Tuesday November 6th, 2007

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 bed.

It was only a game tape, left playing on the television in his bedroom on Tuesday night of last week. Hayden, a first-year starting cornerback for the Indianapolis Colts, quickly turned off the TV and went back to sleep. But he was jolted nonetheless. "Playing the Patriots -- it's a crazy week," he said. "You catch yourself doing a little more work, studying a little more film. I've had to tell myself a few times to relax."

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.

"We didn't give Coach 60 good minutes like he wanted," Stallworth said in the locker room. "We gave him six or seven good minutes. But they were at the right time."

It took three new receivers -- Moss, Stallworth and Welker -- to restore a favorite New England tradition: Brady besting Peyton Manning. Brady completed more passes than Manning (21 to 16) for more yards (255 to 225) and more touchdowns (three to one). Most important, Brady also won the game, for the first time in the last four tries. "There was never really any loss of confidence or determination," Brady said.

Early in the week Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy had compared the Colts to Joe Frazier and the Patriots to Muhammad Ali. The analogy, while apt, might not have resonated with the Ultimate Fighting generation. The Colts' down-goes-Frazier moment came on their final possession, when Manning was wrapped up by defensive end Jarvis Green and fumbled into the arms of linebacker Rosevelt Colvin.

A small corner of the stadium erupted. Colvin grew up in Indy and worked concessions at the stadium back when it was the Hoosier Dome. He made cotton candy during Colts games, spinning his confections and then slipping away to watch a few downs. Asked after Sunday's game if he planned to sample some of his old product, Colvin said, "I'm going to get me some right now." He wasn't joking. On the way to the Patriots' bus, Colvin was carrying a plastic bag full of pink, green and baby-blue cotton candy, nourishment for a sweet ride home. He raised the bag as if it was a trophy.

While New England now gets a week off -- or rather, the NFL gets a week off from New England -- Indianapolis will be tested again at San Diego. The Colts are the only team that really understands the scrutiny the Patriots are about to face. And they are not entirely envious. Two years ago they started 13-0, with the '72 Dolphins looming over them. Once the Colts lost, they lost again. Then they lost their first playoff game. "Sometimes it can be good for you to lose early," said Indy safety Bob Sanders.

At 7-1 the Colts figure they will be forgotten until January and then dismissed as easy playoff fodder in Foxborough. But they showed on Sunday that they are superior to the Patriots in at least one area, which happens to be pretty important when it comes to cold-weather playoff games: They have one of the most dynamic running backs in the NFL.

Joseph Addai is from Houston, one of the few cities in the U.S. that didn't get the Patriots-Colts broadcast. But he made plenty of the in-game highlights. He finished with 226 all-purpose yards, including a 73-yard TD reception at the end of the first half, when the Colts were trying to run out the clock and Addai declined to step out-of-bounds.

Should New England and Indianapolis play again this season, such details will grow in significance. The Patriots will have to do a better job against Addai, find more offense in the first half and contend with All-Pro receiver Marvin Harrison, who sat out Sunday with a bum knee. Even though the Patriots won this time, Indianapolis may still be the most likely candidate to keep them from an undefeated season.

In other words, Super Bowl XLI 3/4 could be even bigger.

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