James Sanders' adjustment pays off

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The defensive call on the New England Patriots' game-sealing interception was to double-team the Indianapolis Colts' wide receivers. But safety James Sanders went slightly off the script and the result paid off big.

That sums up the defining play in what looked, for a moment, like it would be another Patriots collapse on par with "fourth-and-2." Instead, the Patriots came away with a 31-28 win Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

Sanders' job was to help on receiver Pierre Garcon down the right sideline, but when he saw tight end Jacob Tamme flexed out wide, he altered the plan. Instead, Sanders decided to double Tamme, a decision made because he earlier had seen Tamme targeted by quarterback Peyton Manning out of that formation.

It's the type of reaction that Sanders probably wouldn't have made early in his career. But now in his sixth year, he has been in enough big games to know when he has some freedom within the defensive plan.

So he doubled Tamme, who was jammed off the line of scrimmage by linebacker Gary Guyton. Then as the play unfolded in front of him, Sanders looked 20-25 yards up the field into Manning's eyes. What he saw was a quarterback who had read the defense correctly and was about to deliver a knockout blow. Manning was throwing to the receiver that Sanders was supposed to be doubling, Garcon.

At that moment, on the first-and-10 play from the New England 24-yard line, Sanders peeled off Tamme in an attempt to recover.

"I tried to drop back at the last second and help," he explained. "Luckily I got enough depth to make the play."

It was a brilliant play, Sanders leaping high in the air at the 6-yard line and snaring the ball at nearly its highest point, with just 31 seconds showing on the clock. Patriots coach Bill Belichick rightfully called it a "tremendous interception." It was arguably the biggest play of Sanders' career.

Manning had been pressured by Patriots rookie outside linebacker/defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, and while Cunningham thought he might have gotten a piece of Manning's arm, Manning believed otherwise.

"I certainly didn't get everything on that throw that I wanted," Manning said. "We had the matchup that I wanted -- Pierre one-on-one on [Devin] McCourty versus press coverage -- and I took a shot at the end zone. I can't tell the reason, I just did not get everything I wanted on the throw."

Because of that, the Patriots avoided another potential devastating collapse. They were up 31-14 early in the fourth quarter -- just like last season against the Colts -- only to be hanging on at the end.

"For a minute, I was thinking déjà vu," Sanders said. "As a defense, we knew if we didn't make a play, we were going to lose the game. He wasn't just going to give it to us, so we had to go out there and take the win. We made the play at the end."

One could call it a defensive deliverance considering that the Patriots' defense couldn't close things out last year against the Colts. Then again, it wasn't as if the defense shut the door with authority. The Pats were on their heels for most of the fourth quarter until Sanders bailed them out.

One play won it, which is the way it often is when the Patriots and Colts square off.

And when looking at the Patriots' body of work to this point of the season, one of their defining characteristics is the ability to come up with that one play. Unlike their predecessors of last season, they have proved to be clutch in posting an 8-2 record, tied for the best in the NFL along with the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons.

"When it comes down to the things Coach Belichick emphasizes, it makes us bond together even tighter," said tight end Alge Crumpler, one of the team's captains. "It always sounds cliché to say 'play 60 minutes of football' but there is not more of a 60-minute football game than Patriots-Colts."

"These kind of games, they're definitely character builders, you see what kind of team you have in games like this," added cornerback Kyle Arrington. "We've had a couple this year, most of them came down to the last possession, down to the wire. It says a lot about our character."

It also says a lot about Sanders, a true professional who just last season had been wondering why he had been relegated to a special-teams-only role, and who entered this year thinking that his $2.3 million base salary might be too rich for management's liking. Perhaps he would be playing elsewhere.

But this is the way it has gone for the Patriots this season -- another week, another win, another unexpected storyline.

"Somebody needed to step up and make a play, which James did," said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, another of the Patriots' captains. "It feels good when the defense comes through, kind of wins the game for you."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.