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Colts left behind some beaten men

FOXBOROUGH -- Pick a card, any card, and, of course, the magician will do the trick.

Pick a defensive back, any defensive back, and Peyton Manning and the Colts played tricks on him Monday night.

Bill Belichick picked Duane Starks, benching the veteran for the second half of the 40-21 loss, and announcing to the world that the players on the field in the third and fourth quarters were ''the people we thought were the best ones to put out there." Those players allowed only 19 points after the break, compared with the group, including Starks, that allowed 21 in the first half.

While Belichick picked on Starks, Manning picked on every Patriot wearing a number in the 20s. (And reserve cornerback Hank Poteat, who wears No. 32.)

''It was a tough night, we didn't do anything," said cornerback Asante Samuel, who was beaten by Marvin Harrison for two touchdown receptions. ''They just flat out beat us.

''We just played bad. Not one person, all of us."

Certainly an accurate assessment, considering the Patriots allowed a 300-yard passer for the first time in 13 regular-season games, and two 100-yard receivers in the same game for the first time since Tony Gonzalez and Derrick Alexander did it for Kansas City on Dec. 4, 2000. Harrison had nine catches for 128 yards, and Reggie Wayne had nine receptions for 124 yards.

The front seven wasn't exactly stellar, but it took Edgerrin James 34 carries to get to 104 yards (3.1 yards per attempt), and his longest rush was for 9 yards. Manning actually had the longest run from scrimmage for the Colts, a 12-yard scramble.

The secondary was almost invisible, save for showing up after catches were made.

Manning (28 of 37 for 321 yards and 3 touchdowns) beat them long, short, inside, and out, and connected on nearly every route imaginable -- posts, fades, slants, hooks, outs, crossing patterns. Nothing cute, nothing fancy, and nothing the Patriots didn't know was coming.

And nothing the Patriots could do about it. In fact, it could have and probably should have been worse, but the Colts dropped several passes.

''They just had all the right answers," safety Eugene Wilson said. ''It seemed like he had all the right answers. He went to places where we were soft and he did a good job of making checks and running that offense."

Therein lies part of the problem. The Patriots were soft somewhere on every play, and soft everywhere on some plays. Known for their physical play, particularly in the secondary, where cornerback Ty Law used to wrestle receivers into submission and safety Rodney Harrison played battering ram, the Patriots were rather gentle with the Colts Monday.

Starks and Samuel often lined up well off the outside receivers, and the coverages seemed out of synch.

Wilson took to lining up so deep in the secondary that one had to wonder whether he was expecting Manning to pull a surprise pooch punt, yet he managed to allow tight end Dallas Clark and Harrison to get behind him on the second play of the game.

On that play, Samuel lined up some 5 yards off and to the outside of Harrison, clearly expecting some help from the middle, with linebacker Willie McGinest dropping into the zone to protect against shorter inside routes.

Harrison ran a simple deep post, running untouched down the field, but Wilson couldn't help much because he was chasing Clark, who ran past him from the slot on the same side of the field.

Manning chose to go to Harrison (by pass, not pooch) to jump-start the contest with a 48-yard gain. About the only good news was the Patriots didn't give up another 48-yard gain the rest of the night. But that wouldn't be the last big play the secondary surrendered. Harrison added a 30-yard catch, and Wayne had grabs that covered 29 and 20 yards.

''Of course you're going to get frustrated when they're making big plays and you know that you're better than that," Wilson said.

Three plays after the opening salvo, Harrison made a leaping catch over Samuel for a 1-yard touchdown and the Colts' first first-quarter lead against the Patriots this century. Indianapolis, which had lost six straight games to New England, hadn't scored first in a game against the Patriots since Dec. 12, 1999, the last year of the Pete Carroll regime.

The Patriots are looking for answers within for their ailing secondary, as they don't seem to be impressed with what's available on the market. Arturo Freeman, who was decent (especially compared with the alternatives) in a game and a half at strong safety, was released last Friday after starting against Buffalo.

Randall Gay, returning from an injury and switching from cornerback, started in the spot that has been passed down by injury from Harrison to Guss Scott to James Sanders to Freeman.

By the second half against the Colts, Michael Stone was in the game. The special teams specialist, who joined the team after Harrison sustained a knee injury that will sideline him for the remainder of the season, had to be as shocked as anyone in the stadium that he was asked to play.

That is how desperate the Patriots are at this point. And certainly Starks isn't the blame for that.

''There is a problem that needs to be fixed and it doesn't lie with one person," Starks said. ''No one individual is the reason this is happening."

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com

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