INDIANAPOLIS -- In the final analysis, as silly as it sounds, the Patriots need more games like this, not fewer.
But then, that is precisely what made this loss so frustrating.
"You come in with a game plan and you execute it for the most part, and it still doesn't go your way," Pats cornerback Ellis Hobbs said last night at Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Pats dropped a maddening 18-15 decision to the Indianapolis Colts. "You kind of wonder what happened."
Ultimately, there really is no need to do that, because we know exactly what happened: Jabar Gaffney dropped an easy touchdown pass; David Thomas was called for a costly penalty; Bill Belichick personally cost his team not one timeout, but two, the second of which negated the conversion of a fourth and 1 at the Colts 7-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter.
But beyond that, the Patriots had the perfect game plan and generally executed it with astonishing precision, and there were more reasons to be encouraged than discouraged.
Before we go any further, let's start with the obvious truth that the Colts needed this game more than the Patriots did. On paper, it looked like a potential blowout, regardless of whether Belichick publicly would admit it. Clearly, the coach had no intention of doing anything that would allow the Colts quick scores when his entire offensive backfield was either inactive or on injured reserved for a second consecutive week.
So the Patriots held the ball for 34 minutes, 24 seconds. So they ran 67 offensive plays to the Colts' 50. So they rushed for 140 yards and averaged 4.4 yards a carry. So they made their kicks. So they protected the ball. So they gave themselves a chance against an accomplished team, quarterback, and coach, on the road, as the 2008 NFL season reached its midpoint.
So they lost. So what? The gains of this game far outweighed the losses because the Patriots last night showed us that they are getting better, which suddenly makes the second half of this season far more interesting than we might have guessed after the team's 16th offensive play on back on Sept. 7, otherwise known as The Moment Everything Changed.
"It's just frustrating to lose a game like we lost," said tackle Matt Light, who joined wide receiver Randy Moss in some thinly veiled criticism of the officiating after the unnecessary roughness penalty against tight end David Thomas that stifled the Patriots' final drive of the game. "We played a good game."
Again, let's be honest with ourselves. As recently as a few weeks ago, the Patriots looked mediocre at best, boring and uninspired at worst. In their last nationally televised road game before last night, they got their teeth kicked in by a San Diego Chargers outfit that currently owns a 3-5 record. (Would you rather be them?) Then the Pats came out and blasted a Denver team that now looks to be in a flat spin, all before last week's ugly-stick special against a wretched St. Louis Rams club that just went home and got thumped upside the head by the Arizona Cardinals.
In the midst of all this, one question prevailed over all others: Could Matt Cassel really be consistent and efficient enough to give this team a fighting chance?
Last night, in what was easily his best professional game, Cassel went 25 of 34 for 204 yards, looking very much like a legitimate NFL quarterback. The one interception he threw came on a fourth-and-15 play at the Indy 45 on what was nothing more than a desperation heave. Cassel's play has done nothing but improve over the past few weeks, and the quarterback of the Patriots last night put his team in a position to win.
Take a good look at the things that went wrong.
None of them had anything to do with the quarterback.
"I like what I see and I don't think I'm the only one," Moss said when asked of Cassel's development. "I think Matt is carrying this offense really well. I think we're still getting acclimated to him being out there, but he's doing a heck of a job."
Frequently, comments like that are nothing more than political garbage, a teammate doing what a teammate is supposed to do.
This one also happened to be accurate.
So where does this all leave the Pats with eight games to play? With regard to the standings, at least, precisely where they were a week ago at this time. Pending tonight's outcome between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins, only one team in the AFC (the Tennessee Titans) has more wins than the Patriots. They still are tied atop the AFC East with the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, both of whom just happen to be coming to Foxborough over the next 10 days. The Pats are in contention for a first-round playoff bye as much as they are for a playoff spot, an utterly shocking development given the blows they have absorbed in the backfield on both sides of the ball.
Last week, after the 23-17 victory over the Rams that was anything but inspiring, fullback Heath Evans was among those who noted that the Patriots are still searching for their identity, that November and December were those months in which the contenders and pretenders separated themselves. Last week, despite their won-lost record, the Patriots still looked like a run-of-the-mill operation, which had more to do with how they played than with the end result.
Sure, they lost.
But it sure looked like they took a big step in the right direction.
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