FOXBOROUGH -- Defensive backs have difficulty covering Rob Gronkowski, and this afternoon Gronkowski was almost able to cover a three-touchdown point spread by himself.
Gronkowski caught two touchdown passes and technically rushed for one more (the third play was ruled a lateral) as the Patriots downed Indianapolis, 31-24, Sunday afternoon in Foxborough. For most of the game, the Colts were every bit the 21-point underdogs they came here as.
In the end the Colts managed to defy the oddsmakers, and in the beginning it looked like they'd actually make it a game. For more than the first quarter of the game, Indianapolis kept the Patriots out of the end zone and leeched time off the clock with an offense predicated around a quarterback making his eighth career start in seven seasons. The Patriots got on the board first, 3-0, with a Stephen Gostkowski field goal at the 9:33 mark of the first quarter, but Dan Orlovsky led Indianapolis on a 19-play, 67-yard drive that resulted in a game-tying field goal. After two possessions in which neither team scored, the Patriots found themselves in a tie game at the 9:37 mark in the second quarter and with the ball at their own 14-yard line.
Enter Gronkowski. Tom Brady found the unstoppable tight end for an 11-yard score, making it 10-3 with 2:57 remaining in the first half. Less than three minutes later, a stop and a one-yard run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis gave the Patriots momentum and a two-touchdown lead.
They lost the coin toss but per their custom they would have deferred anyway, and the Patriots found themselves in the preferred position of having the ball to start the second half. They wasted no time, and after a seven-play drive that took 2:44, Brady found Gronkowski in the end zone again. Gronkowski's 13th touchdown of the season ties him with Vernon Davis (2009) and Antonio Gates (2004) for the most receiving touchdowns by a tight end in NFL history.
Gronkowski thought he had the record for himself, but a touchdown from Brady at the 4:17 mark of the third quarter was later ruled a lateral and a rushing touchdown, leaving Gronkowski tied for the moment with Gates and Davis.
After Gronkowski's third touchdown, the only drama remaining was whether or not the Patriots would cover one of the largest point spreads in league history. Orlovsky answered that question with a 33-yard bomb to Pierre Garcon with 2:12 remaining in the game. The Colts scored again with 36 seconds remaining to make the game interesting, at least on the scoreboard. Brian Hoyer finished the game for Brady, whose final line was 293 yards passing and two touchdowns.
The Patriots (9-3) play the first of two consecutive road games this Sunday vs. the Redskins. They're in Denver the following week before closing out the season with home games against the Dolphins and Bills. The loss drops the Colts to 0-12.
:35 Branch recovers. Barring Brady morphing into Joe Pisarcik, that should do it.
:36 seconds, Patriots 31, Colts 24: Orlovsky hits Garcon for 40 yards, then on the next play he finds him again for 12 yards and a score. The drive took five plays, covered 90 yards, took 1:07 off the clock, and made this onside kick coming up interesting.
1:43: Looks like the Patriots offense is done for the day. Mesko boots a 37-yard punt to the Colts 10.
2:10: Gronkowski recovers the onside kick. Kind of surprised he didn't take it all the way given how his afternoon has gone. Patriots take over at their own 47.
2:12 fourth quarter, Patriots 31, Colts 17: Orlovsky hits Garcon for a 33-yard score to cap an 11-play, 93-yard drive.
3:40: Have to give the Colts credit. Still putting up an effort despite the deficit -- Austin Collie converts a third and 2 with a nine-yard catch to move the ball to the Patriots 37.
6:27: Patriots possession stalls at the Colts 43 when Brady takes a big hit on an incomplete pass on third and 13. Hoyer on the next drive?
7:24: Orlovsky is going to end up with respectable numbers -- he's 18 of 24 for 177 yards. But he just threw his first interception when Jerod Mayo stepped in front of a pass over the middle and fell forward two yards to the Colts 38.
9:24: Patriots' possession stalls when a 3-yard pass to Welker on third and 4 comes up a yard short. Mesko's second punt carries 47 yards, with Pierre Garcon calling for a fair catch at the Colts 24.
10:24, Patriots 31, Colts 10: Brown caps a 15-play, 86-yard drive that took 8:49 with a 5-yard run into the right corner of the end zone.
10:47, fourth quarter: Colts are driving. Donald Brown's 3-yard run gives Indy a first and goal at the Patriots 5.
End of the third quarter, Patriots 31, Colts 3: Fifteen minutes left, and it's all Patriots. Only drama left, at least unrelated to Las Vegas, is whether Gronkowski gets a fourth touchdown and whether it's Brian Hoyer or Brady who throws it.
1:52: Colts have the football. We'll let you know if they do anything of note besides punt it. Currently second and 8 at their own 31. Orlovsky has gone over the 100-yard passing mark on this drive -- he's at 104, having completed 11 of 15 passes.
3:04: Well, it was fun while it lasted. Gronkowski's last touchdown was ruled a lateral, meaning he's still tied for the record. On the plus side, tight ends don't get rushing touchdowns every day, right?
4:13, Patriots 31, Colts 3: And there it is -- Brady to Gronkowski, 2 yards, touchdown. Gronkowski's third TD of the day -- this coming after he lined up in the backfield, then went in motion, making it almost look like a lateral -- is his 14th of the season, a single-season NFL record for a tight end. There are four games to go this season, people, and another quarter left in this game. Anyone think he gets to 20? Anyway, it's all about milestones now, because the rout is officially on.
5:46: Brady scrambles and slides for six yards and first down at the Colts 20. Chances are he stays in the game quite a bit longer, but I'd just as soon see Brian Hoyer should they score on this drive. (Brady to Gronk, first and goal at the Colts 3. How about a third TD for Gronk today?)
8:12: Matthew Slater seems to be taking to this safety thing, forcing a Delone Carter fumble after a 10-yard run. Kyle Arrington recovers at the Patriots 34. And we're getting a good look at the other reasons Indy is winless besides Manning's absence.
9:45: Delone Carter runs for seven yards to pick up a first down for the Colts at their own 31. The Colts have just 120 yards of total offense.
12:15, third quarter, Patriots 24, Colts 3: ... and on the seventh consecutive completion, Brady again helps prove what has become a truth in the NFL this season: You can't stop Rob Gronkowski, or even hope to contain him for that matter. The second-year tight end catches his second TD pass of the game -- this one a 21-yarder -- and his 13th of the season, tying the NFL single season record held by Antonio Gates (2004) and Vernon Davis (whose 2009 season I neglected to mention before). The TD pass is the 30th of the season for Brady, the third time he's hit that benchmark in his career, and his 291st touchdown ties him with Warren Moon for sixth all-time (291).
Start of the third quarter: After Julian Edelman's 27-yard return on the opening kickoff of the half, the Patriots come out in the no-huddle and pick the Colts apart. Brady hits six straight passes, including four to Welker, to march to the Colts 21.
Halftime: Patriots 17, Colts 3: Orlovsky takes a knee on the final play of the half, and the Patriots did anything but in the final few minutes, scoring two touchdowns in the final 2 minutes 57 seconds to take command heading into the break.
:13 second quarter, Patriots 17, Colts 3: And that's how you close out a half. BenJarvus Green-Ellis runs it in behind Logan Mankins and Matt Light from the 1, his eighth rushing touchdown of the season, and barring a big return by the Colts' Lefeger here, the Patriots will take a 14-point lead into the half. The drive covered 60 yards in eight plays, taking just 85 seconds.
1:10: How's this for an efficient sequence? Brady to Welker for 17 ... Brady to Branch for 13 ... Brady to Kevin Faulk for 23 ... Brady to Tiquan Underwood for 10 ... Brady to Welker for 9 . .. and that's how you end up on the 1 yard line with 18 seconds left in the half.
1:38: Three plays, minus-three yards, and just 1:06 off the clock for the Colts. Not what they were looking for there. After the punt, Patriots take over at their own 40 with 1:33 left.
2:57: Colts will start at their own 20 after another Goskowski touchback. In the meantime, a couple of milestones were achieved on the touchdown. Brady extended his record of touchdown passes in consecutive regular season games to 28; he also tied Johnny Unitas for seventh in career passing touchdowns at 290. And Gronkowski's 12th receiving touchdown of the season ties four other tight ends for the second-most in a single season in NFL history. Antonio Gates holds the record with 13, set in 2004.
2:57 second quarter, Patriots 10, Colts 3: Brady to Gronkowski, 11 yards, and ... GRONK SPIKE! Now that's a sustained drive: 16 plays, 86 yards, taking 6:40 off the clock.
3:37: Beautiful throw by Brady, who rolled left and, on the run, threw a dart between the 8 and 3 on Welker's jersey for an 18-yard gain. With the catch, Welker moved past Irving Fryar for third place on the Patriots' all-time receiving yardage list. If you had no idea Fryar was third ... I'm with you.
5:32: Chad Ochocinco, finally out of the shadow of Taylor Price, gets a rousing ovation after hauling in a 12-yard grab along the left sideline for a first down. Should note that there's no mockery whatsoever in the cheers -- fans genuinely seem to like Ocho even with his struggles.
6:35: There's that Brady-Branch chemistry. Brady hits him for seven yards on a comeback route along the left sideline on third and 5 to get to the Colts 43 and keep the drive alive.
9:02: Patriots offense looks uncharacteristically sluggish, but they avoid a three and out deep in their own territory when Brady hits Rob Gronkowki for 7 yards on third and 5 from the 14. Let's see whether they can turn this into a sustained scoring drive. The Patriots have just 88 total yards so far.
11:04: Zoltan Mesko's 51-yard punt is returned 21 yards by Joe Lefeged to the Colts 32-yard line. But the Colts go three and out when Orlovsky's pass intended for Reggie Wayne on third and 2 is broken up by Nate Jones (No. 23 in your program), who has made a couple of positive contributions already.
11:24: Injury update: Colts linebacker Pat Angerer, who leads the NFL in tackles with 112, has a knee injury and his return is questionable. Meanwhile, the Patriots drive stalls at their own 43 when the Colts' Chris Rucker breaks up a deep pass intended for Deion Branch down the left sideline.
12:35: Brady to Welker for nine yards on third and 5 to advance to their own 35.
14:11, second quarter, Patriots 3, Colts 3: Nice job by the Patriots defense of holding their ground after first and goal at the 1. Rob Ninkovich sacks Orlovsky for an eight-yard loss on third down, and Indy settles for a 31-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri to knot the score. We're going to pretend we didn't hear Vinatieri get booed there. It's worked out for the best, folks, and no matter what he accomplishes there, his legacy is as a Patriot. (Scolding over.)
14:35: False start on former Patriot Quinn Ojinnaka, who was in as an eligible receiver. Make it third and goal from the 5.
14:36: Ron Brace in for the Patriots in the goal line situation. The Patriots stop Addai on first down, Mayo deflects a pass intended for Jacob Tamme on second down ... and the Colts call time out facing third and goal from the 1.
End of first quarter, Patriots 3, Colts 0: Save for a stunning return to action by Peyton Manning, the first quarter couldn't have gone much better for the Colts ... and they're in position as the second quarter begins to take the lead.
0:28: Addai picks up the first down on third and 5 from the Patriots 6, setting up first and goal inside the 1. Jerod Mayo nearly had him at the line of scrimmage but Addai slipped his grasp.
1:30: Wilfork has been dominant inside and the Colts are getting nothing on the ground. Yet Orlovsky has taken the Colts to the Patriots 20, where they face third and 8 ... and convert the first down at the 11 when he hits Austin Collie over the middle for nine yards. First down at the Patriots 11.
5:57: Sound tackle by Nate Jones on a swing pass to Addai out of the backfield to hold him to two yards. But the Colts convert the third and 6 when Orlovsky hits Jacob Tamme for 20 yards to the Patriots 33.
7:30: After two runs by Joseph Addai gain just a yard, Orlovsky makes am on-the-money throw to Wayne for 12 yards and a first down at the Colts 43.
9:30: Two kickoffs, two touchbacks for Gostkowski. Orlovsky immediately hits Reggie Wayne -- now there's a familiar Colts name -- for 10 yards and a first down at the Colts 30.
9:33 first quarter, Patriots 3, Colts 0: Brady scrambles right but is sacked by Fili Moala at the line of scrimmage. (It appeared he had Gronkowski open for a first down near the 15-yard line.) Gostkowski hits a 39-yard field goal
10:06: Overturned. Faulk was down by contact after a 3-yard run. Patriots face a third and 2 at the Colts 21.
10:06: Now here's something we haven't said much the last 10 years or so: Kevin Faulk fumbles. The Colts recover, but it looks on the replay as if his elbow was down before the ball came out. Patriots are challenging.
11:01: Brady sneaks for 2 yards on third and 1 to convert the first down, then hits Wes Welker on the following play to get to the Colts 29. And no, the NFL.com in-game stat sheet is not correct -- Brian Hoyer is not starting at quarterback. Nick McDonald, however, is starting at center, with rookie Marcus Cannon at right tackle. Nate Solder has been used as the third tight end.
12:55: The Colts' first possession results in a net of minus-1 yard, with Vince Wilfork sacking Dan Orlovsky on third down and 4 to force a punt. Patriots take over on their 34 after a 47-yard punt by Pat McAfee.
14:55 first quarter: Julian Edelman isn't the only Patriots receiver to see time on the other side of the ball. Matthew Slater is starting at safety, alongside newcomer Nate Jones.
Pregame: Colts win the toss, will receive. Patriots will defend the south end zone. Colts will start at the 20 after Stephen Gostkowski's kickoff results in a touchdback.
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Checking in live from Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots take on the Indianapolis Colts in a matchup that lacks the usual luster of the perennial AFC powers' matchups over the past decade, and for obvious reason.
The Colts have played without Peyton Manning, recovering from offseason neck surgery, the entire season. While a falloff might have been expected, it's hard to imagine anyone thought it would be this bad: the Colts, at 0-11, are yet to win a game without their franchise quarterback.
The Patriots, at 8-3 and leading the AFC East by two games (plus tiebreakers) over the Jets, are as much as a three-touchdown favorite. No doubt that's thrilling news to Bill Belichick, who took the opportunity this week to curtly dismiss the suggestion that there's little to gain by playing a winless team. For the third straight week, the Patriots will be playing a quarterback who began this season as a backup at best (KC's Tyler Palko, Philadelphia's Vince Young, and today, former UConn star Dan Orlovsky). But as Belichick noted, longtime Colts stalwarts such as Dwight Freeney and Reggie Wayne will be on the field today, so there should be some specific challenges for the Patriots.
Kickoff is a few moments away and the Patriots are about to take the field. Game time temperature is 51 degrees with winds from the south at 10 miles per hour. Lots of empty seats in every section. Could be a late-arriving crowd, though judging by the W-L record of the opponent and the much smaller crew of tailgaters in the parking lot during the pregame, this may be one some of the Gillette Stadium regulars give away their tickets and spend a Sunday at home.
Stay right here for all of your in-game updates and other news as it develops throughout the game.