New England at Indianapolis Analysis: The big play of this contest was the Indianapolis field goal with 11 seconds remaining in the first half, making it New England 21, Indianapolis 6 at intermission. The Colts had fourth-and-goal on the Flying Elvii 8 when they sent in the kicking unit. Kick Early Go For It Late! Indianapolis absolutely had to score at the end of the first half. The field goal made it a two-touchdown game and gave the hosts realistic hope; had Indianapolis tried for the touchdown and failed, the contest would have been over. A field goal might not seem like much when you're behind 21-3, but these three points -- plus the fact that the Indianapolis cheerleaders changed outfits at halftime and appeased the football gods, see below -- let the Colts know victory remained possible. To the point of the last-second first-half field goal, Indianapolis had gone 20 consecutive postseason possessions without a touchdown. The next three Indianapolis possessions? Touchdown, touchdown, touchdown.
The Colts' epic comeback exemplifies a point TMQ often makes about comebacks -- when you're way behind in the second half you are probably toast, but when you're way behind in the first half, you have just as much time remaining to come back as your opponent took to get ahead. Let's christen this the Law of Remaining Clock. The biggest comeback in NFL history, Buffalo back from 35-3 to beat Houston in the playoffs, began two snaps into the second half; the key point was that the Bills had just as much time to come back as the Oilers had expended getting ahead. In the second-greatest comeback, San Francisco back from 35-7 to beat New Orleans in the regular season, the comeback began on the first play of the second half; the key point was that the Niners had just as much time to come back as the Saints had expended getting ahead. My sons badly wanted Indianapolis to win, and when it was 21-3, their hearts sank. "Look at the clock, it's still the first half," I told them. Most likely Colts' coaches were rallying their players with the same words.
Resisting the urge to panic helped the Colts' comeback. Taking the second half kickoff and trailing 21-6, Indianapolis coaches called eight rushing plays on the 76-yard touchdown drive that turned the game into a tense, close contest. Then on the next possession came the play that Colts players, coaches and front office people, especially Bill Polian, have been waiting for since the 2004 AFC Championship. In that game, New England was never called for defensive pass interference, despite numerous obvious muggings of Colts' receivers. Bill Belichick, knowing officials tend to call defensive pass interference and offensive holding (the two most damaging penalties) less as the postseason progresses, had instructed his defensive backs to interfere with Colts receivers mercilessly until such time as a flag was thrown -- and a flag was never thrown. Polian complained bitterly after that game, and should have; the league changed its officiating procedures, instructing zebras to end the traditional practice of switching to "let the boys play" in the postseason. Then in 2005, New England beat Indianapolis again in the playoffs, and again was never flagged for defensive pass interference. Now it's the third quarter of the 2007 AFC Championship, and once again New England has not been flagged for defensive interference. Eleven consecutive postseason quarters between the Pats and Colts and we're supposed to believe New England has never once interfered with an Indianapolis receiver? Finally the yellow flies -- Ellis Hobbs called for pass interception in the end zone. Polian must have yelled, "Finally, FINALLY!" Ball spotted on the 1, and on the next play, Peyton Manning threw a touchdown pass to defensive tackle Dan Klecko, lined up as a blocking back. Putting a big defender in as a blocking back at the goal line, then throwing to him, is one of Bill Belichick's favorite tricks. How the football gods must have chortled to see Belichick's own trick used against him.
The RCA Dome was weirdly quiet when the Colts took possession on their 20 with 3:49 remaining, trailing 34-31. I'm thinking: Now's your chance, go win the game! The crowd was obviously thinking: Ohmygawd they're gonna lose again. The RCA Dome was again weirdly quiet when the Colts got the ball back, again on their 20, with 2:17 remaining and one timeout, still trailing 34-31. I'm thinking: The football gods just gave you a second chance, go win the game! The crowd was obviously thinking: Ohmygawd. First Peyton Manning threw a short out to Reggie Wayne, who stepped out of bounds to stop the clock. Then Manning threw a perfect strike to Bryan Fletcher, the Colts' third tight end, who was on the field owing to an injury to someone else -- coming into the game, he had 18 receptions on the season. Fletcher promptly dropped the ball as if it was a live ferret. On the next snap, Colts' coaches or Manning or both did something beautiful and inspired that, of course, the announcers utterly missed. They called a play for Fletcher -- the same backup who had just dropped the ball -- and what they called was a deep pass. Fortune favors the bold! Thirty-two yard completion to Fletcher, and a few snaps later, ecstasy in the RCA Dome.
The home timekeeper had a big play on Fletcher's reception, too. The ball snapped with 2:08 showing, and as Fletcher strove out of bounds the Indianapolis timekeeper stopped the clock with 2:01 showing, thus handing the Colts an extra play before the two-minute warning. It turned out the extra snap had no role in the outcome, as the home team scored the winning touchdown at 1:02. Had the Colts scored to win on the final down, today a huge controversy would be swirling over the mysterious clock-stop at 2:01. (There's no way the play in question took only seven seconds.) Reaching first-and-10 on the New England 11 with 1:53 remaining, the Colts acted very New England-like by rushing three straight times to kill some clock before scoring. The winning touchdown came up the middle behind a Hall of Fame block by undrafted center Jeff Saturday, who shoved out of the picture the huge, first-round defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. Saturday is the kind of guy who could be the Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP.
As for the Patriots, they vary game plans week-to-week more than any NFL team, and opened on offense with something they hadn't showed much lately -- "bunch" formations as opposed to spreads. Two early Flying Elvii touchdowns resulted, and the Patriot offense continued to perform well -- 27 points on the road in a championship game is a good day. New England always runs a creative play that causes you to say "Wow, that was sweet." Games scoreless, the Patriots had third-and-9, and lined four-wide with receiving-downs back Kevin Faulk on Tom Brady's left. The Colts looked like they would blitz from the offensive right; Tom Brady madly motioned Faulk over to the right, as if instructing him to blitz-block. Then Brady handed off to Faulk running left behind pulling right guard Steve Neal. The eight-yard gain set up a 35-yard run by Corey Dillon on fourth-and-1, in turn setting up New England's first touchdown. Later, game tied at 21, New England facing third-and-goal on the Indianapolis 6, Brady threw a perfect strike to Jabar Gaffney at the back of the end zone, and the latest Belichick reclamation project made a perfect catch. Brady openly tells people that he looks to the back of the end zone in this situation because defenders lose track of the back of the end zone, and they did on this play. Brady tells people where he's going to look and still fools them!
There was a colossal hidden play at the endgame -- hidden plays being ones that never make highlight reels, but stop or sustain drives. Game tied with 8 minutes remaining, New England had first down on the Indianapolis 18. Reclamation project Reche Caldwell, who's had a fine year, lined up right and was uncovered by any Colt. He waved madly for Brady to snap the ball and toss it his way. When Brady finally did -- nothing but turf between Caldwell and the end zone -- Reche dropped the pass as if it was a live ferret. New England settled for a field goal, four lost points helping determine the outcome.
Good as New England always is, its offensive strategy in the endgame seemed puzzling. Leading 34-31 with 2:39 remaining, facing second-and-8, the Patriots came out empty backfield. This is a clock-killer situation, run the ball! Short pass, Indianapolis timeout. Now facing third-and-4 with 2:30 remaining, the Patriots came out empty backfield. This is a clock-killer situation, run the ball! Incompletion stopping the clock, and the home team gets possession back with plenty of time.
The New England defense had a fine season, finishing second-best behind Baltimore in points allowed, then had two good playoff outings versus Jersey/B and San Diego before finally running out of steam against a Colts' offense that was due for a breakout. Ty Warren, Asante Samuel, Mike Vrabel and other Pats defenders had Pro Bowl caliber years, though only Richard Seymour received a free ticket to Hawaii. For the last two seasons, Samuel has been the best cornerback in the NFL, but shut out of Hawaii because he's not the flashy, boastful type of corner the Pro Bowl voters favors. Now that Samuel has returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the same postseason, he should get his due in ink. (Warning to Colts' coaches -- three of Peyton Manning's six postseason interceptions have come on short turn or hook passes to the right intended for Marvin Harrison; corners have noticed some cue that tips them this action is coming.) But bear in mind that concentration and fundamentals, not flashy plays, are the best aspects of Asante Samuel's game. Samuel is the kind of guy who could be the Tuesday Morning Quarterback Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP.
Small puzzle: Why didn't Belichick challenge the Saturday fumble recovery ruled a touchdown for the Colts, tying the game at 28 early in the fourth quarter? Replays clearly showed Saturday was down before the ball broke the plane, and New England had all three timeouts. A successful challenge would have made it New England 28, Indianapolis 21 with the Colts facing third-and-goal on the Pats' 1. Probably the hosts would have scored anyway, but something might have gone wrong for Indianapolis on third-and-goal at the 1, too. This seemed a rare case of Belichick showing less than complete attention on a small detail. (The Colts would not have gotten a first down from Saturday's recovery; if the offense recovers its own fumble shy of the "line to gain," a first down is awarded only if the loose ball was in the possession of the defense at some point during the down.)