-minute opening drive. This was Gonzalez' first TD grab of the game, but he was not done there.
Later in the third quarter, on the Colts' first possession of the second half, Gonzalez has a stellar 8-yard catch for his second TD of the game, which was perfectly placed by Manning just over the hands of the Patriots Mike Richardson. That drive had a couple big plays by Reggie Wayne, and a key pass play to Clark off of a play-action fake. After this TD, the Colts elected to go for two points (to go up 15-12), which they converted off a brilliant catch by Wayne. Wayne held onto the ball even after getting absolutely rocked by the Patriots Brandon Meriweather. After seeing the replay from various angles, I was thoroughly impressed that Wayne held onto the ball - I know I would have dropped it, and most likely shit my pants too.
For their last scoring drive in the fourth quarter, the Colts moved the ball around with some pretty moves, in the open field, from Clark to start the drive. On a crucial 3rd and 9, Gonzalez comes up with a huge 24-yard down the middle, and he took some punishment from another hard hit from Meriweather. Now the Colts were technically in field goal range, and they asked Adam Vinatieri to step up big time. Vinatieri had not made a 50+ yard field goal in his last 91 games (over 6 and a half years in the NFL), and he was going to attempt a 52 yard kick. His make ended up being the game winner, putting the Colts ahead for good at 18-15.
Under Matt Cassel, the Patriots are obviously a very different team. Their passing attack relies heavily on lots of short, quick passes. 75% of Cassel's passes on the season come from the 0-10 yard range, which is a stark contrast to the way Brady loves airing it out. At the start of the second quarter, the Patriots have a solid 56-yard drive which should have ended in a touch down, but Colts corner back Tim Jennings broke up a certain TD pass, thus forcing the Patriots to settle for a field goal.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis & Kevin Faulk make up the Patriots back field, and although they do miss Maroney back there, these two are worthy surrogates. Green-Ellis is a really powerful runner, and had a solid game, while Faulk is more a utility back, as he will play in the slot for short passes & screens, or be put in for draw plays.
The biggest surprise was that for the entire first half, Randy Moss was not thrown to once. It seemed liked they used him primarily as a decoy, because whichever side he lined up one was the side that the Colts strong Safety, Bob Sanders, would favor. This allowed the Patriots to open up their rushing game, and Wes Welker got lots of touches, even though he was kept in check for the majority of the first half. Welker came into the game with 49 receptions for the season, which lead the team with receptions, and this was his 8th game in a row with at least 6 receptions. During the second half, the Patriots woke up and starting throwing to Moss, who finished the game with 65 yards on 6 receptions, but they really should have gotten him going in the first half.
A key moment in the game was on the Patriots long drive that started at the end of the third quarter and ended with a field goal, taking 6:34 off the clock. During the drive, Moss for had a nice 11-yard gain for a 1st down, and Faulk blew by the Colts defensive line on a gain of 15 yards. On this drive, Cassel had his nicest throw of the entire game, but it only showed up as an incomplete pass. Jabar Gaffney ran a fade route, beating the coverage for what should have been an EASY 39-yard touchdown. He was so wide open on this play, he could have written a haiku on his trot into the end zone. Instead, he decides to let the ball go right between his hands. This was a ball my mom could have caught; needless to say, Gaffney - you fucking blew it. The drive was still alive, after a couple plays the Patriots have a 3rd and long on the Colts 17. Cassel goes to Welker, who comes up just a yard shy of the first down at the Colts 7. At the time, the Patriots were down 12-15, and they were facing a 4th and 1, which they initially were going for. I guess Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had a change of heart, and uses their final timeout to get the field goal unit out there for the easy 25-yard field goal.
Colts defense is under-sized, with no player over six feet tall, but where they lack in size, they make up for in "hitting the snot out of you". That is not a stat yet, but the NFL should consider it with players like Bob Sanders and Keiwan Ratliff absolutely laying wide receivers out. Colts safety's were playing deep on most passing plays, which made it extremely easy for the Patriots to run draw plays at their will, and all their little underneath passes. Sanders picked off Cassel late in the game, but it really did not affect the outcome of the game.
On the other side of the field, it seemed like any decent yardage passing plays by the Colts meant their wide receivers were going to get a beat-down. As mentioned earlier, Meriweather had some Earth-shattering hits, and Mike Vrabel was no stranger tackling the Colts receivers in the slot. Vrabel had several key tackles to stop the Colts drives as they were building up momentum. Patriots obviously miss having Rodney Harrison out there on defense, both as another hard-hitter, and team leader. Harrison has missed the last two games on injured reserve, and will be missing the remainder of the season with a thigh injury.
Surprisingly, there were no sacks in the game for either team, and the Colts offensive line did a good job of making sure Manning was hardly touched. Cassel did a really good job of reading the Colts blitzes, which was impressive consider his lack of NFL experience.
The first half of this game was almost as boring as the Jets versus Raiders. There were no big plays, no real excitement on either side of the ball, or even on special teams. Madden described it as "a very conservative first half" which is pretty much code for they played like a bunch of pussies. For Pete's sake, there wasn't even a fucking penalty called in the first half! The first penalty of the game was called at 9:26 in the third quarter, which was the Patriots first overall penalty in their last 7 quarters of play. When the second half rolled around, there was definitely much more energy on the field. You could say the first half was the boring foreplay, and the second half was when they started exchanging deep anal thrusts.
While I typically respect just about any decision coach Belichick makes, I have got to say his challenge at the beginning of the first half was "ill-advised" at best. The challenge in question was that he believed the Colts had 12 men on the field, which would have got the Patriots a little yardage (had he won the challenge), but it was not worth the risk, given the circumstances. Later in the third quarter, Cassel needs to call a timeout (why, I could not figure out) which left the Patriots with one lone timeout for the game, and as I mentioned earlier, Belichick used their final timeout with his change-of-heart on the 4th and 1 play. Not to say having the timeouts would have changed the outcome of the game, but they might have. The Colts final possession revolved solely around running out the clock, leaving the Patriots with only 29 seconds to try to march up the field, from their own 20 yard line, to tie it up with a field goal. These timeout blunders, and Gaffney's terrible dropped ball were keys to the Patriots loss. If you are reading this Gaffney, I hope you understand that you absolutely fucking blew it. Cassel gave you an early Christmas present, and instead of taking the wrapping off, you decide to burn it to a crisp with your Zippo.
This first half was tough to watch, as it was very much "let's not make a mistake" and none of "let's try to win the game." I was happy to see more action in the second half, but it still felt like both teams were hesitant. The game was the Colts to lose, and it was definitely a must win for them. Had they lost and fell to 3-5, it could have very easily been the beginning of the end of their season. This was a big win for the Colts, against a strong team (Brady or not). Manning showed some sparkles of his past brilliance, and Cassel showed some real poise and concentration. I am sure the Manning family was happy to see both of their sons win. Cassel did have a couple "what the fuck?" moments, but he was in control for the most part. Even though the Titans and Giants success this season is over-shadowing the rest of the league, the Colts and Patriots are not going to go away easy.