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What We Learned: Patriots-Colts

Five things we learned from the Colts' 18-15 conquest of the Patriots Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.....

1. The Colts are still breathing. They're getting a bit old in some key spots, and they're banged up beyond recognition in some others. But the Colts and their playoff hopes are still breathing at midseason, and you really wouldn't have been able to say that with a straight face without this gutty win over New England.

At 4-4, the Colts at least have a second half of the season to play for. Though chasing the unbeaten Titans down for the AFC South title is still just a pipedream, Indy is now just a game off the pace in the AFC wild card chase, behind the clump of 5-3 clubs that includes Baltimore, the Jets, and either New England or Buffalo, whichever one is technically the wild card contender rather than the AFC East leader at the moment. Indy is now in sole possession of second place in its division, a game ahead of both Jacksonville and Houston, who are both 3-5 after losing on the road Sunday.

"It's a big win,'' said Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. "But it's important what we do with this. I'd be nice to build off this, and get a streak going. But it was an important win, because it makes us 4-4. We'd rather be 8-0 like the Titans, or 7-1 like the Giants. But hopefully we can get some more guys back and try to get hot.''

Will this be a springboard type of victory for the Colts? I'm not so sure. They travel to Pittsburgh next week, and that's no easy assignment, even if the Steelers will have a short week of preparation after playing at Washington on Monday night. The Colts knew however that their season was effectively on the line against New England, and they responded like the proud, veteran team they are. For this night at least, they refused to let their NFL-best five-year streak of not having more than four losses come to an end.

"It was about time,'' Colts safety Bob Sanders said. "We needed to get this started. We knew it was going to be a case of going out there tonight and doing whatever it took to get a win. Just one win. We needed this one.''

2. Sunday night wasn't Bill Belichick's best work. Maybe he forgot to turn his watch back an hour Saturday night, because clock management wasn't exactly Belichick's strength in this one. First, he unwisely opted to challenge that the Colts had 12 men on the field early in the third quarter, apparently getting confused by the sight of two Indy defenders racing off the field after Kevin Faulk carried for no gain on a first-and-10 at the Colts 45.

A replay review showed that the 12th Colt on the field made it off in time, and the other Indy defender was only the 11th man on the field. Thus the Patriots lost their first timeout of the second half on a rather inconsequential failed challenge. New England could have better used that challenge when moments later Faulk appeared to score on a two-point conversion, only to be ruled down before the ball crossed the goal line.

Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel called the second New England timeout on the same drive that Belichick lost the challenge, and then things got really interesting. With the Patriots facing a 4th and 1 from the Indy 7 with 11:38 remaining and the Colts leading 15-12, New England decided to go for it, having Cassel sneak the ball to the 5 for a first down. Or so we thought. Before Cassel could take the snap, Belichick had second thoughts about the risky move, and wound up racing onto to the field in order to call New England's third and final timeout.

The timeout wiped out the apparent first down, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski was sent on to safely convert a chip-shot 25-yard field goal, tying the game at 15-15. But now the Patriots were forced to play the final 11:33 without any timeouts, and without the possibility of challenging another call. That proved very big indeed from a strategic standpoint, because it forced New England into going for a highly improbable 4th-and-15 from the Indy 45 with 4:40 remaining -- a pass which was intercepted by Sanders. With any timeouts remaining, the Patriots almost certainly wouldn't have rolled the dice that way.

"Well, we didn't get a very look at the spot,'' said Belichick, when asked about his indecision on the fourth and 1 call. "At first we thought it was fourth and inches. But all along it was fourth and about a yard. So, once we saw what the distance was, it just seemed better to go for the points.''

The Patriots got their three points. But they were the last points New England scored all night.

3. Adam Vinatieri can still go all clutch on us. The ex-Patriots-turned-Colts kicker had a sweet moment of revenge midway through the fourth quarter, kicking the game-winning 52-yard field goal against the team he won three of his four Super Bowl rings with. Huge kicks have been a bit few and far between of late for the 35-year-old Vinatieri, and he hadn't converted a field goal of 50 yards or more in his past 91 regular season games -- dating to 2002.

But he nailed this one with plenty to spare, sending it hurtling into the net that hangs several yards beyond the uprights. It was a courageous decision by coach Tony Dungy and the Colts, given that a miss would have led to New England taking possession at the Patriots 42 with 8:05 remaining in a 15-15 game.

"I can't imagine he had any satisfaction making that kick,'' said Dungy, with his tongue planted firmly in cheek. "It was probably just another game for him.''

Vinatieri entered the game just 5 of 8 on field goals this season, with his longest being from 47 yards. He has missed from 30, 49 and had a 45-yard attempt partially blocked.

"Tonight I had one shot and thank goodness it went through,'' he said. "I guess it's that much sweeter when you help your current team beat your former team. It was a big win and I'm pretty happy about that.''

4. Peyton Manning is really starting to look for Anthony Gonzalez. Maybe it's just a natural reflection on MarvinHarrison's diminished skills, but Manning readily admits that he and Gonzalez, the second-year Colts receiver, are putting in overtime these days trying to heighten their on-field rapport. And you can tell some of the work is paying off, because Manning has really started looking for the former Ohio State star in big spots in the game.

Gonzalez caught just four passes for 55 yards against the Patriots, but three of them were huge: a 12-yard touchdown pass that opened the scoring late in the first quarter; a 9-yard touchdown pass that helped the Colts take a 15-12 lead with 3:12 remaining in the third quarter; and a critical 24-yard catch on third-and-9 from the Indy 39 in the fourth quarter. That last play was the key gain in the Colts' game-winning field goal drive, setting up Vinatieri's 52-yarder.

Manning's second touchdown pass to Gonzalez came on a beauty of a fade route, with Gonzalez beating cornerback Mike Richardson on a third-and-goal from the 9.

"I can't tell you how Gonzalez and I have been working on that throw in practice,'' Manning said. "That's a rewarding play. It makes you feel like it's worth your time spending that time in the film room, or in between practice drills talking about it. It's good to see it pay off, especially on a critical third-down conversion with that touchdown.''

5. Even without Tom Brady, the Patriots can move the chains. It's not the most exciting offense you'll ever see, and it's far from that record-breaking points-palooza of last year, but New England is doing a pretty good job of getting the most of what it has this season. The Patriots don't swallow up defenses and chunks of real estate in three or four-play drives like 2007, but their slow but steady approach to scoring marches is kind of impressive in its own way.

Cassel is getting fairly efficient at taking what a defense gives him. If the defense is doubling and taking away Randy Moss outside, Cassel looks inside for Wes Welker, who finished with a team-best seven catches for 37 yards against the Colts. And there's always those screens or outlets to Faulk, or feeding tight ends David Thomas and Ben Watson. All told, Cassel found seven different receivers en route to completing 25 of 34 passes for 204 yards, with just one late, Hail-Mary-type interception.

New England produced 22 first downs, and had 342 yards of offense, besting the Colts in both departments (18 and 301). The Pats were 8 of 14 on third downs, ran for 140 yards despite not having Sammy Morris, LaMont Jordan or Laurence Maroney active, held the ball for almost nine minutes longer than the Colts, and punted just once all game.

Is it as breath-taking as Brady and Co.? Of course not. But Cassel and friends can be effective, witness New England's four scoring drives against the Colts, which lasted for 13, 13, 15 and 15 plays. These Patriots aren't going to blow out too many opponents. But their 5-3 record without Brady at midseason is far from a fluke. I say odds are they repeat that showing in the second half, and wind up an AFC playoff qualifier at 10-6.

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