Five observations from the New England Patriots' 31-28 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday:
1. Stars are aligning for a Patriots-Jets collision on Dec. 6. From a Patriots perspective, it's almost good that they have a short week, playing on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit. I'm sure the players already had DVDs of the Lions in their lockers and they're going to move on. The Colts game might not even be revisited because it's such a quick turnaround. This won't give them any time to hear how good everybody thinks they are, even though they have made two huge statements winning on the road at Pittsburgh and then at home against Indianapolis. There are no other two games in the NFL a team could win back-to-back and make a bigger statement. So this is good for a young team that they don't have time to focus on the past or what's ahead -- a collision course with the Jets.
The Patriots visit the Lions and the Jets host the Bengals on Thanksgiving, and I am assuming that the Patriots and Jets will win, which I can do now that I'm not playing. So when the Jets come to Gillette Stadium, it would be a game in which home field and a possible playoff bye could be on the line, with the loser having to go on the road. That is a big difference. With both teams playing Thanksgiving, it will give players a chance to get healthy and coaches plenty of time to game plan. The AFC East could well be decided that night.
2. Patriots organizational approach vs. Colts organizational approach. Some might wonder why coach Bill Belichick continues to stockpile draft picks, sometimes trading back instead of taking the best player available when it's the Patriots' time to pick. When you look at this game between the Patriots and Colts, I think you see why. It's depth, which is crucial to succeed in this league. You lose a Ty Warren to a season-ending injury, and you see someone such as Brandon Deaderick step in. You see a receiver such as Brandon Tate, a third-round pick, develop. Same with Aaron Hernandez, who was picked in the fourth round. All those second-round picks -- players such as tight end Rob Gronkowski and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer -- are contributing. With those extra picks and adding quality young players, Belichick created a situation in which he could have some solid depth when players go down.
Now look at the Colts. They had Pat Angerer stepping in for Gary Brackett at middle linebacker and Jacob Tamme stepping in for Dallas Clark at tight end, and it's a significant drop-off. Angerer was beaten by Wes Welker on the first touchdown and couldn't tackle Danny Woodhead on a third-and-5 in the first quarter that went for a first down. Tamme dropped a touchdown pass. The Colts count on their "star" players to be there and make plays. With the Patriots' depth, there is more of a team accountability.
3. Overlooked aspects of Danny Woodhead's playing style. Woodhead does everything well. He runs the ball well, has good vision and is able to catch the ball out of the backfield or out of the empty set. Sometimes when a running back is so multi-talented, it can create a conflict for the defense: Is he a receiver or a running back? One of the things that is special with Woodhead, and probably isn't talked about enough, is his lower-body strength. It helps him get the extra yard, moving the sticks on third down. You saw that in the second quarter, in the red area, with his 3-yard reception on third-and-3. Overall, when a defense sees a little guy like that, it might not respect the running game. But this Patriots offensive line is playing so well, and with Woodhead's ability to make defenders miss and run through tackles it's a perfect combination.
I could envision Woodhead struggling behind a lesser offensive line, but he has "Patriots player" written all over him. It doesn't matter the division in which he played in college; there is something to be said for him winning two consecutive Harlon Hill Trophies as the best player in Division II football at Chadron State. He's a good all-around football player, and the Patriots are lucky that the Jets' roster is so talented that they couldn't keep him in the second week of the season.
4. Appreciating Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The Colts couldn't run the ball. The Patriots were stopping the run with six in the box, as Vince Wilfork and the defensive line did a great job. But the Colts still ran it enough, which planted the seed in the defense's head that it still had to respect the run. That opened up well-timed play-action for the Colts. As a defender, if the threat of a run is still there you have to respect it, and if you do at the wrong time and take just one false step, the next thing you know, Manning pulls that ball out of the belly of the running back and the ball is over your head. The way Manning calls plays and executes is brilliant and frustrating at the same time. I recall a time or two when walking back to the sideline thinking to myself, "I can't believe he got us with that play." To see the two best quarterbacks in the league battle the way they did was fun to watch.
5. Learning experience for Patriots defense. What unfolded at the end of the game was the reason why I thought Belichick should have punted last year instead of going for it on fourth-and-2. I wanted to see this defense with a chance to win a big game. This young defense was counted on for the first time at the end of a game, and the more experience they get in these type of situations, against a great quarterback like Manning, the better it is for them regardless of if they succeed or fail. It helps to be able to fall back on your history and say, "I've been in this situation before." Those are the type of things that you take with you the rest of your career for the next time you play Manning and the next time the defense needs to make a stop. It pained me to see that this is the worst Patriots defense ever in some statistical categories. The only thing offsetting the poor statistical numbers is big plays, and they will have to keep getting big plays the rest of the season. The Brandon Meriweather interception at the beginning of the game was huge; Devin McCourty's interception was big; then James Sanders' interception to win the game. Those are the type of big plays a defense has to make if it is going to give up big yardage.
I was excited to see the defense in that situation at the end of the game. Yes, it gives up a lot of yards, but when you give up yards can you make the play to win in the critical situation? The Patriots did. I think the biggest question is whether they can make those big plays on a regular basis. They are starting to show they have the players to do that. If you are put in good positions and force the quarterback to make great throws over and over again, even Manning will throw you a couple.