Through the first nine games of this season, Peyton Manning had thrown only four interceptions. The Patriots nearly doubled it in just one game. The Patriots picked Manning off three times, including with 31 seconds to go from the New England 24-yard line, beating the Colts 31-28 at Gillette. The Patriots’ win kept them tied for both the AFC East and best record in the conference, as the New York Jets also beat the Houston Texans.
Defense Bends Hard, Doesn’t Break
The Patriots run defense was stellar against the Colts, holding their backs to just 71 yards combined on 20 carries. Without a running game, the Colts had to rely exclusively on the pass to score points. This was not a terrible thing, since the Patriots rank 30th in pass defense in the NFL, and the Colts rank third in passing yardage. But the over-use of the passing game allowed the Patriots to double-cover wide receivers and use decoys to trick Peyton Manning.
This worked especially well on their second interception, which came with 18 seconds left in the third. The Patriots looked like they were just sending their safeties deep, so Manning thought he’d have a one-on-one match-up if his wide receiver ran up the sideline. However, both cornerbacks also played their coverages deep, so tight end Jacob Tamme, Manning’s target on the play, cut back in. Manning didn’t see the change in direction, and threw the ball deep along the right sideline. Devin McCourty went up and easily caught the interception at the New England 39-yard line. The Patriots would later convert the turnover into a field goal, giving them a 31-14 lead with 10:23 left in the game.
While the Patriots rush was unable to sack Manning, on a few occasions they at least forced a rushed pass. This led to several incomplete passes, plus the game ending interception. With the Colts already in field-goal range, Jermaine Cunningham broke through the offensive line and got to Manning, While Cunningham could not bring Manning down, he spun Manning just enough to force a pass into double-coverage. James Sanders leaped into the air and came down with the interception at the New England 6-yard line. The Patriots then knelt twice to end the game.
Brandon Meriweather also intercepted Manning in the first, setting up the Patriots’ first drive on the Indianapolis 32-yard line, on an overthrown pass. The Patriots converted it into a touchdown, going up 7-0.
The Patriots defense made exactly enough plays to win the game, and no more. The pass defense was as porous as ever, allowing Manning to throw for 396 yards and three touchdowns. The Colts also converted 11 of 14 third down opportunities, including a third-and-10 in the second and a third-and-9 in the fourth. The Colts scored touchdowns on both of those drives.
Running Backs Triumph
Tom Brady did most of his damage in the first half (131 of his 186 yards, both touchdown passes), then challenged the running game to take over and preserve the 21-14 halftime lead. The backs responded, rushing for 122 of their 168 total yards and a touchdown in the second half. Danny Woodhead scored on a 36-yard run with just over one minute left in the third quarter. On second-and-3 from the Indianapolis 36-yard line, Woodhead took the hand-off and looked like he was going to run up the middle. However, using his small frame to hide behind the Patriots linemen, Woodhead then changed direction and ran to the right of the pack. Once he got up-field, Woodhead then juked safety Aaron Francisco and sprinted on a diagonal towards the front right pylon. Two blocks by Patriots wide receivers on cornerback Kelvin Hayden cleared his path, and Woodhead ran in for the score, putting New England up 28-14.
Woodhead rushed for 69 yards, averaging nearly 10 yards per carry, and added 21 yards via the pass. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was New England’s primary running back, rushing for 96 yards on 21 carries. Green-Ellis also scored on a 5-yard run up the middle midway through the second quarter, putting the Patriots up 21-7. And while Sammy Morris only ran for 5 yards on two carries, both were third down conversions, on which the Patriots went 7-11.
Brady Starts Strong, Finishes Less So
Brady threw two touchdowns in the first half. His first put the Patriots up 7-0 in the first, when Wes Welker ran up the field and shook linebacker Pat Angerer, then caught Brady’s pass two yards out of the end zone. Welker then barreled through a would-be tackler to land in the end zone. This second effort was emblematic of the Patriots offense in general, which was constantly shaking tackles, giving second efforts and falling forward after being hit to pick up two or three extra yards.
Brady’s second touchdown pass was an 8-yard throw to Aaron Hernandez, who also fought through a tackle to get into the end zone, giving the Patriots a 14-7 lead.
In the second half, Brady was much less effective, especially in the fourth quarter. Three of his six incomplete passes came in that quarter, and the Patriots went three-and-out on their last two offensive possessions (discounting Brady’s final two kneel-downs). The offense could not muster a final scoring-drive to clinch the victory, unable to get around the Colts’ speedy pressure. Were it not for Sanders’ final interception, the Colts likely would have at least tied the game, if not won it outright, having scored on their previous two possessions.