Pats face Colts with no regrets

FOXBOROUGH -- The call was hotly debated.

It was fourth-and-2 for the New England Patriots at their own 28-yard line. There was 2:08 remaining in the game, and the Patriots were leading the undefeated Colts 34-28 in Indianapolis almost exactly one year ago, on Nov. 15.

Conventional wisdom called for the Pats to punt the ball, giving Colts MVP quarterback Peyton Manning as long a field as possible to drive for a winning touchdown.

But New England coach Bill Belichick pulled a shocker. He called for the Patriots to go for the first down, even though the ball was deep in his own territory, knowing that if New England didn't make it, Manning would have a virtual gimme TD drive. If New England made it, Belichick reasoned, the game would be over.

Was he showing confidence in his offense? Or a lack of confidence in his defense, which already had coughed up 11 points in the fourth quarter?

Whatever he was thinking, the play didn't work. Kevin Faulk briefly juggled the short pass from Tom Brady, and the Colts' Melvin Bullitt stopped him in his tracks, about a half-yard shy of the first down.

Indianapolis took over, and four plays later, with only 13 seconds left, Manning found Reggie Wayne for a 1-yard scoring strike. Matt Stover booted the extra point and the Colts improved to 9-0, enjoying a stunning 35-34 triumph that pivoted on Belichick's call.

After the game, the defense's party line was that it wasn't insulted by Belichick's decision, that the coach's call wasn't a vote of no faith in his defense.

That sentiment was expressed again Wednesday by three members of the Patriots' defense as it prepared for another intense rivalry game with the Colts on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

"I don't think we're thinking about that fourth-and-2 from last year," said standout linebacker Jerod Mayo. "We [the defense] saw that as a sign of faith in our defense, that if we didn't make it, the defense would be able to stop them."

"I think that's just Bill's MO," said defensive back Kyle Arrington. "He just wanted to win the game right there and not give Peyton a chance. It was showing confidence by him in the offense."

"I was excited," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich of Belichick's decision. "I thought if they got it on fourth-and-2, that would be it, that would be the game."

So he didn't see it as a slap at the defense?

"Not at all," said Ninkovich. "We've got Tom Brady and Kevin Faulk. I'd take those two guys any day."

Brady, meanwhile, was gung-ho about the decision at the time, and said Wednesday that he hasn't obsessed over it since.

"I haven't thought about it at all, since probably that game, that night as a matter of fact," said Brady.

"I think when it comes down to those situations, it could happen this weekend. I'm always confident we're going to be able to make the play. Our coach has always had a lot of faith in what we do offensively: the way the offensive line protects, the way the receivers get open. He's gone for it a bunch on fourth down this year, so if it comes down to it again I wouldn't expect anything different."

In general terms, Belichick said he expects most games played between the Colts and the Patriots, two of the NFL's superpowers for roughly a decade, to come down to similar types of decisions.

"If you look at most of our games, I think most of them have been close, even if the score doesn't indicate that," said Belichick. "There's always a competitiveness, going down to a play or two here or there.

"Both teams know the other extremely well," added Belichick. "But a lot of players in this game [Sunday] did not play in last year's game. There are a lot of different dynamics."

One dynamic that won't be different is the presence of Manning. And while he has lost several of his receivers to injuries, notably Dallas Clark, the Colts still have Wayne and Pierre Garcon, and Manning makes newcomers such as Jacob Tamme look like All-Pros.

A week ago, the Pats' defense stifled the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl winner, until the fourth quarter in a 39-26 never-in-doubt victory in Pittsburgh. New England sacked Roethlisberger five times.

This week's game plan may be a tad different. Manning gets rid of the ball a lot quicker than Roethlisberger. He certainly has the respect of the Patriots.

"Peyton is as consistent as there is at the quarterback position," said Brady. "Our defense has a challenge to try to stop them, to try to stop that offense. It's a great offense.

"You give them a short field, you turn it over, next thing you know it's seven points. Then you turn and it's 14 points. I've watched plenty of Colt games where the game is over at halftime. We're going to have to really be conscious of that, protect the ball. When we get in the red area, [we have to] get the ball in the end zone. We've got to go out and make a bunch of great plays."

"He's a great competitor, I love watching him," Brady said of Manning. "He's been a great quarterback for a long time. Whenever I'm watching film of other opponents that we're playing I'm always looking for Colt games because I want to see how he's playing. There have been plenty of those games this year. There's a lot of things that he does that I wish I could do. I'm always trying to evaluate what he's doing and how he's doing it."

The defense is well aware of the challenge Manning presents.

"He reads coverage so well. He pretty much knows pre-snap what you're going to do. And he makes all the throws," said Mayo.

"Obviously he's very smart," said Arrington. "He's an intuitive quarterback. He's one of the best in the league, if not the best. He presents multiple problems for us."

"He's the captain of their offense," added Ninkovich. "He knows exactly what's going on. He tells everyone [on the Colts offense] what they're going to do. He's an unbelievable player. You have to get pressure on him. You can't sit back and let him choose who he's going to throw the ball to. You have to make him make a decision."

That game plan worked in Pittsburgh. Will it work again against Manning?

"[Last week] was a step in the right direction," said Mayo. "But at the same time we know we have a lot of work to do. It's just one more game."