Patriots have another tough game ahead

The New England Patriots welcome back Randy Moss and a Minnesota Vikings team that play better than their 2-4 record.

As much as fans were worried the San Diego team could have been a trap game for the Patriots, this week should raise more  about Patriots team will show up on Sunday afternoon.

The Patriots have outperformed so far this year with a record of 5-1 (the loss coming against the Jests). Accordingly, what seemed like a tough schedule has turned into a schedule of the unknown.

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Patriots charged up for west coast action

The New England Patriots had their first BIG win of the season beating the Ravens at home after the bye week. Then before you could flip the page to see the next scheduled game, the NFL scene changed dramatically to player safety and helmet-to-helmet hits.

The Patriots own safety Brandon Meriweather was fined and partially benched for a flagrant launch hitting TE Todd Heap and putting him out of action with a stinger for a a portion of the game.

The Patriots back to work on Wednesday this week, chose to ingore the Ravens game and everything not associated with the San Diego Chargers.

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Patriots clip Ravens in OT

The New England Patriots played as a team yesterday versus the Ravens, a team considered one of the top three teams in the NFL and a favorite to win the Super Bowl in Dallas.

The Patriots offense sputtered through the first three quarters trailing 20-10 in the forth quarter, before Tom Brady could finally execute some drives and tie up the score 20-20 and go into overtime.

Credit the defense front seven in this match as they limited the Ravens running game in the second half and put pressure on Ravens QB Joe Flacco. The defensive backs, which struggled earlier in the game, stepped up and played tight on coverage and not allowing the Ravens to convert on 3rd down.

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Patriots back into the Act

After the first quarter of the season and a bye week, the Patriots are back into action versus the team that ended their 2009 playoff run, the Baltimore Ravens.

There have been many changes since then and also in the past two weeks. So here are the key Patriots Acts for this week:

Act 1: Brady, Brady, Brady

How can Brady manage the game with Moss gone and Deion Branch back in NE? Where Brady goes there goes the offense and (with the defense still trying to find itself) the game.

Act 2: Will there be offensive balance between pass versus the run?

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Patriots lose ugly on national stage to New Orleans Saints

Minutemen with cell phones

Two years ago, when the Saints and Patriots met, it was the Patriots who were perfect. This time, the quarterback touching lofty new heights of perfection was wearing black and gold.

In pure football terms, it could turn out to be a watershed game, a kind of coming-out party for Drew Brees, who has already been the talk of the league this season, but joined the likes of his opponent tonight and Peyton Manning with a five-touchdown game through which he had a near-perfect passer rating. The Saints are playing a kind of football the Patriots should recognize–the kind we were witnessing two years ago. To an objective observer, they put on a beautiful show.

If you’re a Patriots fan, though, this game was ugly and excruciating.

It began competitively enough, with the Patriots ahead 7-3 midway through the first quarter. They scored that early touchdown on a beautiful line surge with a two-back set that left the New Orleans defense grasping at air, while Laurence Maroney scooted past them, between Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur on the right side of the line, into the end zone. Then, the Patriots defense forced a Saints punt, and Wes Welker slipped away from at least two tackles on his way across midfield to begin another drive deep in Saints territory.

Around my office today, I’d been engaged in the usual pregame banter and predictions, and I had to be honest: I wasn’t expecting the Patriots to come out on top in this game. Though they’d barely been edged by also-undefeated Indianapolis, the Saints seemed like an even more formidable foe, especially with Fantasy Football stud Drew Brees at the helm. But by the time Tom Brady stepped to the line after that Welker runback, I was beginning to think, O me of little faith.

And that’s about when Brady, flushed out of the pocket and scrambling, spotted Moss down-field and heaved the ball hopefully in his direction, only to have the route jumped by Mike McKenzie for an interception.

That was bad enough, but on the ensuing Saints possession, the defense also began to go south. Brees completed a swing pass to runningback Pierre Thomas in the backfield on a 4th and 1. The primary Patriots defender, Derrick Burgess, dove at Thomas’s feet and missed just past the line of scrimmage. Adalius Thomas seemed to leave another engagement along the right sideline too slowly as the runningback swerved upfield, and also missed. By the time Vince Wilfork made a desperate effort to catch Thomas coming from midfield, he had no chance; Thomas also passed a seemingly apathetic Jonathan Wilhite on his way into the end zone.

In various midgame analyses, that interception and ensuing score were emphasized as the turning point of the game. Much was made of Brady’s miscues and the absence of Sebastian Vollmer (as well as the side drama of Belichick’s particularly acerbic responses to questions about Vollmer’s condition). A collapsing pocket and deceptive looks from the New Orleans defense were giving the Patriots offense fits, of that there is no doubt.

But I was more upset about the defense. If the offense this year has been mediocre, the defense, at times like tonight, has been terrible. With about ten minutes remaining in the first half, Brees faked as if he was going to make another short pass to Thomas, bringing Brandon Meriweather up while Devery Henderson ran behind him (Wilhite had let him go). Then Brees turned and fired downfield, completing a deep pass to Henderson that laid bare, once and for all, just how bad the Patriots defense can look. The offense wasn’t exactly piling up points, but that coverage was FUBAR.

If I had to pick one especially bad performance among a Patriots secondary that all shared a really bad night tonight, it would be Wilhite’s. He was lifted for a while in favor of Darius Butler after stumbling, staggering and getting burned for another touchdown in the third quarter; his back was literally to the ball and his man when the pass came in. Pathetic.

As the second half opened, there was still hope, especially after the Patriots offense clawed back within a score at 24-17, featuring a long completion (finally!) between Brady and Randy Moss and another Maroney run into the end zone. That is, until the Patriots secondary once again was left with their pants around their ankles on the next New Orleans possession, and the game began to slip away, 31-17.

There was one last gasp for New England as they drove down the field in the third quarter, ultimately facing a fourth down and four deep in New Orleans territory, but an attempt to get the first down with a pass to Moss was once again thwarted by McKenzie, who played a superior game tonight. Another quick slice and dice of the Patriots secondary by Brees, and the game was well out of reach, 38-17.

I had thought it might be bad, but I still didn’t know quite how bad it would feel, especially watching Brady actually sidelined by the end of the game, standing grim-faced with Bill Belichick on the sideline as the final minutes played out.

Worse, all of the above only served to underscore themes that have already become all too familiar this season–this was no one-off fluke. “This whole game,” tweeted Joe Haggerty of Hacks with Haggs, “is Exhibit A in the case of Bill Belichick vs the people of New England on 4th and 2.”

We’re at the point in the season when team identities are starting to form, and while the Saints are looking downright magical, the Patriots seem to be establishing themselves in the middle of the pack — over .500 and capable of beating up on bad teams, but not flying among the class of the league this year. There will be no Comeback Player of the Year Award for Brady, as New England fans may have fantasized before the season began. And it’s even beginning to feel like the zeitgest of the league has begun moving away from us, to the west, and south.

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5 Keys to the Battle in the Bayou

Monday night’s much-hyped match-up against the New Orleans Saints is sure to be a terrific football game and may rival the Pats/Colts showdown from 2 weeks ago for “Game of the Year.” However, if the Pats want to avoid a similar result to the end of the game, here are five keys to victory (easier said than done):

1. Play 60 Minutes – In all 3 of the Patriots’ losses this season, they have blown a halftime lead, something uncharacteristic of the Belichick Era Patriots. They have been known as game closers before, especially when leading in the fourth quarter. However, even in wins, they seem to lose steam in the second half of the game and in the fourth quarter the game tightens up more than it should have. This is both the fault of the offense and defense, as the offense stalls and the defense goes from bending to breaking. If they hope to win Monday, they must play their first complete game against tough competition. The Saints are more explosive than the Colts, and can erase a fourth quarter deficit equally as fast. “60 Minutes” must the the theme of the game.

2. Avoid the Turnover. The Saints, while not a top ten defense, are very opportunistic. The Saints lead the league in interceptions and touchdowns off of INTs. Safety Darren Sharper is tied for second (with Charles Woodson) in the NFL with 7 interceptions and leads the league with 3 defensive touchdowns off INTs. Drew Brees and the offense need no extra opportunities to put points on the board, so the Pats must be extra careful with the ball, and that includes the running backs holding onto the football.

3. Force the Turnover. Brees has been INT-prone the past few games, throwing 7 in the past 3 games. The Pats have been more opportunistic as of late, forcing 2 fumbles and snagging 6 interception over the last 3 games. Taking the ball out of Brees’ hands and putting it in Brady’s will be key to pulling out a victory. The less time the defense is on the field, the better.

4. Keep Speed on the Field. Don’t be surprised to see multiple defensive backs in on most of the plays Monday night. The Patriots are going to need a strong pass rush and plenty of speed in coverage to keep up with the Saints’ wide outs, Reggie Bush out of the backfield, and Jeremy Shockey. It also doesn’t help the Pats being on the fast-track field in the dome. Look for lots of 4-2-5 and 3-2-6 defensive sets, with the two linebackers primarily being Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton (the team’s fastest LBs) and the safeties getting plenty of playing time. Pat Chung, James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather, and Brandon McGowan are a versatile bunch and can play back in coverage, up near the line in run support, and aide in the pass rush. Look for Belichick to use that versatility to slow down the Saints’ attack. Also, look for plenty of bump-and-run coverage. The Pats can’t allow the Saints’ wide receivers, or Reggie Bush for that matter, a free release off the line. The Patriots played the Rams very similarly during Super Bowl XXXVI, not allowing Marshall Faulk (aka Reggie Bush in this game) a free release.

5. Control the Clock and Set the Pace. The Saints can be a very fast-paced team, both on offense and on defense. Tom Brady and the offense need to set a deliberate pace and control the clock. Slowing down the pass rush with screens and draws will be key. Look for Kevin Faulk, who has gained more and more playing time in recent weeks, to see lots of playing time. If the game turns into a track meet, that’s advantage Saints.

Monday night’s game is going to exciting, but I wonder if the defense is up to the challenge. I have no worries about the offense scoring points, but as we in New England used to say, defense wins championships. Hopefully, the team figures that out sooner than later.

Go Pats!

Posted in Bill Belichick, Brandon Meriweather, Kevin Faulk, New England Patriots, New England Sports, NFL News, Patriots Game Previews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

An Ode to Wes Welker

Welker breaks from the line of scrimmage (far right)

Wide Open

Caught

Last time the Patriots played the Jets, Wes Welker was not active for the game. This time, he was the team’s leading receiver. One game was a loss. The other, Sunday’s decisive win.

You can’t say Wes Welker singlehandedly made the difference in this game (Leigh Bodden and his three interceptions might have something to say about that). But he came about as close as you can in as team-oriented a sport as football.

My father and I were sitting on the second deck near the lighthouse in the North end zone, and so whenever the action came close to that end of the field we had an up-close view. During the second quarter, with the Patriots driving from their own territory in front of us, Brady hit Welker with a pass that made my dad’s eyes pop behind his binoculars. Lowering them, he hollered, “Did you SEE THAT?”

It’s not a play that will make any of the highlight reels; the play was short of a first down and was an otherwise forgettable three-yard pitch and catch. But “pitch” would be an appropriate word for it — it had all the humming speed of a major leaguer’s fastball, down and away, spiraling toward the ground as if fired from a cannon.

Welker reached out with his hands of iron and stopped that missile with his fingertips just before it hit the ground. Then he curled up like a beetle hiding behind its carapace, as he always does, and let the defensive onslaught pile on top of him. When the dust cleared, he popped up and headed back to the huddle, ready to line up for his next diving self-sacrifice. After the nuclear holocaust: cockroaches and Wes Welker.

Not only can he seemingly catch anything, but the man comes across as literally impervious to the worst punishment a defense can throw at him. He takes smashing, ringing hits and pops up again just as he did after that play. Maybe it’s because he’s so small, and can curl up like that at the end of plays, letting the blows rain down on his back while he compacts his frame to protect himself.

When you actually attend a game, ironically, you see less of it. Sometimes you miss the subtleties as the game moves 90 yards away in the opposite end zone from where you’re sitting, as binoculars or a telephoto lens are the closest you’re going to get to the action, and it seems completely random when the stadium will choose to show a slow-motion instant replay on the Jumbo Tron. Without Joe Buck or the like to fill us in, I had no idea that Welker was setting personal best records during these individual plays, in which he had 15 catches for 192 yards.

But there was no question, even as we contended with drunks and spilling beer and squinting at the action downfield, that Welker was the standout player of this game. There was one play in the third quarter where the consensus around us was that Brady may have been trying to throw the ball away toward the right sideline, and still Welker snagged it. You’d have to be blind, blackout inebriated or not in your seat not to see his impact on this game.

What I find even more interesting in retrospect isn’t just the huge receiving numbers Welker put up: it’s another number next to his name in the box score. Zero touchdowns. In baseball, we would call this kind of thankless yeoman’s work being a dirt dog.

For some reason, though he set team records last year and the year before, though he now stands as only the eighth player in the history of the NFL to have back-to-back 100-reception seasons (per Sports of Boston, which has an excellent writeup of Welker’s college and previous NFL accomplishments), Wes Welker has flown under the radar the way he sneaks in routes under safeties on the field. Randy Moss, the classic, willowy, fast-sprinting wideout, has set records of his own and garnered more of the attention, even among Patriots fans.

I think this game against the Jets has changed that once and for all. During some talk-radio listening yesterday, I heard the Sports Hub hosting a discussion about whether listeners consider Welker or Moss the Patriots’ No.1 receiver, or at least which was their personal favorite. (The host also alluded to Welker getting his toughness from the fact that he and his brothers used to hit one another with baseball bats. I can find no corroboration for this, but I don’t disbelieve it.)

Personally I think Moss and Welker are apples and oranges, but it’s for the best that way. Welker’s not usually going to win on a jump-ball, but Moss isn’t going to take the kind of beating Welker routinely takes going over the middle. Welker’s all about yards after catch; Moss is all about the circus reception in the end zone to put things to rest immediately. I think the Patriots’ biggest advantage comes not from having one or the other, but having both players on the team, and being able to alter game plans to focus on one or the other depending on opponent, or even check plays at the line based on the defense.

To return to the baseball analogy again, one is Brady’s fastball (Moss) and the other his curveball (Welker). One might play a bigger role than the other in a particular start, but both need to be established against the other.

Full game photoset here

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Final thoughts on "The Call"

The sports world all week has been abuzz about the now infamous call to go for it on 4th-and-2 on the wrong side of the 50 this past Sunday against the Colts. Beth posted an EXCELLENT analysis of both the arguments for and against the call, and if you haven’t read it, scroll down or click here.

I’ve hung back from the debate on the Patriot Act first because my post probably wouldn’t have been printable, and then because as all the arguments were floating about, I wanted to soak it in and reflect a little more. As the saying goes, “hindsight is 20/20,” and if the Patriots had made the first down, Belichick would have likely been hailed as a genius for not letting Peyton Manning get the ball and beat him again. However, it didn’t happen, and his coaching genius is now being questioned. At first, as you can probably figure out, I thought it was a terrible call, and was saying as much before Brady hiked the ball on 4th-and-2 Sunday night. I still am of the opinion that Belichick should have punted, but I am more understanding of why he made the decision.

Everyone has their opinion about what the proper call was, but I wonder if we would have felt any better if Peyton got the ball on the Colts’ 30-yard line and drove 70 yards in a minute to take the lead. Certainly, the calls into WEEI and every other sports show would have been how the defense blew it, Belichick’s defense is outdated (heard that earlier this season on NFL Network’s “Playbook” program), and the Patriots are no longer clutch. All of those arguments would have been just as legitimately debated as “The Call.” Would we not have still had that nasty pit in our stomachs and the sleepless night that followed? Probably, but we will never know. Could the defense have stopped Manning with 70 yards between them and the end zone? I understand now why “The Call” was made. Convert 4th-and-2 into a 1st-and-10, and the game is pretty much over. The Pats could run most of the clock out, if not all of it with another conversion, and Peyton wouldn’t have the time to score. Consider this (I believe Jon Gruden made this point): You have one chance to win the game. Do you put the ball in the hands of Tom Brady, or do you rely on a young defense that was depleted in the pass rush due to injuries? I’d probably choose Tom Brady 9/10 times, but not in this instance. However, it is a valid and good point.

I think that “The Call” can be debated, but not criticized. There is a difference of opinion and we do not possess the knowledge of what would have happened had the ball been punted. Perhaps, had it been punted and Peyton scored anyway, we may have been crying, “They should have went for it and not given Peyton the chance to score!” Debate is legitimate, criticism is useless. Consider this point as well: On NFL Total Access Wednesday, NFL VP of Officiating Mike Pereira was asked about whether the ball was spotted properly on the 4th-and-2 play. He notes that it is very difficult to see where Faulk has control, and even if Belichick could have challenged the play, or it occurred after the two-minute warning and the booth challenged, there was no indisputable evidence to overturn the call. HOWEVER, he also states that had the Faulk been ruled down past the 30 and the Colts challenged, there would have been no indisputable evidence to change the ruling on the field. Very interesting.

I do feel that we can legitimately criticize how the entire final series was handled. That is on the coaching staff. To start, a timeout was called before the first play was ever run. I have NEVER seen that before. The wrong personnel was on the field for the play called, and that is the coaching staff’s fault, especially after having an entire TV timeout to figure out the next play. Next, on 3rd-and-2, and incomplete pass, which stopped the clock. If they were of the mindset that they were in 4-down mode, wouldn’t a quick run up the middle have been a better call? Even if it gained no yards, it trumps an incomplete pass because it forces the Colts to burn a timeout. If it gains a yard or so, it leaves the door open for a Brady sneak, which I can’t recall a single time he has not converted. Then, after the 3rd-and-2 incomplete pass, the Pats burn their final timeout calling the punt team off the field and putting the offense back out, which brings to mind whether they were certain they were in 4-down territory. Belichick had mentioned in press conferences since “The Call” that the play they used they had worked on “for a while,” which leads me to believe going for it was a decision made before the season even started. If so, the coaching staff had very poor clock management, which is not something we are used to here in New England. We are used to the intentional safety, the clock-killing, game sealing plays, the drives to win Super Bowls, etc. The coaching staff is going to need to review their strategy and make the necessary improvements, or the play-offs will not last too long for the Pats.

Now, it’s on to revenge against the Jets and Rex “Tears for Fears” Ryan. This time it’s in Foxboro. This time, Wes Welker is playing. This time, Brady has his timing down. This time, there is plenty of tape of the Jets’ defense and Mark Sanchez. It should be interesting.

Go Pats!

Posted in Bill Belichick, Indianapolis Colts, Kevin Faulk, New England, New England Patriots, New England Sports, New York Jets, NFL Network, NFL News, Patriots Game Reviews, Patriots Playoffs, Peyton Manning | Leave a comment

The Belichick Debate

I'm the boss...need the info...I thought if there was ever a cause for unanimity in the sports world, it would be in the reaction to Belichick’s call on Sunday night. Everyone outside New England hates him and will jump at the chance to dog him, I thought, and New England fans would be so distraught over the game they’d be desperate for someone to blame.

But this is the Internet. And so a contrarian view began to spread yesterday, virally. A view I believe started with someone’s desire to take a fresh angle on the obvious story, but that’s neither here nor there.

Every one of these analyses seems rooted in a statistical argument encapsulated in a Deadspin post entitled “Bill Belichick Was Right.”

With 2:00 left and the Colts with only one timeout, a successful conversion wins the game for all practical purposes. A 4th and 2 conversion would be successful 60% of the time. Historically, in a situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams get the TD 53% of the time from that field position. The total WP for the 4th down conversion attempt would therefore be:

(0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP [win probability]

A punt from the 28 typically nets 38 yards, starting the Colts at their own 34. Teams historically get the TD 30% of the time in that situation. So the punt gives the Pats about a 0.70 WP

I wasn’t going to harp on it anymore, because it’s ultimately a matter of opinion, not fact, and I can scream my conclusion till I’m blue in the face and it’s not going to make anyone agree with me, nor should it. But I’ve been irked to see this argument passed along uncritically, and spent so much time repeating myself on Facebook, on IMs, etc. having this same conversation that I just want to put my argument up and then be able to send someone a URL whenever I want to continue making the same points.

First off, this isn’t baseball. The sports are apples and oranges, to begin with. Also, football is far behind baseball in terms of the fine-grained statistics that are gathered (though places like Football Outsiders are doing a great job of changing that picture).

Thus I find especially suspect the reliance on the calculation that “Historically, in a situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams get the TD 53% of the time from that field position.”

Not Peyton Manning, specifically. Not the Colts. This means that throughout all time, teams, which means everyone from the Sisters of the Poor to the top flight of the league, have a 53 percent chance of scoring. I think that statistic is debatable, to say the least.

To me it is not as debatable as it’s being made out to be that if you gave Peyton Manning the ball with 2 minutes on the opponent’s 30 yard line, given the other two insanely quick scoring drives that had just transpired and the way the Pats defense was playing late in the game, that he was going to score. I don’t care what the overall team’s red zone efficiency states, in that game, in that moment, with the Pats defense shortstaffed because of injury, clearly losing steam and also losing momentum, there’s no way IMO the Pats are going to make a goal-line stand and win the game.

There’s also no guarantee that a punt meant the defense would be able to stop him, either, but I find it really hard to believe that the odds of Manning scoring from his own 30 are lower higher than scoring from the New England 30. That’s the information that matters with 2 minutes left in the game. I’m finding it really hard to stomach ppl weighing in with overall historical fourth-down conversion stats to essentially argue that giving Manning the ball on the New England 30 was somehow preferable or at least neutral compared to giving him the ball on the Indianapolis 30. It’s like arguing in baseball that a runner on first has a better chance of scoring than a runner on third.

Similarly, it was brought up yesterday morning on WEEI that the Patriots have a 63% fourth-down conversion rate this season (also heard 60%, 73%…) But that statistic also doesn’t account for time to go and game situation. It’s not a stat that’s representative of situation the way baseball stats are — where you say with less than 2 outs or with a man in scoring position. This is just conversion rate each time they’ve faced a fourth down, not accounting for the yardage to go, score, time remaining, opponent…

D&C’s point was that you can’t go by that statistical calculation, because in many cases when a team goes for it on fourth down, they’re behind significantly and the other team is playing a softer containment defense, or the game is imbalanced in some other way. This wasn’t a decision you could make in a vacuum just looking at the overall conversion statistic.

In short, if you could tell me that on fourth and 2 in the final three minutes of a game against AFC opponents ranked 5th or higher overall, the Patriots, specifically, have a 63% conversion rate, that might be different.

I will concede the point that focusing overmuch on the 4th and 2 decision isn’t wise, either, since there were so many other factors that led up to that situation, and a series of decisions that followed it that were in some ways equally inexplicable. There was also Maroney’s fumble in the end zone (he’s lucky Belichick is drawing the amount of attention he is this week), and the notion, which I expressed at the time, that if they’re playing at Gillette, I wonder if the ref sees Faulk “bobble” the ball.

But if the percentages really line up in favor of Belichick’s decision, if it’s really been mathematically demonstrated it’s the right call to risk giving it up on downs deep in your own territory up by less than a score with two minutes to go in the game, why does the punt exist in football at all?

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Patriots lose a heartbreaker in final seconds to Indianapolis Colts

The all-important hoodie adjustment

Yes, Patriots haters, soak it in. That game last night was every bit as painful as it looked.

There almost seem to be two games now, looking back on it. The first three quarters, and then the fourth.

Throughout the first three quarters I was sitting there diligently making notes as usual, anticipating writing this game post. I noticed that though the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady matchup was capturing most of the attention, several other one-on-one matchups were having an even bigger effect on the game, most notably, in those first three quarters, Sebastian Vollmer vs. Dwight Freeney. Brady only had the room to launch those long bombs to Moss because the rookie left tackle was frustrating the Pro Bowl defensive end all night.

I also took note of the matchup between Pierre Garcon and Leigh Bodden. The Patriots defense was either doing a good job in coverage of Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, or the Colts had assumed those guys would be taken away and planned to pick on Bodden, but either way, for those first three quarters Bodden held his own against the much taller wideout. Garcon also did us a few favors by dropping a few key passes, as did Austin Collie.

Nick Kaczur vs. Robert Mathis on the other side of the line didn’t go so well — Mathis got to Brady a couple of times. Laurence Maroney also earned the golden sombrero for the first three quarters, having fumbled a touchdown in the end zone which the Colts recovered with about three minutes left in the third.

It’s arguable that this, and the ensuing Indianapolis drive, in which Garcon finally beat Bodden for a touchdown to make it 31-21, were every bit as key to the outcome as what would happen in the fourth quarter. Add to that the ensuing drive in which the Colts drove from their own 20, facilitated by a key pass interference call against Darius Butler, to make it 34-28, and the Patriots defense obviously did not shower itself in glory as the game wore on.

Also, the offensive line that had stood stout through the whole game appeared to be flagging in the final fifteen minutes, the pocket that had given Brady latitude for big plays to Moss and Welker now collapsing in around him. Overall, before it came down to just over two minutes in the quarter, the game had the sensation of the end of a marathon, with the leader flagging and a challenger putting on a final burst of speed.

But all of that was bumped from the forefront of the New England fan mind by what would happen at the tail end of the fourth quarter, with the Patriots still leading and a 4th and 2 with the ball on the 28 yard line. A 4th and 2 that will live in infamy.

They took a time out. That’s the first, most inexplicable thing. Regardless of what they planned to do, why give the defense a chance to set up?

Then they came back to the line. I thought they might be trying to draw the Colts off-side, and then they would punt. And then, unbelievably, Tom Brady was snapping the ball.

If you were going to go for it on fourth and two on your own 28 up by less than a touchdown, why not fake a punt? This game was so bad I fell off the wagon vis a vis sports talk radio this morning, and on Dennis and Callahan they raised the good point that a punt in that situation was so expected a fake punt might have worked well.

But that’s not what they did. Instead, Brady lobbed a short pass to Kevin Faulk, who bobbled it as he came down, causing the referees to mark it down where he’d fallen rather than his forward progress–in other words, they marked it short of the first down. And really, at that point, everyone watching knew that was the ball game.

The same New England defense that had been subliminally snubbed on that fourth-down play, the same New England defense Peyton Manning had begun carving up on his last two drives like a Thanksgiving turkey, now faced the Colts starting at the New England 28. This was not the goal line stand of 2005, that much was obvious going in.

Even so, at the time I thought the fourth and 2 had been a kind of reprise of the game against the Denver Broncos where Belichick had allowed them to score a safety with a long snap off the goalpost so that the Patriots would get the ball back. Except once the Colts took over on downs, the Patriots obliged in chewing up the clock by attempting to stop them, which ultimately didn’t work, and left them with 13 seconds to make a Hail Mary attempt to salvage the game.

And again, another inexplicable decision, and this time it’s difficult to tell whose it was, but when the Colts kicked off, the Patriots ran it out instead of letting it go in the end zone and stopping the clock. Instead of the full 13 seconds to take a Hail Mary shot, the Pats were left with 9 seconds, stayed in bounds, and watched time run out with the ball in their hands.

This was one of those mornings as a fan when you wake up and don’t even have those few blissful seconds of forgetting exactly why you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. This was the kind of morning where it’s right there, right in your face, instantaneously.

It reminds me in feeling of the Super Bowl against the Giants, which was both better and worse, depending on your perspective. The Patriots lost that game fair and square by being outplayed rather than the worst coaching decision New England has seen since Grady Little, but then again, it was the Super Bowl and ruined the perfect season. Pick your poison — the feeling looking back on both games, like staring into the sun and being gutpunched at the same time, is the same.

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