- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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KELVIN HAYDEN awoke
in the middle of the night to the images that haunt defensive backs everywhere.
They had already been consuming his mornings and afternoons. Now they were
interrupting his dreams. The moment he opened his eyes, he saw Randy Moss,
Donte' Stallworth and Wes Welker, running patterns at the foot of his
For 50 minutes on Sunday the Colts were the No. 1 team in the NFL. But in the final 10, all those images that had disrupted Hayden's sleep sprang to life—Moss, Stallworth and Welker, running with no one to catch them. The New England Patriots wiped away a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, secured a 24--20 victory at the RCA Dome and likely locked up home field advantage through the AFC playoffs. Indianapolis is No. 1A again.
The prospect of an undefeated season, once so distant, suddenly seems very real. At 9--0 the Patriots still have conference dates remaining with the Baltimore Ravens (away) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (home); on Dec. 29 they travel to the Meadowlands to face the New York Giants. If they're still perfect, the Pats may have to decide whether to rest their starters for the playoffs or use them for the sake of history.
"I look down the road, and I just don't see anybody who will beat the Patriots," says Jim Mandich, who played tight end on the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only NFL team to post a perfect season. "They have distanced themselves from the rest of the league in a way that I have not seen in 30 years of watching football."
That kind of sound bite must burn in Indianapolis. The Colts won the Super Bowl last season, won their first seven games this season, and all they have heard this year is Patriots, Patriots, Patriots. Now that the two teams have finally played, and the Colts have lost, they must grind their teeth until the inevitable rematch—tentatively scheduled for the AFC Championship Game in Foxborough on Jan. 20.
If there is any hope for the rest of the AFC, it is that the Patriots at least were not able to run up the score on Indianapolis. They beat the Colts in a way that was more reminiscent of their championship seasons in 2003 and '04—depending on their defense, relying on timely draw plays and absolutely owning the fourth quarter. O.K., so maybe there really is no hope for the rest of the AFC. New England has now shown it can win in ways big and small. "It's nice knowing we still remember how to do it," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said after the game.
To hear the Patriots, running up the score two weeks ago against the Washington Redskins was only a form of preparation for Indianapolis. Coach Bill Belichick wanted to make sure his team knew how to finish a game with ruthless authority, no matter whom they might offend. "We've got to play 60 minutes, guys," Bruschi grumbled under his breath on Sunday night, doing his best impression of a Belichick pep talk.
Playoff atmosphere is a term that gets thrown around loosely in pro sports, but it applied in this case. Never before had two undefeated teams met so late in an NFL season. And rarely had a defending champion with no losses been listed as an underdog at home. (The last team to suffer such ignominy was New England in the 2002 opener against Pittsburgh.) Super Bowl XLI 1/2, as it was called, had only slightly less buildup than an actual Super Bowl—and significantly more suspense. With nine minutes left in the game, the Colts led by 10 points, and Tom Brady was dropping back on feet of clay. He had thrown two interceptions—matching his previous total for the season—and his team had scored only one touchdown. The Colts had reason to be cocky. "We were money," said cornerback Tim Jennings.
But anyone who has followed the NFL even casually over the past six years could predict what would happen next. Brady has staged far more difficult comebacks in his career, with far lesser receivers. He lofted a 55-yard rainbow to Moss, setting up a three-yard TD pass to Welker. The tension filling the RCA Dome had a familiar texture.
In this rivalry it is better to be losing when there's still time on the clock. Last season, in the AFC title game at the RCA Dome, Indy trailed New England by 18 in the second quarter. The Colts played free the rest of the way, the Pats played tight; Indy won. Again on Sunday the lead was a burden. When the Colts gave Brady the ball back late in the fourth quarter, after Welker's score had pulled New England to within three, they were essentially handing Brady the game. He only needed 47 seconds to drive for the winning touchdown, the key play a 33-yard go route to Stallworth.