It was just like 2009: the big lead, the dominating performance, the playoff implications on the line and then the mad dash to survive at the end. On Sunday, the Patriots made one more play than the Colts, and they wound up with a 31-28 victory at Gillette Stadium.
After the Patriots built their 31-14 fourth-quarter advantage — identical to the lead they gave away at Lucas Oil Stadium in last season's 35-34 loss — it was easy to note the parallels. But this Patriots team had been different for a number of reasons, and there was little reason to believe it would slip away again.
Of course, that wasn’t the case. But then again, this Patriots team did display how different it is from last year's unit.
"For a minute, I was thinking, 'déjà vu,'" said Patriots safety James Sanders, who intercepted Peyton Manning on the Colts' final drive to seal the victory. "As a defense, we knew if we didn’t make a play, we were going to lose the game. [Manning] wasn’t going to just give it to us, so we had to go out there and take the win. We made a play at the end, and we came out on top."
Sanders' second fourth-quarter pick in as many weeks served as a symbol of how different the Patriots have truly been. At the start of the play — a first-and-10 from the New England 24-yard line with 37 seconds remaining — linebacker Gary Guyton jammed Colts tight end Jacob Tamme at the line of scrimmage, which allowed Sanders a little extra time to sit back and read Manning.
When Sanders recognized cornerback Devin McCourty was singled up along the right sideline with wide receiver Pierre Garcon, whose goal was the end zone, Sanders dropped back to cover that angle and let Guyton stay with Tamme on the shorter route. Meanwhile, outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham beat right tackle Ryan Diem and forced just enough pressure on Manning that he couldn’t step into the throw.
As the ball fell shy of Garcon, Sanders was in position to leap backward and haul in the interception at the 6-yard line. That combination of events — the jam at the line, the read and recognition from Sanders, the break from Cunningham and an entire game's worth of different defensive looks — turned the Patriots into victors.
"It felt good," Sanders said. "We haven’t beaten those guys in awhile. It seems like we always get ahead, get a nice lead and they always come back at the end. We knew it wasn’t over until the end, and we just kept fighting and made the plays we needed."