Belichick's 4th-down gamble fails; Manning leads Colts back from 17 points down
INDIANAPOLIS -- Bill Belichick risked everything on one play Sunday night.
It cost him a victory, and it may wind up costing him a trip back to Indianapolis for a rematch with Peyton Manning later this season.
After the New England coach failed on a stunning gamble deep in his own territory, Manning threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne with 13 seconds left that rallied the unbeaten Colts to a 35-34 win over the Patriots.
"It's a bummer," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said.
Needing a first down to seal the game, Belichick decided to go for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28 with 2:08 to go. The Patriots called their second timeout of the drive, leaving them with none, to set up the play: A short pass from Brady to Kevin Faulk, something the 2007 NFL MVP had repeatedly used to burn Indy's young, depleted pass defense all night.
Not this time.
Faulk made a juggling catch but safety Melvin Bullitt, who replaced Bob Sanders in the lineup, came straight up the field and drove the Patriots running back into the ground a half-yard short of the marker.
"We tried to win the game on that play," Belichick explained. "I thought we could make the yard. We had a good play, we completed it. I don't know how we couldn't get a yard."
It was the most improbable victory for the Colts (9-0) in their 18-game regular-season winning streak, which is now tied for the second-longest in league history with, of all teams, New England.
The Colts trailed by 17 points early in the fourth quarter. This marked the first time Belichick's Patriots had lost when leading by at least 13 in the final period.
"When you see them going for it on fourth down, you get a little nervous, but our defense blitzed them, pressured them and got the stop," Manning said. "It certainly changed our philosophy. In practice, we're going 60 or 70 yards. So we figure we're going to have to go five, six, seven plays. In the huddle, I said, 'Obviously, we need a touchdown, but let's not be in a hurry.'"
The Patriots didn't dare second-guess their coach, though everybody else did.
"That fourth-down play, that's one of your best plays, and you go to one of your best guys," Brady said. "We've got our offense on the field. We have over 450 yards of offense at the time. We've got a lot of great players on our offense. They stopped us."
The miss gave Manning 1 minute, 57 seconds and all three timeouts -- an eternity for the three-time MVP -- and he went right to work.
Manning hooked up with Wayne for 14 yards. He let Joseph Addai carry the ball for 13 yards, down to the Patriots 1. He sent Addai inside again on first-and-goal, the same play Addai scored on to win the 2006 AFC Championship Game, but he got nothing. So Manning went back to Wayne in the end for the win.
Manning's deft play-calling left New England with only one option: A 9-yard pass to Wes Welker that ran out the clock.
It wasn't the first time Belichick tried it this season. At Atlanta, he went for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 24. But that was in the third quarter -- not with a seemingly secure victory in serious jeopardy.
Indy is now 9-0 for the third time in five years and only plays one team with a record better than 5-4 the rest of the way, Denver at 6-3.
New coach Jim Caldwell still has not lost, and Manning, who was 28 of 44 for 327 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions, now has eight 300-yard games this season. The NFL's single-season record is 10 and he passed Fran Tarkenton for fourth on the career victories list with one that he will always remember.
New England (6-3) has lost five of the last six in this series, one that has often had long-term implications. Since 2003, the regular-season winner has claimed the AFC title four times and become the Super Bowl champion three times.
And the Pats now trail Indy by three full games, and a tiebreak, with seven games remaining, meaning they'll likely have to return to Indy if there is a rematch.
"Give the Colts credit," Belichick said. "That's why the Colts are the Colts. They're a good football team. That's about as close as it gets."
Brady was 29 of 42 for 375 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Randy Moss finished with nine catches for a season-high 179 yards and two TDs, while Welker had nine receptions for 94 yards.
Manning made sure that wasn't quite enough.
Wayne caught 10 passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns.
The difference in this classic was that Brady dominated early, Manning when it mattered most.
After trading jabs in the first quarter, Brady took control in the second. He led the Pats to a tiebreaking field goal, hooked up with Moss on a 63-yard TD pass that floated perfectly over the hands of safety Antoine Bethea and then threw a 9-yard TD pass to Julian Edelman to give New England a 24-7 lead with 7:19 left in the half.
That was more points than Indy had allowed in any game this season.
"That man [Brady] will make you pay dearly if you don't get to him," Colts defensive end Robert Mathis said. "Even when we're behind, we know the game is not over."
Manning proved the theory still holds.
He answered with a 20-yard TD pass to Wayne, making it 24-14 at the half and after Brady connected with Moss for a 5-yard TD early in the fourth, Manning worked his magic again.
He took the Colts 79 yards in five plays, finding Pierre Garcon for a 29-yard score to get within 10. After Stephen Gostkowski booted a 36-yard field goal, Manning gave the ball to Addai for a 4-yard TD run with 2:23 to go. That made it 34-28.
Indy then elected to kick the ball deep instead of trying an onside kick, prompting Belichick to make his unusual decision -- and Manning made him pay.
"Reggie called the last play," Manning said. "I threw a fade to him earlier in the game. He wanted the slant. He just kept fighting through and made an extended catch. Maybe not his best catch ever, but it sure was timely."
Colts DE Dwight Freeney did not record a sack, breaking his streak at nine straight games. ... The game was delayed briefly in the first quarter when fireworks hit the field. ... Indy punted six times in the first half, matching their season high for an entire game this season. ... The Patriots lost Tully Banta-Cain with a rib injury in the first half.
- Scott Green
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