But on four consecutive plays -- three of them runs by Edgerrin James -- New England met the Colts head on and preserved the win in heart-thumping manner, 38-34.
Early on, this one looked like the Patriots might run away with the game but the Colts, behind Peyton Manning's four touchdown passes, battled back to the thrilling conclusion.
New England drove for three points on its first possession of the game. Working with quick drop passes and against an enthusastic crowd, Brady began from his own 25 down to the Colts 25. Branch had two nice pick-ups of 14 and 13 yards on the drive. A 6-yard Dwight Freeney sack on second and 11 from the Indy 32 was the stopper for the Colts and forced the 43-yard field goal by Vinatieri.
The crowd had the wind knock out of it when Manning had the ball knocked loose by Mike Vrabel on Indy's following series. On third and 14 from the Colts 41, Manning had time but no one to throw to and Vrabel broke through. Dan Klecko recovered the loose ball and New England was first and 10 at the Colts 36.
From there, Brady continued with his quick drops and hit Faulk for 16, Branch for 8 and then Givens for a first down inside the 4. On the next play, Mike Cloud went around left tackle for the score and a 10-0 early lead for the Patriots.
Through two series, Brady was a perfect 9 for 9 passing for 82 yards.
Things got really ugly for the home team when Brady hit a slanting Dedric Ward over the middle for a 31-yard touchdown early in the second quarter. Once again, Brady distributed the ball nicely, working with five different receivers on the drive. Then, on third and 7, Ward got a step on his man and Brady hit him in stride for the score.
That put New England up 17-0 and left the Colts defense searching for answers.
The Colts got two huge breaks on their next series. On third and 6, New England jumped offsides. The penalty negated a Vrabel strip after a Troy Walters catch and a Rodney Harrison recovery. Instead of Patriots ball, Indy had a third and 1.
On the next play, James was stopped for no gain and the Colts had to punt but another penalty – running into the punter – gave Indy a first down at the Patriots 47.
Despite the miscues, New England allowed the Colts offense no further than the 22 and Mike Vanderjagt was good on the 40-yard field goal to get his team on the board at 17-3.
More breaks for the Colts came as the first half approached the two-minute warning. An illegal contact penalty on Roman Phifer negated a sack. That play was followed by Manning overthrowing Harrison. The wide receiver managed to tip the ball, creating a gift-wrapped interception for Eugene Wilson who was backing up the play. But Wilson somehow dropped the ball and the Colts had another life.
They took advantage via Edgerrin James on the ground and in the air. By the time the clock showed :49 left in the half, Indy was first and goal at the Patriots 8-yard line. Two plays later, Manning found Marcus Pollard alone in the left flat and the tight end took it in for the score.
It looked like the Colts would escape to halftime down only a touchdown but on the ensuing kickoff lightning struck by way of Bethel Johnson.
Johnson took the kick up the right sideline, cut to the middle of the field and was gone. The touchdown was reviewed to see if Johnson stepped out of bounds but the play stood and New England had a 23-10 lead.
After the Patriots defense forced the Colts to punt to begin the second half, Brady drove right down the field with a big first down pickup by Ward on third and 14 from the Colts 43. Ward got open on an out pattern on the right sideline for 19 yards. A run by Faulk for 5 and a 7-yard pass to J.J. Stokes and New England had the ball first and 10 at the 12.
From there, Brady looked to Stokes in the end zone and it seemed like he had two feet in as he caught the ball and fell out of bounds on the right side. The play was ruled incomplete, however. But good news followed. A pass interference call in the end zone on Walt Harris advanced the ball to the 1-yard line. Two plays later, Cloud had his second touchdown of the game and New England was up by three touchdowns.
The two teams exchanged interceptions late in the third quarter. The first was by Tyrone Poole and had the Patriots offense sitting pretty after the return at the Colts 32. Brady returned the favor, however, throwing behind Johnson two plays later and Donald Strickland made the play on the ball.
James again did most of the work for the Colts after the turnover, running for 16 yards and catching a pass for 9. New England managed to set up a fourth and 9 situation from its 13. Down 31-10, the Colts had to go for it.
Manning found Reggie Wayne in the back corner of the end zone and the solid red zone defense of the Patriots was cracked for the touchdown with 1:20 left in the third quarter.
Now the Colts fans were back into it and a big hit on Faulk during the Patriots next series that planted him into the turf made them even more raucous. On third and 7, Brady had to call timeout and then proceeded to throw his second interception of the day, this one to Nick Harper.
The Colts got the ball back and Manning immediately found Harrison in the end zone (the 66th time the two have combined for a score). The crowd and the Colts were back in this game big time.
With momentum plopped firmly on the Colts side, their defense stopped New England three and out and the ball was back in Manning’s hands. Bad news for the Patriots.
By now, New England’s defense was in complete disarray. Manning hit Harrison for 14 and Troy Walters for 15 and 12. A pass interference call on Wilson moved the ball to the New England 7. On third and goal from the 6, Manning hit Walters again for the score.
Just like that the game was tied via 21 unanswered Colts points.
The Patriots desperately needed something good to happen and like he did at the end of the first half, Bethel Johnson delivered. Johnson took the kick 67 yards down to the Colts 31, nearly going all the way if not for a hand on his foot that slowed him down just enough for Colts coverage to catch up to the speedster.
Brady took to the field and hit David Givens who eluded the first would-be tackler and ran for 15 yards. He then caught another pass for 3 more yards. After an incomplete where Brady threw the ball away under pressure, he hooked up with Branch in the end zone to regain the lead, 38-31.
That lead looked perilous at best when Manning once again brought his team into Patriots territory. A big first and 10 sack by Vrabel for a 5-yard loss knocked Manning back to midfield. On third and 15, Roman Phifer made a perfectly-timed play to break up the pass and the Colts were forced to punt.
The room to exhale was brief for New England. On the second play from scrimmage, Faulk had the ball jarred loose by Marcus Washington and recovered by Raheem Brock. Indy had the ball first and 10 on the New England 11.
Three straight plays Manning dropped back and each time the Patriots defense had Colts receivers blanketed. Indy could do nothing more than pull within 4 on a 29-yard Vanderjagt field goal with 3:27 left to play.
New England needed to at least move the ball onto the Colts side of the field but by now, the crowd noise was deafening. So much so, that on third and 10 in the next series, Brady had to burn his team’s final timeout because he couldn’t hear the play call. After David Thornton nearly picked off the next pass, the Patriots punted.
Here came the Colts. Manning continued to find holes in the Patriots secondary and at the two minute warning, Indy was second and 1 at the New England 21.
With the clock ticking, James ran for 3 and Manning hit Harrison for 9 more. On second and 1 from the 9, James broke through for 7 to the 2-yard line.
Now with first and goal from the 2 and inside 30 seconds left in the game and no timeouts for New England, the game was squarely on the shoulders of the Patriots defense.
Manning went to James up the middle. No gain. Again, James took the ball for only inches on second down. On third down, Manning looked to throw but was incomplete.
Then on fourth and goal with :14 left on the clock, Manning gave the ball to James one more time and before the back could barely take a step he was met by Willie McGinest and others. Game over. New England had survived the stampede.
Stats for the day: Brady was 26 of 35 for 236 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 picks.
Manning was 29 of 48 for 278 yards 4 touchdowns and an interception. James had 88 yards on the ground on 25 carries and Harrison had 7 catches for 88 yards and a score.
With the win, New England maintains its two-game lead in the AFC East over the Miami Dolphins and they will face them next week in Foxborough.