Let's face it, watching the Colts and Patriots tangle really is as good as it gets in the NFL. It's not hype. It's just the truth. I'd take Peyton Manning against Tom Brady four times a year if the league would make it happen, and early Sunday night at Gillette Stadium reminded us all why we can't get enough of this rivalry.
When these two teams and these two quarterbacks meet, stuff happens. Good stuff. Memorable stuff. Stuff like 4th-and-2 last year, and James Sanders' game-saving interception this year. There's must-see TV, and then there's Colts-Pats. And so it goes, with another gripping chapter being written this time in New England's 31-28 nail-biting victory over Manning and Co. For a game in which the lead never changed hands, could you have asked for anything more?
"It was a classic game,'' said Patriots tight end Alge Crumpler, a 10th-year NFL veteran, but a rookie when it came to taking part in this Indy-New England rivalry. "I wasn't here last year, but I was brought up to speed real fast on this rivalry. This is one of the best non-division rivalry games I've ever seen. It was good just to be a part of it.''
The Patriots for a good bit of the game looked to be in command against the short-handed Colts. New England was up 14-0 early in the second quarter, and led 31-14 almost five minutes into the fourth quarter. But no matter. You can't be in command, or ever get comfortable, when Manning is the quarterback for the opposing team. He's going to bring his team back. You know it. He knows it. And of course, the Patriots are uniquely positioned to know it.
They saw Manning do it to them last year in Indianapolis, when the Colts trailed by 17 points early in the fourth quarter and still stormed back to win 35-34 (thanks in part to coach Bill Belichick's controversial fourth-and-2 call). They saw Manning do it to them in the 2006 AFC Championship Game, when the Colts overcame an 18-point second-half deficit to earn their first Super Bowl trip in 36 years.
And they very nearly saw history repeat itself Sunday night, when Manning had Indy on the move toward either a game-winning touchdown or a game-tying field goal in the final minute after again fighting out of another 17-point hole.
There wasn't a Patriots fan alive who wasn't thinking it was Groundhog Day all over again. But this time, the Patriots finally made the game-saving play on defense, with safety James Sanders making a leaping interception of Manning at the New England 6 with :31 remaining. It was Manning's third interception of the game, and it almost felt like the first time all night the Patriots stopped Manning when it really mattered.
"Peyton is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, but I always say that at times he'll rush a ball,'' Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "He'll take it upon himself to try to make a play. And you know what? The majority of the time, 99 percent of the time, he does it. We just had that one percent today that fell in our favor.''
And now we have another delicious Patriots-Colts debate to chew on for a while. It's not 4th-and-2, but it'll do. Indy started the play that resulted in Sanders' highlight-reel interception at the New England 24, already well within range of a game-tying Adam Vinatieri field goal. But no one was really surprised that Manning stayed aggressive and was going for the touchdown and the win, rather than put the game back on the shoulders of the Colts defense or leave it to the vagaries of an overtime coin toss.
That's how Manning plays, and that's how he has beaten these Patriots in the past. But this time, his aggressive tendencies backfired, and cost the Colts a chance to at least tie the game and force overtime. This time, Manning's failure in the clutch was the story of the game.
"He's trying to drive that stake in our heart in that situation,'' said Sanders, who said he read Manning's eyes and knew he was going to throw toward Colts receiver Pierre Garcon. "Peyton's that kind of quarterback. If he has enough time, he's going to try to win the game. He's not playing for field goals. He's done it time and time again in his career. Going against that guy, it's scary at times. Because if he knows what you're doing, he's going to tear you apart.''
Manning took the blame for the interception to Sanders, saying he had the matchup he wanted in Garcon one-on-one with cornerback Devin McCourty. He just didn't get the ball there, and Sanders found a way to drop into coverage and make the play.
"I just didn't get everything I wanted on the throw,'' Manning said. "I'm just sick about not extending the game. There's just no excuse just not to extend the game there and give Vinatieri a chance for a field goal. Certainly, we were going for the win. We had some time, had some timeouts, and felt like we had a good play call. Just a poor throw and it's really sickening.''
Manning scorched the Patriots for four touchdowns and 396 yards passing, but New England's defense had its moments, too, against No. 18, and the biggest one saved the game for a Patriots team that improved to 8-2 and stayed tied with the Jets for the AFC's best record. This isn't a dominant Patriots defense by any stretch, but it's a play-making unit that's starting to step up when the moment demands.
"Every year, every time we play these guys, it always comes down to a couple points,'' Wilfork said. "It's rare that you get blowouts when we face each other. But I felt confident (on the last Colts drive), for some reason. The game was on the line, but I felt pretty good about it. I think we reacted the way we need to react. Somebody needed to step up and make a play, and James did.
"You saw a great game today, even though it was a two-score game for a long time. But a two-touchdown lead, we've seen in the past that that's not enough with these guys. The offense realized it had to score points this week, and the defense realized there was going to come a point where we have to stand up and basically be a man out there. And we did.''
Offensively the Patriots went cold in the fourth quarter, but they did enough to win in the first three-plus quarters. Just barely.
"This is a tough stretch we've got right now,'' Crumpler said, referencing New England's win at Pittsburgh last week, and the looming rematch with the Jets in Foxborough two weeks from Monday night. "But we're playing well. Ideally you want to play a perfect game, but you're not always going to be perfect. The thing about tonight was, we didn't turn the ball over and we played a physical, hard-nosed style of football. Most times, that should win the game.''
Year in and year out, these two AFC superpowers seem to play each other so evenly that one play or one decision turns the entire game. And on that thin reed, with Sanders making the play, and Manning failing to do so, perhaps the conference's home-field advantage in the playoffs will be decided this season. With the loss, Indy fell to 6-4 and into a tie for first place with surprising Jacksonville in the AFC South, but no one in New England will be surprised if the Colts and Patriots see each other again in the playoffs.
We should all be so lucky. These two teams just played another classic, and we're already hungry for more.