INDIANAPOLIS – The Patriots beat the Colts here Sunday night, but that’s not really news. Until further notice, the Patriots always beat the Colts. No, the news is that the Colts tried this nutty little play where they tried to lose yardage so hilariously that the refs would laugh and give them the first down, almost like a tip at a Comedy Club. At least, that’s how it looked to me.
Except, of course, they didn't get the first down, because they turned it over on downs instead. If you saw the game, which New England won 34–27, you remember the play. It happened between Tom Brady's completions and Al Michaels’s Deflategate references. Brady was brilliant in the game, and the Patriots continued their so-called Revenge Tour of the NFL, because we can all see how the NFL has kept the Patriots from winning over the last 15 years. Right. Anyway, on to the play.
The Colts trailed, 27–21, late in the third quarter. They lined up in this goofy formation with their punter and most of his teammates off to the far right side of the field, 190-pound receiver Griff Whalen at center and 195-pound safety Colt Anderson at quarterback. Well, we’ve all seen crazy formations. I once saw a college team line up with eight linemen to the left and a booster under center. So that’s fine.
At least four Patriots hovered near Whalen and Anderson, and as I learned in calculus class, four is more than two. Whalen snapped it to Anderson anyway. Anderson appeared surprised. The Patriots’ Brandon Bolden then attempted to behead Anderson, and I thought he succeeded until I went down to the Colts’ locker room and saw Anderson at his locker, fully intact.
The Colts were in full don’t-throw-anybody-under-the-bus mode, which we can all respect. You win as a team, you lose as a team, you almost get maimed as a team. But the explanations only added to the confusion.
Anderson and Whalen both kept saying it was “miscommunication.” But here is where it got really foggy: Anderson said the goal was to either draw the Patriots offsides, catch the Patriots with 12 men on the field, or force the Patriots to call timeout.
Whalen said “we can try and draw them offsides, or snap it and run a fake.”
Wait a second. Was the fake an option? Whalen said yes. Anderson said no. The refs said it didn’t matter—the Colts’ formation was illegal anyway. And coach Chuck Pagano said, “I didn't do a good enough job of coaching it during the week.”
When I went back up to the press box to miscommunicate my column, I was as confused as ever.
Let’s be clear: This is not what decided the game. The Patriots are the better team. But the Colts had a chance to win, and they blew it in part because they gave Brady 40 yards of field position.
And that is what should concern the Colts. It’s not that Brady is mad at them, or that much of New England thinks they are weasels. All the Colts did last January was voice a concern to the NFL that the Patriots were illegally deflating footballs. People are allowed to voice concerns. If you think the NFL completely screwed up its investigation, blame the NFL. (You could argue that the Colts leaked the story to the media, which may or may not be true, but a leaked story does not automatically bring penalties.)
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Brady should have been suspended. The NFL did not have the goods on him, and it was a political miscalculation by commissioner Roger Goodell: the Patriots lost a first-round pick, but now appear to be the wronged party. If Goodell was convinced the Patriots cheated, he just should have hammered them and left Brady out of it. The Patriots never would have taken him to court, and this would have been over months ago.
Regardless, the Colts are not villains here, no matter what some New Englanders want to think. So that’s not the problem.
The problem is that the Colts have to beat Bill Belichick and Brady—and Rob Gronkowski and the rest of the AFC’s best team. And it is impossible to imagine Belichick’s team ever botching a trick play as badly as the Colts just did.
Belichick is brilliant, and he showed it again Sunday—after his running game plowed through the Colts’ defense in recent games, Belichick went to the air early and often. He recognized that the Colts’ defensive front is better than last year and this was the best way to attack. He adjusts before teams force him to adjust. Again: Brilliant.
That’s what the Colts have to match. That is their hope. And that’s another problem with that fake-ish punt thingie: The Colts mistook the Patriots for a team that is easily fooled.
In the TV show that is the NFL, the Colts are foils for the Patriots, and since the Patriots keep winning these games, the Colts look like losers. This is ridiculous, of course. Say what you want about the AFC FINALISTS banner hanging here at Lucas Oil Stadium, but the Colts were AFC Finalists, one of the last four teams playing last season, and that’s a pretty nice accomplishment.
But when the Colts blow their chance to beat New England at home, on Sunday Night Football, with one of the dumbest-looking botched plays in memory, by snapping the ball TO A GUY NAMED COLT, they invite mockery.
Pagano is widely considered a great guy. He may even be a terrific coach. But he looked like he thought he had a trick up his sleeve, then realized he wasn’t wearing a shirt.
Obviously, there was more to it than that. We just don’t know what it was. My best guess: Whalen was just wrong about running a fake. But Whalen (who went to Stanford) has been a Colt for four years. If he didn’t understand what to do, that’s the coach’s fault.
The Colts are not as good as the Patriots right now. Their offensive line looks decent at times but struggles at others and commits way too many holding penalties. That may doom them. But the Colts are plenty good. You saw it Sunday. If Luck is healthy (and we don’t know that he is), he can use the best array of weapons that he has ever had, and the defense can be solid. They are not a one-man team, no matter what people think.
The Colts may well get another shot at New England in the playoffs, and they would have a chance to win that one, too. But they need to be smarter than they were on that botched trick play. If you want to beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, you have to be better than that.