By midnight, former Patriot turned broadcaster Rodney Harrison – a man so ferocious he was once voted the NFL’s dirtiest player – was marshalling all his strength to keep from weeping like a child on the air. Boston talk radio hosts were yelling at one another as though on the verge of blows. And across New England, disbelief rose like a mushroom cloud.
Somehow, improbably, unbelievably, the New England Patriots had lost to the Indianapolis Colts Sunday night, 35-34.
Over 12 games between Patriots and Colts since 2001 – a series of games rightly deemed the Rivalry of the Decade – there has been none as outlandish as this. In fact, Steve Sabol and his NFL Films crew would be hard pressed to find many equals among his reels of football history for the title of Most Dramatic and Mind-Boggling Turn of Events to End a Game of Football.
It was not merely the fourth-quarter comeback engineered by Colts quarterback Peyton Manning – shackled for so much of the game, so often mumbling to himself like some hobo as he trudged from the field – that made this game extraordinary.
It was not that last diving catch by Colt receiver Reggie Wayne that left the fan asking for smelling salts, wondering if he was actually being “Punk’d” by Al Michaels.
If ever a moment called for Jack Buck, it was this:
Two minutes and eight seconds to play. The Patriots leading by six. They have the ball at their own 28 yard line. It is fourth and 2.
At that moment, the sporting world must assume, Patriot coach Bill Belichick’s mind whirred into furious motion.
Option 1: I can do what 31 other coaches in this league would do and punt the ball to the Colts. I can put as much field between my end zone and Manning as humanly possible. I can bar the gates, prepare the boiling oil, send on my firstborn son as extra defensive cover in the dime package. Anything to make it harder for the Colts to score seven points.
(And this is where only Belichick dares to roam – an area of such supreme confidence that it does not border on arrogance but rather overflows it in flood-tide, a realm where common sense is the requiem of those too cowardly to trust brilliance in all its frightening forms.)
Option 2: I can go for it. I can try to keep the ball out of the hands of Manning, who has stomped on my young-and-tiring defense in the fourth quarter with hob-nailed boots. I can put the ball in the hands of my best player, quarterback Tom Brady, and trust him to win the game for me.
I am Bill Belichick. I choose Option 2.
Patriots gain one yard. Colts’ ball.
Fifty-five seconds later Wayne’s languid form – never hurried, ever graceful – falls to the turf with bedlam cradled in his taut fingertips.
Yes, Mr. Buck: “I don’t believe what I just saw.”
The team of mathematicians that broke the Enigma code would need a month simply to divine from the game film exactly how the Colts won. How the Patriots lost. Both. Heaven help the analysts at ESPN’s “NFL Gameday.”
Sebastian Junger authored “The Perfect Storm.” Sunday, Manning and Belichick co-authored “The Perfect Comeback.”
At 31-14 Patriots, with 14:18 remaining, the scenarios by which the Colts could win the game would not have filled a 3- by 5-inch card.
The Colts offense had not done much of anything against the Patriots defense for three quarters. The Patriots offense had done pretty much what it wished against the Colts defense for three quarters – failing only through complicity.
In the fourth quarter, Manning threw a pass to … absolutely no one. The Patriots duly intercepted. Rookie Colts wide receiver Austin Collie had the misfortune of having a long third-quarter pass hit him directly on the hands (which he duly dropped). The Colts other rookie receiver, Pierre Garçon, also failed to reel in a bomb that hit him in the hands.
Meanwhile, the Patriots moved at will, only to give up two turnovers in the Colt end zone – an interception and a fumble.
Then, 42 seconds into the fourth quarter, the inscrutable hand of football history shook Lucas Oil Stadium like a giant snow globe, and everything changed.
Pierre Garçon’s got gecko hands hauling in an inch-perfect Manning bomb. Austin Collie drew a crucial pass interference call. And Belichick’s moment of madness left Manning with only 29 yards to pay dirt.
The Patriots will hardly leave this game fearing the Colts. If they must come back through Indianapolis in the playoffs to make it to the Super Bowl – as now looks likely – they will have no fear.
On this evidence, though, no one would object to a final installment of the Rivalry of the Decade.