Crisper Colts gain a bit of wild-card traction

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

INDIANAPOLIS -- This is unfamiliar stuff, a .500 record halfway through the season. Of course the alternative was even more unfamiliar for the Indianapolis Colts.

Sunday night's Patriots-Colts game at Lucas Oil Stadium was hardly the high-octane battle we've come to expect from a matchup that's often for AFC supremacy. While it was a tense contest, it felt as if it was played between two careful teams working very hard to build drives and not make a blunder.

Indianapolis was resourceful in finding its way to an 18-15 win. While the Colts got Bob Sanders back from a long injury layoff, the defense featured two reserves starting at cornerback and three safeties in the nickel package. But it all worked against the dangerous Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

The hosts also benefitted from mistakes, some forced, some served up -- highly uncharacteristic clock management trouble for Bill Belichick, who also undid a made fourth-and-1 conversion with a last-second timeout, as well as a bad unnecessary roughness foul by Patriots tight end David Thomas in a game with only three penalties.

"Here lately, that's been us," said Colts left guard Charlie Johnson. "That's been us, having to call the timeouts, getting penalties that stop drives, all that. It does feel good for us to play mistake-free football and have somebody else make the mistakes."

Buffalo, New England and the Jets are all 5-3 now, so the two who don't win the AFC East are right there at the head of the wild-card fight along with Baltimore. Indy is with Miami just a game off the pace.

"We feel like every game right now is almost like a playoff game," receiver Reggie Wayne said. "It's kind of like everybody that's not leading their division are kind of like in a big ball. So each game is going to be crucial. We also know that everybody that's in that big ball, most of them have got to come through us. We pretty much control our own destiny."

Whatever degree of control they reacquired, the Colts did so with a crisper game than they've been playing lately. They had one penalty, no sacks allowed, nice distribution in the passing game, pretty good tackling by the defense, good red-zone defense and Adam Vinatieri's first regular-season field goal of longer than 50 yards since 2002.

And, of course, efficient play by Peyton Manning, who posted 121.9 passer rating while hitting Anthony Gonzalez with two precise touchdown throws near the same front-right corner of the end zone below the picture window.

"He was really in control of things and understood what we were trying to do and made some really big throws especially in the red zone," coach Tony Dungy said. "The two balls to Anthony [were] very, very tight and balls that we needed. It was a very, very good performance against a defense that doesn't give you a lot."

The Colts don't exactly have a heart-on-their-sleeve locker room, but I sensed some palpable relief keyed around the ability to survive the limited personnel in the secondary and the revived sharpness in the passing game.

"With us, it's kind of like as goes the passing game, so goes this team," running back Dominic Rhodes said. "So it's definitely a big deal to get those guys going."

"It was just nice to win, I didn't care how we were going to do it," Gonzalez said. "There are a hundred ways to win a game. Really what it boils down to, I think, was just a lack of mistakes.

Other things I noticed, asked about, saw or learned out of this game...

-- Bill Belichick misread a potential 12-men-on-the-field penalty during the first possession of the third quarter and wasted a challenge reviewing it and trying to get it called. All for a potential five yards on first down. Trivial stuff considering the consequences.

He could have used that challenge later on a two-point conversion where it looked as if Kevin Faulk might have gotten in the end zone before he was down. Belichick probably wouldn't have gotten that one overturned either. But he certainly couldn't afford to burn his last timeout in the middle of the third quarter risking a second unsuccessful challenge.

Then with 11:38 remaining in the game, he sent offensive personnel on the field to go for it on a fourth-and-1 from the Colts' 7-yard line. Cassel successfully snuck for a first down, but Belichick had called a timeout changing his mind. He said after the game that the initial read there was that it was inches and then it came to be more like a full yard.

A field goal there knotted the score at 15, but it turned out to be the Patriots' last best chance to move ahead. And the Patriots were out of timeouts, unable to throw a challenge flag for the remainder of regulation. The need didn't arise. But the lack of timeouts had a big bearing on later decision-making. For example:

--After Thomas' penalty put the Patriots in a third-and-16 from the Indianapolis 46 -- he shoved Robert Mathis to the ground after a play was over -- Cassel threw a short middle pass to Kevin Faulk for one yard. Then the Patriots went for it on fourth down. Sanders intercepted Matt Cassel's pass intended for Benjamin Watson.

I understand a safety is programmed to catch such things, but Sanders is a heady player who should have realized knocking it down instead would have netted his team 20 yards.

"I talked to my coach about it, we both said I should have knocked it down," he said. "When you're in that position being a safety you want to make it, but it probably would have been better to knock it down."

The Colts punted the ball back to New England with 21 seconds left but pinned at their 20 and unable to stop the clock, the Patriots couldn't do anything.

--Ratliff had been cut by the Colts twice this season, but was brought back this week after starting cornerback Marlin Jackson was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in practice.

Ratliff spent a lot of time covering Moss and contributed to Moss winding up with a very survivable six catches for 65 yards. It seemed as if New England should have targeted and tested the fill-in corner more.

He said he'd gone home to Youngstown, Ohio after he was let go last week and his mom pointed him to tape of some of his Pop Warner games.

"I watched those and remembered that football is a game of fun," he said. "That's one of those things I kind of got away from, it was more on the business side... I came in with the mindset that I wasn't going to be that Achilles' heel that let the team down.

--The Patriots had great success with draws and delays in the run game when the Colts had both their safeties deep. In all, New England turned 32 carries into 140 yards. Those are big numbers against a lot of teams but manageable for the Colts to swallow the way they play.

"They got a couple plays on those, but we didn't think the draws could really beat us," said free safety Antoine Bethea, who shifted to nickel corner when the Colts deployed five defensive backs.

--New England won time of possession 34:24 to 25:36 thanks to scoring drives of 13, 13, 15 and 15 plays starting in the second quarter and extending all the way to the fourth. The Colts also had a 15-play scoring drive in the game.