INDIANAPOLIS – By beating the Colts Sunday night, the Patriots would have punctuated the first half of their season with an exclamation point. They'd have been 6-2 and alone atop the AFC East.
Instead, question marks linger following a heart-breaking loss to their bitter rivals.
The three biggest ones ultimately proved to be the deciding factors in the game.
The Two-Point Conversion Attempt
Trailing 7-6 midway through the third quarter, rookie RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who ran hard and well throughout the game, scored the Pats' only touchdown of the game on a six-yard run up the middle. That gave New England a 12-7 lead.
But instead of kicking the extra point, head coach Bill Belichickopted to try for 2 points. RB Kevin Faulk'srush to the right came up inches short of the goal line.
It seemed a bit early in the game for a 2-point attempt, so after the game, Belichick tried to explain his thinking. But his reasoning did little to settle the question in the minds of some observers.
Had the Pats kicked and made the score 13-7, it's unlikely the Colts would have gone for 2 on their ensuing touchdown, which they did to make the score 15-12.
A 14-13 Colts lead may have altered the way the game would have unfolded thereafter.
Jabar Gaffney's Drop
The Patriots still had a chance to reclaim the lead later in the third quarter on a first-down play from the Indy 39. New England had masterfully set up the Colts defense by mixing up their play-calling all evening (running from passing formations and passing out of what looked like rushing alignments).
New England hadn't gone deep to WRRandy Mossto that point, in part because the Colts defense always seemed to have a safety in position to help double-team Moss downfield.
But on this particular play, WR Jabar Gaffneywas in being single-covered by newly-signed cornerback Keiwan Ratliff. Gaffney easily beat Ratliff off the ball and streaked down the left sideline. QB Matt Casselspotted his open man and lofted a perfect, arching spiral in his direction.
The safety came over to help, but was far too late in arriving. Cassel's pass hit Gaffney right in the hands at around the Indy 5-yard line, and then went right through them. The ball hit Gaffney's foot and sailed out of the end zone.
A devastated Gaffney bravely addressed reporters about the play in the post-game locker room.
"I didn't make the play. That's it," Gaffney whispered, choking up as he sat dejected at his locker. "It was there … I make that catch and it's a different game. At the end, we'd be up by one instead of down by three. That was it.
"It's really frustrating. I pride myself on making every catch they throw to me. I usually do a good job of bringing the ball in. For whatever reason, I wasn't able to make that play. And it ended up costing us."
Visibly shaken, Gaffney nonetheless took full responsibility for his mistake. When asked if something went wrong on the play, the normally sure-handed Gaffney was at a loss to explain why he couldn't haul in Cassel's laser-accurate pass.
"Yeah, I dropped it. I dropped it. Cassel made a good throw. I dropped it. I don't make any excuses. I should've caught it.
"They rely on me to make catches in tough situations," he added, seemingly bearing the full brunt of the blame for his team's loss. "I had a chance to put us up, then [the Colts] came back and kicked the field goal, ended up winning by three. But if I make that touchdown, it's a different game."
David Thomas' Penalty
With time winding down in the final stanza, New England still had a chance to score the go-ahead touchdown. They'd been moving the ball at will on the banged-up Indy defense and were doing so again on their penultimate drive of the game.
On 2nd-and-2 from the Colts' 32, Green-Ellis gained a yard, setting up what appeared to be a 3rd-and-1. But TE David Thomaswas flagged for apparently hitting a Colts defender after the play was blown dead.
"I was just trying to make a block and I never heard a whistle," Thomas insisted.
After the game, some of his teammates were heard questioning many of the official's calls (or lack thereof, in some cases). But like Gaffney, Thomas bravely faced a gauntlet of reporters and accepted responsibility for his actions.
"I'm out there playing hard, trying to be physical, and obviously, the ref felt I hit the guy after the play and made his call. We've got to live with it ... and I've got to live with it.
It was a mistake by me, obviously. It was definitely a critical mistake for me and it really cost the team.
"In a close game like this," he concluded, "it's the little things that really make a difference."
This was a game New England could have – should have – won. And it was because of these three little things that the Patriots left Indy with more questions than answers.