In what was hyped as the biggest NFL regular-season game ever, the Patriots stayed on course for an unbeaten season as Brady threw two of his three touchdown passes in a four-minute span of the fourth quarter Sunday to overcome a 10-point deficit and beat Super Bowl champion Indianapolis, 24-20.
Tom Brady's streak of throwing at least three touchdowns in a game was in jeopardy down the stretch, but he found Kevin Faulk late in the fourth quarter to extend the streak to nine games, topping Peyton Manning's record of eight.
|* -- 33 touchdowns, 4 interceptions this season
The win keeps the Patriots (9-0) on course for the NFL's first unbeaten season since Miami did it 1972 and gives them the first tiebreaker over Indianapolis (7-1) in the AFC playoffs.
"This is the first time we were in a ballgame late," said Brady, whose team had never before trailed in the fourth quarter and had beaten its previous eight opponents by an average of 25 points a game. "There wasn't any loss of confidence or determination."
Added New England linebacker Junior Seau: "We were going against a hostile crowd, an undefeated team, we took our hats off to them. But we still played well enough to win."
New England, which had been scoring more than 41 points a game, had piled points on late in several games in which they were far ahead, including last week's 52-7 win over Washington, when they kept playing hard well into the fourth quarter.
In this contest, anticipated since the schedule came out last April, they had to work their hardest just to win against perhaps the only team in the NFL close to them.
"We had an opportunity to do a lot of things," said running back Joseph Addai, the Colts' best offensive player on this day with 112 yards rushing and a 73-yard score on a short pass from Peyton Manning. "We left some points squandered and got field goals when we should have gotten touchdowns, but that's the nature of the game. Those guys are good. We'll see them again."
New England trailed 20-10 after Manning, who threw for 225 yards and a touchdown, scored on a 1-yard sneak with 9 minutes and 42 seconds left in the game, and the crowd roaring.
But on a second-and-10 from the Patriots 42, Brady hit Randy Moss over the top for 55 yards to the Colts 3 on a play in which Indy lost Bob Sanders, its best defensive back to injury. That set up a 3-yard TD pass to Wes Welker.
Rosevelt Colvin knocked the ball loose from Manning to force a punt on the next series. Then Brady hit Donte' Stallworth for 33 yards to the Colts 13 and on the next play found Kevin Faulk over the middle for 13 yards and the winning score with 3:15 left.
The defense finished it out. Jarvis Green knocked the ball lose from Manning and Colvin recovered to clinch the game on the Colts' next series.
"Some victories do mean more than others," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi, one of a handful of Patriots who played on all three of their Super Bowl winners. "This is one we're going to remember."
Coach Bill Belichick was less enthusiastic.
"This was just a football game against the Colts," the Patriots coach said. "That's all it was."
For three quarters "just a football game" looked like it belonged to Indy.
It seemed to have turned with 13 seconds left in the first half, when Addai took a short pass from Manning and raced 73 yards for a touchdown, at least twice faking out New England defenders who seemed as if they expected him to run out of bounds to stop the clock.
That gave the Colts a 13-7 halftime lead and seemed to be a huge momentum shift.
It certainly energized a Colts defense that was flying all over the field at the start of the second half. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis kept Brady under pressure most of the afternoon and when middle linebacker Gary Brackett picked off a Brady pass in the first minute of the fourth quarter that led to Manning's sneak, Indy seemed in control.
But Brady, who had 30 touchdown passes in the first half of the season, putting him on course to shatter Manning's three-year-old record of 49, finally awoke. The long pass to Moss was New England's first gain longer than 19 yards. It came on a scramble by Brady, who extended his record with at least 3 TD passes a game to start the season to nine games.
Moss proved to be a key throughout, finishing with 9 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown. That came in the first quarter, when he easily leaped high over 5-8 Tim Jennings to pull in a 4-yard TD.
Coach Tony Dungy said the Colts had prepared for Moss, knowing the Patriots would go to him when they needed a big play. Yet, they were unable to contain him when it counted most.
"We didn't have the answer for Randy Moss today," Dungy said. "We had a lot of attention paid to him trying to stop him from catching the deep balls but he caught the deep one at the big time of the game. That was really the play of the game, got them a quick score."
The Colts played without Marvin Harrison, their top receiver, who missed his third straight game with a knee injury. Starting left tackled Tony Ugoh also was out and the Colts lost Anthony Gonzalez, Harrison's replacement, with a finger injury in the first half.
In the end, that wasn't as much a factor as Brady. He threw for 153 of his 255 yards in the fourth quarter as the Patriots broke a three-game losing streak against the Colts, who beat them here 38-34 in the AFC title game last season and went on to win the Super Bowl by beating Chicago.
In that championship game, New England squandered an early 21-3 lead. On Sunday, though, the defense chipped in.
"Look at our situation last year," said Colvin, who grew up in Indianapolis and used to make popcorn at Colts games when they first moved here from Baltimore. "We were not playing 60 minutes and we turned an opportunity into a failure."
This time, the Patriots failed early. But they survived late, when it was most important.
Moss has 12 touchdown catches in nine games, tying the New England record for a season. ... Addai ran for 112 yards and had 5 catches for 114 yards to become the first player in Colts history to go into triple figures in rushing and receiving in the same game. ... The Colts had a 13-game winning streak going back to last season ended. ... This was the third straight season they had started 7-0. They were 9-0 last season and 13-0 two years ago.
- John Parry