The season was given a heavy dose of renewed confidence after New England's defense shut down the offensive machine of Indianapolis en route to a 44-13 pasting of the Colts Sunday.
The Patriots (1-2) forced four turnovers, including three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, which led directly to 17 points. Indianapolis, which scored 87 points in the first two weeks of the season, did not score until 53 seconds left in the third quarter, by which time New England had already built a 23-point lead.
"Everybody put their best foot forward and played within the confines of the defense," said linebacker Bryan Cox, who had a team-high 11 tackles.
Cox helped set the tone for the game on the Colts second play from scrimmage. Peyton Manning hit wide receiver Jerome Pathon on a quick cross over the middle, and Cox laid a big hit on Pathon to hold him to a short gain. That play played a major factor in the Patriots holding the top offense in the conference to a three-and-out on its first series.
New England also got a big boost from its running game, which pounded away for a total of 177 yards and three touchdowns. Antowain Smith led the way with 94 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, while Kevin Faulk added 48 yards on nine carries.
It was Smith who got the Patriots on the board first with a 4-yard touchdown run. That play came on the heels of his 39-yard ramble down the left sideline. In the first quarter alone the Patriots ran for 103 yards, which allowed them to sustain some drives early and keep Indy off the field.
After a 47-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri made the score 10-0, Otis Smith got New England's first interception of the season, and he made the most of it. Indianapolis was driving when Manning tried to hit Pathon down the right sideline. Smith leaped and picked the ball off, and with the help of solid blocks from Ty Law and Brandon Mitchell in particular, he returned it 78 yards for a touchdown. Smith, who ran the width of the field before taking it to the house, looked and felt as if he had run closer to 200 yards.
"My legs really got tired around the 10-yard line, and somebody clipped my ankles, but I was able to keep balance," Smith said. "We were in a zone, and I thought we did a pretty nice job of disguising our coverage.
"I have to give a lot of credit to our coaching staff, because they put together a hell of a game plan. We were moving around effectively, and I think it confused them a little."
The Colts seemed very confused. After the Smith interception, they went three-and-out on their final possession of the half. To open the second half, Indianapolis fumbled away its first possession, and the second possession was an interception by Roman Phifer that led to Vinatieri's third field goal of the game for a 23-0 lead.
The big three for the Colts was effectively taken out of the game. Running back Edgerrin James was limited to just 55 yards rushing and had a fumble. Wide receiver Marvin Harrison had just three catches for 49 yards. Quarterback Peyton Manning struggled through 20-of-34 passing for 196 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
"We had a good complimentary game between the offense, the defense and special teams," Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "All three units answered the bell when they needed to, and that's what we really need them to do. We've got to have everyone carrying their fair share of the load, and we got key plays at key times."
As if to show its appreciation for the defensive effort, the Patriots offense responded quickly to Indy's first score of the game. A Manning 10-yard run made the score 23-7, but New England quickly squelched any thoughts of a comeback.
Starting from their own 38-yard line, the Patriots needed just five plays before Faulk's 8-yard touchdown run pushed the score to 30-7. A 17-yard pass from Tom Brady to David Patten and a 38-yard Brady screen to Antowain Smith set up Faulk's score.
The production of the running game helped take pressure off of Brady, the second-year player making his first NFL start. He liked seeing his backs pick up big chunks throughout the game.
"As a quarterback, you are glad to be in situations where you don't have to throw the ball all over the place," Brady said. "Believe me, I like seeing Antowain bust one down the left sideline. I like seeing the backs of Antowain and Kevin when they are running hard down the field with the ball."
Brady handled himself well in his starting debut. He completed 13-of-23 passes for 168 yards. The numbers were hardly gaudy, but the important thing was that he didn't make any mistakes. He had no turnovers and was sacked just once, which came on the first offensive play of the game.
After Faulk's touchdown, Law put the hammered the door shut on Manning by getting New England's third interception of the day and returning it 23 yards for a touchdown. It was the first time New England returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the same game since Oct. 17, 1999 when Law and Andy Katzenmoyer did so against Miami.
The victory, coupled with a loss by the Dolphins to St. Louis, has New England back within one game of the division lead. With the Patriots going to Miami next Sunday, the team can't spend too much time celebrating the first win of the season.
"We're not a bad football team," Cox said. "We suffer a little bit from confidence problems because of what has transpired over the last couple years, but we now have guys who actually come in here and play hard.
"Just like the two preceding weeks when we talked about us not being that bad and not getting too low, we have to guard against over confidence. We have to continue to press and continue to prepare because this is a long season. We haven't done anything yet. That's the point I'm trying to make. This is a long fight. We did what I thought we could do."