THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Nothing beats teams’ fights to finish

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By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / November 22, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — Throw away those games against the Lions, Bengals, Vikings, and Browns. I don’t care if we don’t see the Steelers and Chargers next year. Just don’t take the Colts off the Patriots’ schedule. Ever. This is simply too good.

The latest chapter in pro football’s best current rivalry unfolded in chilly, dark Foxborough late yesterday afternoon, and when the last football dropped from the heavens the Patriots were 31-28 winners over Indianapolis. One year after Bill Belichick wouldn’t trust his defense against Peyton Manning (that’s what fourth and 2 was all about), Patriots safety James Sanders made an “Excuse Me While I Kiss The Sky’’ interception to smother another furious and frightening comeback by Indy’s all-galactic quarterback.

Can’t the Patriots and Colts play one another every week? It’s like John F. Kennedy matching words with Winston Churchill or Eric Clapton trading riffs with Jimmy Page.

Patriots-Colts. Brady-Manning. Belichick-Polian. Games for the ages. Year after year. Sometimes twice a year.

The fraidy cats who populate Gillette Stadium were sitting on their hands, fearful that the Patriots were going to blow another one to the hated horseshoes. We saw it in the 2006 AFC Championship game when the Patriots led, 21-3, then lost, 38-34. We saw it one year ago at Lucas Oil (Can Boyd) Stadium when the Patriots led, 34-21, in the fourth, only to lose, 35-34.

Manning was downright surgical in those comebacks, and again yesterday. The Colts trailed, 31-14, after Shayne Graham’s field goal at 10:23 of the fourth quarter, but they roared back with two touchdowns and drove into field goal range (to New England’s 24) in the final minute when Sanders stopped the madness.

“For a little while it felt like deja vu,’’ said Sanders. “When [Manning] figures out what you are doing, it can get a little ugly. But I had an opportunity to read Peyton and drop back and make a play. It was team defense.’’

“You saw a great game,’’ said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork with a sigh. “We had the two-touchdown lead, but we’ve seen in the past, that’s not enough.’’

“As it always does with the Colts, it came down to the wire,’’ said Belichick, who celebrated by playing lacrosse in the empty stadium as cars lurched up Route 1 more than an hour after the game.

It always comes down to Brady vs. Manning when the Flying Elvises collide with Colts, and this NFL showcase was no exception. Brady finished 19 of 25 with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He has won 25 straight regular-season games at Gillette, dating to 2006. He was Bill Russell once again. And Peyton was every bit Wilt the Stilt.

Manning completed 38 of 52 passes for whopping 396 yards and four touchdowns. In the fourth quarter he produced back-to-back seven-play, 73-yard drives, each taking less than 2 1/2 minutes. Then he moved the Ponies to the Patriots’ 24 in the final minute. At the very least, Indy was set for a tying chip shot by Adam Vinatieri (immature locals booed the former Patriots icon throughout), but with a first and 10 and 37 seconds left, Manning wanted more.

Pressured by rookie linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, Manning’s final throw toward Pierre Garcon was short and Sanders had the vertical leap necessary to pick it off.

It was Manning’s third pick, which no doubt will have Patriots fans touting Brady and reminding everyone that Manning’s pick-6 in Miami last February lost the Super Bowl. But it’s only fair to note that Manning’s supporting cast is thin. He was a victim of numerous drops and poor routes by his receivers. Still, he almost beat the Patriots for a sixth time in seven games.

But the Patriots were not beaten this time. Instead of going for it on fourth and 2, Belichick punted on fourth and 7 and allowed his defense to make a play. Cunningham and Sanders made plays and the Patriots are 8-2, sharing the best record in football with the Jets and Falcons.

What is not to like about this team? They remind you of the Patriots of the good old days. They are young. They make mistakes, but they are getting better. They already have won at Miami, San Diego, and Pittsburgh. They have beaten the Ravens and the Colts. They have a 5-foot-7-inch running back who broke one for a 36-yard touchdown run yesterday, then made a great tackle on the ensuing kickoff. At the end of his postgame news conference at the podium, Danny Woodhead asked reporters if he should bring a step-stool next time.

The Patriots play the Lions Thursday, then get some time off before the next Game of the Century against the Jets on “Monday Night Football’’ two weeks from today. There’ll be no shortage of hyperbole advancing the Jets’ return to Foxborough, and it may be the game that dictates the site of the AFC Championship game.

But it’s not likely to be more exciting than Patriots-Colts. That’s the one I want to see at the end of January. It doesn’t get any better.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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