INDIANAPOLIS - Redemption has a final score and it's 24-20.
Returning to the RCA Dome, the scene of one of the most heartrending losses in franchise history, the Patriots rallied from a 20-10 fourth-quarter deficit to hand the Indianapolis Colts a 24-20 loss and reclaim their position as the pre-eminent football power in the AFC.
Kevin Faulk scored on a 13-yard catch-and-run, crossing the goal line before he fumbled, with 3:15 remaining and the New England defense did what it couldn't in the 38-34 AFC title game collapse last year - stop Peyton Manning and the Colts with the game on the line.
Jarvis Green poked the ball loose from Manning and fittingly it fluttered right into the arms of linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, an Indianapolis native.
"This is probably one of the most satisfying wins since I've been here," said defensive end Richard Seymour.
The matchup was historic - the first time in league history that two teams with 7-0 or better records had met - and the Patriots' performance was heroic, overcoming a franchise-record 146 yards in penalties, a sputtering offense, and a 10-point deficit with 9:42 to play to remain undefeated.
"Some victories do feel better than others, yes," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "This one was one of those that you'll remember. It was a big one and it's very nice to have."
It was one the Patriots almost didn't have. A team that hadn't scored fewer than 34 points in a game and hadn't enjoyed a margin of victory of fewer than 17 points found itself in the unusual position of playing from behind. The Colts held the Patriots to 24 points, 17 below their average.
"We scored enough to win that's what's important," said coach Bill Belichick.
When Manning (16 of 27 for 225 yards, one touchdown, one interception) plunged in for a 1-yard touchdown that made it 20-10 with 9:42 left it looked like the Patriots (9-0) were headed for their first loss of the season and their fourth straight at the hands of the Colts (7-1).
But instead of somber, the Patriots were defiant. Tom Brady (21 of 32 for 255 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions) threw two touchdown passes in the final 7:59 to pull out the win.
"We came in and guys were like, 'It's 60 minutes. We got to keep fighting. It ain't over,' " said cornerback Asante Samuel.
For most of the game, it was the defenses, not the quarterbacks, that were dueling at the dome, as both used multiple-defensive back sets as their base defenses. All those points and yards the Patriots had racked up didn't mean a thing to Indy, which befuddled Brady, who had just 97 yards after three quarters, and frustrated the normally unflappable Patriots into a slew of penalties and complaints.
"They play the pass so well," said Brady of the Colts. "They're always in space so quickly. They cover the field and they tackle so well."
Brady, who had been intercepted twice all season, was intercepted twice by the Colts, with both leading to touchdowns. After throwing his second pick of the game to Gary Brackett with 14:17 left in the fourth quarter, Brady was 8 of 11 for 144 yards and two touchdowns the rest of the way.
He got a big assist from Randy Moss, who tied Stanley Morgan's franchise record for touchdown catches in a season, grabbing his 12th, a 4-yarder in the second quarter. Moss (nine catches for 145 yards and a score) beat Antoine Bethea, who had intercepted Brady before the half leading to the Colts' first touchdown, on a 55-yard reception, setting up a 3-yard Wes Welker touchdown reception that made it 20-17 with 7:59 left.
Welker's 23-yard punt return put the Patriots at their 49 with 3:58 to play. Forty-three seconds later they were back in the lead. Brady hit Moss for 5 yards, then found Donte' Stallworth down the left sideline for 33 more before hitting Faulk with his third touchdown pass of the game and 33d of the season, a franchise record.
"We've played in a lot of close games before in our careers," said Bruschi. "We know how to win close games, so it's nice to see that we still remember how to do that because it's been a while since we've been in a close game."
The Patriots trailed at the half for the first time all season thanks to a disastrous final two minutes that turned a 7-6 lead into a 13-7 deficit.
Brady was intercepted by Bethea at the 2 with 1:46 left in the half. The pick ended Brady's streak of 175 passes without an interception, four shy of the club record of 179, set by Drew Bledsoe in 1995.
Indianapolis appeared content to run out the clock and Manning was playing it safe when he dumped the ball off to Joseph Addai, who was looking to get out of bounds. Instead, 73 yards and several poor Patriots' tackle attempts later he was in the end zone with 13 seconds left in the half.
Addai, who finished with 26 rushes for 112 yards and five receptions for 114 yards, had 187 of the Colts' 229 yards of total offense in the first half - four catches for 107 yards and 15 rushes for 80 yards.
"At times I think we made it a little difficult," said Colvin. "Defensively, not getting off the field again, giving up third and 15, penalties, giving up a -yard touchdown on a checkdown. That's just nonsense, so we can play better."
Two pass interference penalties - a 37-yarder on Samuel in the first quarter and a 40-yarder on Ellis Hobbs in the second - set up two short Adam Vinatieri field goals (21 and 25 yards).
This was potentially the Patriots' last visit to the RCA Dome. The Colts move into Lucas Oil Stadium, Peyton's Palace, next season, and the victory gave New England the inside track to home field in the playoffs.
"We're excited about the win," said Colvin. "Going into the bye week it's an opportunity to rest up to heal up. We got a whole week and a half we can enjoy this one and we're going to . . . come back ready to roll."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.