The much ballyhooed Patriots-Colts showdown at the RCA Dome came down to one team being driven enough to impose its will on its opponent when the moment demanded it, and the other team allowing itself to be dictated to. One team couldn't imagine losing, and so it didn't. The other team couldn't summon up the resolve to finish off the job it had more than 80 percent completed. So it failed after seeming bound for success for much of the day.
Down 10 points with less than 10 minutes to play, New England used its season-long sense of desperation -- borne out of last year's loss to the Colts -- to fuel two late touchdown drives. The Patriots escaped Indianapolis with a 24-20 victory and the sense that this win was worth more than just another dominating performance that produced yet another blowout.
"Some victories do feel better than others, and this is one of those,'' New England inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi said amid the crush of the winning locker room. "You try to treat it like every other game, but we still knew it was a big one. To come into their place, where last year we didn't accomplish the mission, ... this year we did.''
For the first time all season, the Patriots had to play a bona fide 60-minute game against an opponent. They were pushed around pretty good by the Colts for 50-plus minutes, and their 8-0 undefeated record looked a play or two away from extinction. But New England did what great teams do. It responded to a challenge and found a way when it mattered most.
All week long, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick asked his team if it was tired of losing to the Colts, the team that had beaten it three consecutive times and cruelly ended its season with last January's bitter AFC title game loss? On Sunday, his players answered in the affirmative, with an impeccable sense of timing.
Maybe the reason the Patriots have been running up the score so blatantly in recent weeks is that by keeping the throttle mashed down in the fourth quarter, they were preparing for this day, when the would need to score late to win. The Patriots said they knew they couldn't have a letdown at any point in this game, so not letting up on their eight out-classed opponents was the best way to practice.
"This wasn't a game where the score was run up, it was a game where we had to continue to fight,'' said Patriots outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, whose recovery of a Peyton Manning fumble with 2:25 remaining allowed New England to run out the clock and secure the victory. "Our ability to score points definitely paid off, because down 20-10, you got to be able to score at least two more touchdowns to win.''
This time, it was New England' 14-point fourth quarter that made the difference, the same way the Colts' 32-point second-half outburst against the Patriots decided last season's AFC Championship.
"It took us 60 minutes, and it was a great win for this team,'' said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who threw fourth-quarter touchdown passes to receiver Wes Welker (3 yards) and running back Kevin Faulk (13 yards), the latter with 3:15 remaining. "It's the first time we were really in a ballgame late. I was real proud of the way guys responded when we were down. There was never any loss of confidence or determination, and we're going to need that for the next seven games.''
If they don't already know it, the rest of the NFL can officially consider itself in trouble now. Not only have the Pats conquered their Colts complex, they've proven to themselves that they can win anywhere, against anyone, even on a day when they are less than their dominating machine-like selves.
I said this long before Sunday, but I don't see who beats them now. Getting past the Colts was the key to getting homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, and once they have that, the Patriots won't be denied. They'll beat Indy in the frosty confines of Gillette Stadium in the rematch in the AFC title game, and they'll handle the best the NFC has to offer (another rematch, this time with Dallas?) in the desert in Super Bowl XLII.
So take that 9-0 that the Patriots now boast, add a one in front of it, and you've got the 19-0 slice of history that New England is headed for. Somewhere I can even hear the 1972 Dolphins starting to seriously squirm in their Barcaloungers.
Oh, and you can save the "It's still early'' routine. The Patriots are a desperate, driven team this season in a league that very often rewards desperation. They're bent on proving something to themselves, and proving something to the rest of the NFL. And no one -- even the ridiculously talented Colts -- seems capable of getting in their way.
Nothing against TonyDungy's team, which was missing all-world receiver Marvin Harrison on Sunday, but the Colts have their Super Bowl rings now. Could it be that's why they didn't play with the same now-or-never sense of urgency that they exhibited last January? They still have the horses, but do they have the same burning desire? On this day, burning desire was wearing red, white and blue, and playing until the very end.
"How you finish minute 58 and 59 matters, because you can play 58 and then lose it in the last two [minutes] like we did last year,'' Bruschi said. "Playing 60 minutes is one thing, but playing your best at the end is another.''
New England now has its bye in Week 10, and then a Week 11 trip to improved Buffalo (4-4) awaits. But history is on the horizon. Even Bruschi admitted it's beginning to come into sight in the distance. That's how big the win over the Colts was.
"We have to do our best not to (think about an undefeated season),'' the 12-year veteran said. "To do that you think about the next opponent. Right now we don't have one because we're on a bye. So I think we'll just think about what we're going to do on that bye.''
Here's a rock-solid guarantee: The Patriots on their bye are going to do the same thing they've done in the first nine weeks of the season. They're not going to lose. They're undefeated and still desperate. So far for New England in 2007, it's an unbeatable combination.