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Explain this? We’ll go for it

By Albert R. Breer
November 16, 2009

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INDIANAPOLIS - Going for it on fourth and 2 from your 28 with 2:08 left and a 34-28 lead says one of two things.

You either have supreme confidence in your offense’s ability to convert or you have no faith in your defense’s ability to stop the opposition on a subsequent possession.

Maybe it was both for Bill Belichick last night.

You can argue his offense piled up 468 yards prior to that call. You can also say his defense’s effort against Peyton Manning, while admirable, hardly would inspire confidence that a punt would lead to a game-ending stand by that still-growing unit.

What’s hard to disagree with is that it was, at the very least, a jaw-dropping move. The Patriots coach sent his offense out there, called his final timeout, then trotted Tom Brady and Co. out there once again, this time with a well-thought-out play call that would determine whom walked out of this one with a win.

Next, came the ugly part for the Patriots. Kevin Faulk caught a short pass and the Colts’ Melvin Bullitt dropped him near the sticks, and the measurement came up short.

It wasn’t over then. But what Belichick might have known would happen - that Manning would score to win the game if he got the ball again - is exactly what did happen. Colts 35, Patriots 34. Start your second-guessing now.

“If they punt, they probably thought we were going to have a shot at running it back down the whole field,’’ said Colts right tackle Ryan Diem. “Yeah, I think they had some respect for our offense. I still think it’s a pretty bold move. If it’s me, I make us go the long field. But hey, they went for it, our defense executed and gave us that chance.’’

Hard to blame anyone for doubting the Patriots could get that defensive stop, whether the Colts set up shop at the Patriots’ 29 or their own 29.

While the New England defense has improved, it lacks a big, defining, game-ending kind of stop.

Against Buffalo, the defense yielded a touchdown when it could least afford to - allowing the Bills to take a two-possession lead - and got bailed out by Leodis McKelvin’s case of the yips.

Against Baltimore, it allowed an offense to drive the field, and was busted loose when Mark Clayton dropped a sure catch for a fourth-down conversion within the final minute.

The losses to Denver and the Jets had spots in which the team needed a stop in the worst way and couldn’t get one. And so now, with possible playoff seeding on the line, it’s easy to see how confidence would wane with a simple look across the field to the other sideline.

There was a time when Belichick had Manning’s number. Now? When these teams face off, it’s not Robert Kraft who owns the Patriots. It’s the guy wearing the Blue 18.

Manning is 5-1 in his last six contests against the Patriots, throwing for 1,802 yards and 13 touchdowns against six interceptions, while completing 63.6 percent of his passes and compiling a 97.6 quarterback rating.

So given two choices - betting on Brady or against Manning, Belichick chose the former.

“They knew they seal the game if they get it,’’ Colts center Jeff Saturday said. “It’s fourth and 2 and they’d been moving the ball and felt like that was the play that was going to get it. You can look back at a number of plays as the game goes on. It was a huge play for our defense.’’

The players all stood by Belichick’s decision. As Faulk said, “He’s the head coach. He makes all the decisions. We are the players. We just execute.’’

They didn’t execute well enough in this spot.

Colts players said the Patriots went right back to the play that picked up 8 yards on second and 10 two plays earlier. This time, instead of going to Wes Welker, the ball went to Faulk.

And the Colts had some added motivation.

“Everyone was surprised,’’ safety Antoine Bethea said. “Fourth down in their territory, you know, they got a lot of confidence in their offense. But we got a lot of confidence in our defense. We took that as a slap in the face. It was a slap in the face, and Melvin stepped up and made a good play.’’

Defensive end Robert Mathis reiterated the thought: “If you play defense, you’re going to take offense to that.’’

But the truth is, the Colts shouldn’t. In the end, it was probably more of an affront to the Patriots defense, or a compliment to Manning and his offense, than anything.

And it quickly became apparent why after Faulk got stacked up on that fourth-down play.

Manning hit Reggie Wayne for 15 yards on the next snap. Then, Joseph Addai ripped off 13 yards through the gut of the Patriots defense. Two plays later, with a head nod from Wayne to Manning, the receiver switched his route from a fade to a slant, and the throw-and-catch was almost indefensible. Perfect on both ends.

As for the Colts offense having the Patriots’ number, Wayne bristled at the thought.

“That’s just how it goes,’’ he said. “At one point, they were beating us every time. Now it’s our turn.’’

If you read between the lines here, it was pretty evident in the decision-making that the Patriots are well aware of that.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com.

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