The Patriots are good, but they're having trouble closing out games.
This is the second time this season the Patriots have blown a double-digit lead in the second half, and both games have come on the road against playoff-caliber opponents. The Patriots had a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Colts, and they were still ahead by 13 with four minutes remaining. Through basically 58 minutes, it was tough to watch the Patriots and think that this team doesn't have Super Bowl potential.
But they choked it away. It was as if the 2006 Patriots had been reincarnated as the team's current version. As if the Patriots turned into the Red Sox of the late 20th century. Or, more fittingly, as if the Patriots turned into the Colts of the early 21st century.
The Patriots had every reason in the world to win this game. They had a great week of practice, looked unconscionably focused through the first three and a half quarters and knew they could put themselves in tremendous position to grab a first-round bye or home-field advantage in the playoffs. Rather than looking like the teams that finished their business in 2001, 2003 and 2004, the Pats looked like the teams that couldn't lock it down in 2006 and 2007.
There were plenty of times during the game when the Patriots could have put the Colts away, but it never happened. They left Peyton Manning just enough rope to pull off the 40th fourth-quarter, game-winning drive of his career.
"[If] you play a good team, you can't miss good opportunities, and we missed plenty of them," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who completed 29 of 42 passes for 375 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
The Patriots will walk out of Lucas Oil Stadium feeling like they're better than the Colts, and they did a lot of things Sunday to drive that point home. They probably feel like they're a better team than the Denver Broncos, too. And there are millions of people who watched Sunday night's game who believe the Patriots are still better than the Colts, regardless of the final score.
That final score, though, is all that will matter in January and February. After all, if the Super Bowl trophy was awarded to the team most convinced that it was the best in the league, the Pittsburgh Steelers would have 43 of them by now.
Running back Laurence Maroney is going to take as much heat as anyone for this loss. He fumbled away the ball from the doorstep of the end zone, and the Colts recovered it for a touchback. Even worse, Maroney killed what would have been a momentous drive, as the Patriots had possession for nearly eight minutes and 13 plays. A touchdown would have given New England a 31-14 lead with about two minutes to play in the third quarter.
Earlier in the quarter, on a first-and-10 from the Indy 33-yard line, Brady tried to hit Randy Moss (nine receptions, 179 yards, two touchdowns) in double coverage, but safety Antoine Bethea swooped in and intercepted the pass in the end zone. While it was an ill-fated gamble, Brady and Moss have hit more often than not on those routes in the last two games. This time, it cost the Patriots more points.
Another miscue occurred late in the fourth quarter after Manning threw his second interception. The Patriots had a 31-21 lead and took over at the Colts 31-yard line with 7:44 remaining. Rather than putting it in the end zone and making it a three-possession game, the Patriots ate up only 3:32 while running seven plays and gaining just 13 yards. Stephen Gostkowski's field goal gave the Patriots a 13-point lead, which obviously wasn't enough.
And then, finally, Bill Belichick ordered the troops to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the New England 28-yard line with 2:08 remaining in the fourth quarter. They gained one yard on a pass to Kevin Faulk that was close to the first-down marker, but that ultimately didn't get the job done. Manning took the ball after that on a short field, and he capped off a highlight reel that will get plenty of play in the coming days from fans around the league.
Shaking Up the Line
There have been a lot of moving pieces on the Patriots' offensive line in the last few weeks, starting with left tackle Matt Light's injury that made way for rookie Sebastian Vollmer. Sunday night, right guard Stephen Neal left with an injury and was replaced by Dan Connolly, who played well as a backup for the second consecutive week — he also played center after Dan Koppen left in the second quarter against the Miami Dolphins.
Vollmer has been a star, though, as the starter in the last four games. Sunday was supposed to be the day he looked like the raw rookie everyone expected him to be, as he was lined up against Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, who might be the best in the league at his position and should end up with some Defensive Player of the Year consideration. Freeney was held off of the stat sheet — no sacks, no tackles, no nothing. If Freeney, who had a sack in eight consecutive games before Sunday, didn't pressure Brady to throw the ball away on the third down prior to Gostkowski's final field goal, it might be difficult to prove Freeney was even in the building.
So, now that Vollmer has passed his most challenging test, Belichick has a difficult decision to make. Light might be healthy enough to return next week against the New York Jets, but with the way Vollmer has performed — and, let's be honest, Light wasn't playing his best football before the injury — he deserves to keep his perch. Light has always been one of Belichick's guys, but Vollmer is the left tackle of the future. He should probably be the left tackle of the present, too.
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