Opinions have been voiced, percentages calculated, condemnation and unconditional support conveyed. Bill Belichick’s fourth-down-and-bust decision in Indy, whether it was the right call with the wrong outcome or just the plain wrong decision, is now a part of Boston sports lore. The debate goes on, but so does the Patriots’ season.
The last time the Patriots suffered a defeat this soul-sapping was Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants, when 18-0 became 18-and-woe. The Patriots had to wait seven months to play another game. After the collapse against the Colts they only have to wait seven days; this Sunday they’ll face off against their AFC East/blood rivals, the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots will get to take out their anger over the Indianapolis loss against the Jets, losers of five of six after a 3-0 start, which included a Week 2 win over the Patriots. The Patriots have an opportunity to knock the Jets (4-5, 1-3 in the AFC East) out of the division title race for good.
Indianapolis wasn’t the end of the line for the Patriots. In fact, it might have been the beginning of the realization that this version of the Patriots can be as good as any team in the league. How many teams in the NFL could have gone into Lucas Oil Stadium and outplayed a supremely focused Colts team for 56 minutes like the Patriots did?
Yes, the Colts were without Bob Sanders (aren’t they always?), starting cornerbacks Marlin Jackson (out for the year with an injured ACL) and Kelvin Hayden (knee, expected to return this season), as well as receiver Anthony Gonzalez (chronic knee issue). But the Patriots had no Sammy Morris and no Ty Warren and lost their best pass rusher, Tully Banta-Cain, during the game and the Colts still needed good fortune befitting of the horseshoes on their helmet to escape with a win.
Removing the emotion of how the Patriots lost, you have to feel better about their chances of matching up with Peyton Manning and Co., and anybody else in the NFL than before.
With apologies to the 9-0 New Orleans Saints, who barely got by the St. Louis Rams, 28-23, last Sunday in a game that came down to the final pass, the Patriots won’t see a better team than the Colts all year. If they play the way they did against Indianapolis there is not a team left on their schedule that they can’t beat.
In a defeat that is still being questioned, the Patriots were unquestionably the better team and continued to provide answers to concerns from earlier in the season.
As fearful as Bill Belichick proved of Manning, which was the impetus for his fateful fourth down call, the Colts defense has no answer for Tom Brady, Randy Moss and a Patriots offense that is passing for 302.7 yards per game, second only to Indy, and averaging nearly 29 points per game (28.8).
New England outgained the Colts, 477-407, and held on to the ball for 10 minutes and 4 seconds more time (35:02 to 24:58). They were inside the Indy 35 on eight of 15 drives, a total that includes two faux drives — a kneel-down before the half and the final possession of the game, when they got the ball with nine seconds left.
The chemistry between Brady and Moss is clearly back to the 2007 level, as Brady passed for more than 300 yards for the fourth straight game and Moss had two touchdowns, including a 63-yard bomb, and now has six of his seven TD receptions in the last four games.
Sebastian Vollmer continued to affirm that he is the real deal. The rookie left tackle had some help as the Patriots frequently employed reserve tackle Mark LeVoir as a tight end in the game to help in overall pass protection — LeVoir was on the field for Brady’s 55-yard strike to Moss that set up New England’s first score and on the 63-yard TD pass to Moss — but he still held Dwight Freeney sack-less, snapping a nine-game sack streak.
The third wide receiver spot has been a veritable black hole this season, but Julian Edelman returned from a broken forearm and caught his first career touchdown pass.
Sure, the defense gave up 35 points to Manning, but they also didn’t allow a single completion of more than 29 yards, intercepted him twice and sacked him once. This is not a dominating defense circa 2003 or 2004, but it’s certainly good enough to go deep into the playoffs. Despite the absence of a consistent pass rush, the Patriots pass defense has allowed only one pass play of more than 40 yards all season, tying Minnesota for the league-best in that category. Teams that don’t give up big plays always have a chance.
The Jets and their weeping coach, Rex Ryan, may think they caught a break with the Patriots loss, which still left them two games behind New England in the AFC East. They could find out on Sunday that the loss could have been the worst thing that happened to them.
The Patriots were already savoring the opportunity to exact revenge against Vociferous Rex and Co., now they’re also going to be primed to take out their wrath from the Indy loss on them as well.
It could be the wounded Patriots who heed the words of Jets safety Kerry Rhodes and not only try to beat their opponent, but want to go out and try to embarrass them.
The Patriots have the talent to do it, and the Jets are not exactly flying high these days. Their only win since Oct. 1 is over the Raiders.
And their own GQ QB, Mark Sanchez, who was caught hot-dogging it — literally — on the sidelines against Oakland, currently looks more like the next Brady Quinn than the next Tom Brady. He is completing 53.3 percent of his passes and has 9 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Motivated by the loss to the Colts, the Jets could be the Patriots first victim in a 2007-style revenge tour across the league, fueled by the failed fourth-down.
The day after the day after is time to start moving on. The season may have just begun.