Foxborough, Mass. – The collective eyes of the National Football League were focused directly on the sleepy little Massachusetts town of Foxborough on Thursday night. In a game billed as much for the hype surrounding it as the NFL Thursday night season opener as for the two heavyweight teams on the field, the New England Patriots held on to top the Indianapolis Colts 27-24.
Before Mike Vanderjagt's potential game-tying field goal sailed wide right with 24 seconds remaining, the outcome of the game was very much in doubt. In this game the ineffective Patriots defense was very nearly the difference.
"It was a good football game, unless you coach the defense," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in an accurate depiction.
The Colts moved the ball up and down the field throughout the game, sometimes at ease, totaling 446 total yards. They gained 202 yards rushing, averaging 4.8 yards per attempt. To put those numbers in perspective, the total yards gained by the Colts was more than the Patriots allowed to any opponent over all 19 regular and post-season games last season. They only allowed one 100-yard rusher – all season – and gave up 100 total team yards rushing on only four occasions.
The turnover gods smiled at the Patriots on this night, as each of Indianapolis' three turnovers occurred inside the Patriots' 25-yard line, including two on the goal line with the Colts threatening to score. The Colts had 10 offensive possessions in the game. They scored on four of those possessions, ended three series on turnovers, missed a game-tying field goal on another, and were forced to punt only twice. Generally, the Colts did more to stop themselves in the loss than the Patriots defense.
If it weren't for the Colts' remarkable inability to stop anything the Patriots offense threw at them, the game would have had a drastically different result.
"They just gained a lot of yards," Safety Rodney Harrison said. "Sometimes you have to play those high-powered offenses [by] bend-but-don't-break. We knew they were going to gain some yards. You can't shut those guys down. They have so many weapons. They have two great tight ends, and Marvin Harrison, [Brandon] Stokley, [Reggie] Wayne, Edgerrin James, Peyton Manning. You name them. Those guys could start anywhere on anyone's team. You can't take away everything. You can't load up the box and then they throw it. You just can't do it. So you just have to be patient and make the plays as they come. Eventually, hopefully, they make a mistake and you get the ball on the turnover."
What should be most alarming is the Patriots inability to stop the run. On a night when Peyton Manning was good but not great – he completed 16-of-29 passes for 256 yards, two touchdowns and one interception – the Patriots were consistently pounded on the ground. Edgerrin James rushed for 142 yards on 30 attempts, although he coughed the ball up on the goal line twice. Backup Dominick Rhodes gained 42 yards on 10 carries in relief, and even Manning had two carries for 18 yards.
"We have a long way to go," Vince Wilfork said. "That's the main thing – we pattern our game around stopping the run. In the second half we sort of accomplished that, but to give up that many points and that many yards in the first half that's something we really have to work on."
When the Colts strayed away from the running game, they were still able to take advantage of the Patriots pass defense for several big plays. Their first drive of the game was keyed when Manning found receiver Reggie Wayne for a 42-yard gain on a post play down the middle of the field. During the final drive of the first half, Manning hit Dallas Clark for a 64-yard gain in which the tight end nearly outran the entire New England secondary. Trailing by three points with just under two minutes remaining in the game, Manning found Brandon Stokley for 45-yards deep down the middle of the field that led to the game-tying field goal attempt.
"They were able to mix it up," Defensive tackle Richard Seymour said. "I'm not sure how many rushing yards they had. They had a good passing game. You have to be a balanced defense when you play these guys. They're a potent offense. They make a lot of plays. We just have to do a better job, as far as up front and the linebackers as well. We still have some things to work on, but it's a good start [because] we got a win."
In the end the win is the only result that matters, but the manner in which the win was achieved is worrisome. The Colts first offensive drive went 61 yards on seven plays before it ended when Manning tried to force a ball to Clark in the end zone, only to have linebacker Ted Bruschi make a diving interception on the goal line. After a field goal on the next drive, the Colts third drive consisted of nine consecutive running plays as the Indianapolis offensive line pushed the Patriots backwards for 66 yards, ending in a 3-yard touchdown run by Rhodes. The fourth drive of the half ended with a 3-yard touchdown from Manning to Marvin Harrison.
The Colts second drive of the third quarter ended after 11 plays and 67 yards on a James fumble forced by Ty Warren. Following a Manning touchdown pass to Stokley and then another punt, James again ended a drive by fumbling, this time on the goal line.
"In the end we got killed by giving up too many big plays on play action, in the passing, and then there were times when we were soft in the running game," Belichick said. "But they did a good job of combining those plays and keeping you off balance so give them credit for the execution. We were fortunate to have a couple big hits to get some turnovers."
Linebacker Willie McGinest, who made perhaps the biggest defensive play for the Patriots when he sacked Manning for a 12-yard loss to push the Colts farther out on their final field goal attempt, sees both the dark cloud and the silver lining.
"Collectively we didn't play well," McGinest said. We can't win a lot of games playing like we did tonight. The offense helped us out a lot. We didn't play perfectly defensively and there are a lot of things we need to work on. There are a lot of things we will work on, and we are going to come back a lot stronger than what we did today. The character is just not the team giving up that many yards rushing or passing. And if our offense scores 27 points, we can't give up that many points. That should be automatically a win for us if we play the way we are supposed to."