Everything we know about the NFL’s best rivalry is no longer true. The New England Patriots don’t and won’t always beat the Indianapolis Colts. Even when they get a big lead. We know this because the Patriots got a big lead Sunday in the AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis, 21-3, and in what turned into one of the best games in conference championship history, the Colts came back, fell behind again, came back again, took the lead and held on, 38-34.
The Colts will play the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl in Miami on Feb. 4. The Bears blasted the New Orleans Saints 39-14 in Chicago for the NFC championship. Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy became the second black head coach to make it to the Super Bowl about three and a half hours after his friend and protégé, Chicago coach Lovie Smith, became the first.
We learned Sunday that Tom Brady, given the ball and enough time to mount a game-winning drive in the playoffs, won’t always mount a game-winning drive in the playoffs. Down by four with 54 seconds left and 79 yards from the goal line, Brady took the Patriots to the Indy 44 with two completions. Then he threw one that Marlin Jackson of the Colts stepped in front of for the clinching interception.
We learned that Peyton Manning won’t always wilt in the big playoff game, even against New England. Oh, it looked that way for a while. There were overthrows of wide-open receivers, delay-of-game penalties and, finally, an interception by Asante Samuel, returned for a touchdown and a 21-3 New England lead 21 and a half minutes into the game.
There were boos from the home fans at the end of the first half, which ended with the Patriots up 21-6 and the Colts having been shut out of the end zone for six straight quarters.
But Manning and the Colts offense had shown some life on a drive that started at their 12 with 3:06 left and ended 2:59 later with a chip-shot field goal — drawing more boos. The Colts were in rhythm for the first time. It looked like too little too late, but there it was.
It was in the second half that we learned never to say always. Manning always wilts? Especially against the Patriots, his personal playoff tormentors? Not this time. He hit 14-of-23 throws for 225 yards and a touchdown in the second half. He led scoring drives of 76, 76, 67, 59 and 80 yards as the Colts piled up 32 points after halftime.
Manning had help. His offensive line mostly gave him time to operate against New England’s fierce, often-confusing pass rush, and it opened holes for Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai, who combined for 93 yards on 19 carries in the second half. The defense — well rested by then — stiffened at the right times in the fourth quarter.
And Manning didn’t really make any highlight-reel, jaw-dropping plays.
But he was great, exactly what we knew he wouldn’t be, just as we knew Brady wouldn’t try to force a pass in the final minute with the game on the line and the Patriots on the move. Just as we knew we wouldn’t see a game in which each team had an offensive lineman score a touchdown by falling on a fumble in the end zone and one team had a defensive lineman — Dan Klecko of the Colts — score one by catching a pass after lining up at fullback.
Just like that.
So now Manning gets his moment on the biggest big stage against the Bears, who found their defense just in time at wintry Soldier Field.
The Saints looked a little sharper than the Bears early in the game, but two fumbles in New Orleans territory gave Rex Grossman and the shaky-looking Bears offense short fields, which they turned into field goals.
The second fumble came on the kickoff return following the Bears’ first field goal. Returner Michael Lewis was tackled at his own 28, and the Bears stripped the ball from him as he went down. The Bears recovered. The Saints challenged the call, arguing that Lewis had been down. Replays showed that the Bears had managed to move the ball in Lewis’ arm as he was falling, but he’d held onto it and had already hit the ground when one more yank got the ball loose.
Incredibly, the officials upheld the call. The Bears kicked their second field goal three plays later, and the sequence sent the Saints reeling. After a punt the Bears drove for another field goal, a red-zone stop serving as cold comfort for New Orleans. Following yet another punt the Bears took over at their own 31.
They went 69 yards for a touchdown on eight plays. All eight plays were runs by Thomas Jones. It was as close as an NFL team can come to pushing an opponent’s face into the mud. The Bears led 16-0. The Saints looked like they were on their way to a rout. Incompletes on the first two plays of their next series, leaving them with a third-and-10, looked like confirmation.
But this being the NFL, where only the surprising can be expected, the Saints sprang to life in the two-minute drill. Marques Colston, the prize rookie receiver, made a great catch in front of Brian Urlacher for a first down. Devery Henderson caught one. So did Terrance Copper. Then Drew Brees hit Colston for a 13-yard touchdown and the Saints trailed only 16-7 at the half.
On their first possession of the second half the Saints took over at their own 7. After a five-yard gain, Reggie Bush, that other prize rookie, got behind his man on the left side. Brees lofted the ball to him, Bush faked Danieal Manning, who had come up to help, out of his jock, and then he was gone. Eighty-eight yards and a touchdown, and all of a sudden it was 16-14 Bears but it was all Saints.
History will record that the game changed again about seven minutes later, when Brees was flagged for intentional grounding in his own end zone, resulting in a safety. The teams then traded punts before Grossman drove the Bears 85 yards in five plays for a touchdown and a 25-14 lead. Another fumble recovery gave the Bears a 26-yard field they didn’t waste, Cedric Benson crashing in from the 12 for 32-14 and the effective end of a hell of a year for the Saints.
I would argue that the turning point came before that safety. Starting with 11:25 remaining in the third quarter, the Saints, down 16-14, had driven from their own 18 to the Chicago 29, where they bogged down with three straight incomplete passes. That left them facing a 47-yard field-goal attempt.
That was beyond the range of their placekicker, John Carney, so kickoff specialist Billy Cundiff came on. Now, it’s bad enough to spend a roster spot on a placekicker and a kickoff specialist, worse when your placekicker can’t manage a 47-yard boot, and worse still when the kickoff specialist can’t either. Cundiff’s kick was short, and the Bears took over at the spot of the kick, the Chicago 37.
That was much better field position than the Bears would have had even if the Saints had run a draw play on fourth-and-10 and failed to get the first down.
The Bears went three and out, but the subsequent punt, a doozy by Brad Maynard, pinned the Saints at their own 5. And that’s why Brees was in his own end zone when he inexplicably dropped straight back to pass — leaving him unable to throw the ball away without a penalty because he was still in the pocket — and then inexplicably threw the ball away.
But odd personnel decisions and play calls didn’t lose this one for the Saints. They were beaten by an opportunistic team, a big-play defense that made big plays.
The Bears will have to do that again in two weeks when they meet Manning and the Colts. The Indianapolis offense vs. the Chicago defense will be the main event, with the Bears offense and Colts defense mere undercard fighters.
Defense wins championships, people always say, but they’re not saying it this time. Vegas oddsmakers have installed the Colts as favorites by roughly a touchdown, a nod to the superior quality of the AFC.
That’s as it should be, because we’ve learned to never say always.
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No red flag [PERMALINK]
I thought New England coach Bill Belichick should have challenged the touchdown scored on a fumble recovery by Colts center Jeff Saturday. That touchdown, in the second minute of the fourth quarter, tied the score at 28-28.
The Colts had second-and-goal at the 2 when Dominic Rhodes took a handoff and fumbled as he was stopped at the 1. Saturday, standing, reached down and grabbed the ball as it sat outside the end zone, between his feet. Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi fell on top of Saturday as Saturday went down.
When Saturday hit the ground, the ball was outside the end zone, still between Saturday’s lower legs. His head and shoulders were in the end zone and Bruschi was on top of him. The play should already have been over when Saturday drew the ball up into his chest as the scrum moved more of him into the end zone.
If the Patriots had challenged the call, I think the Colts would have had a third-and-goal at the 1. And there was time. I thought this in real time, as I watched the first replay. Since this is the kind of thing that usually gets spotted by someone connected to a broadcast, I was surprised CBS didn’t go back to the replay after returning from a commercial.
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No column Tuesday [PERMALINK]
Back Wednesday. See you then.
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