With each passing week, we cannot help but wonder about the ramifications of fourth and 2. For no matter what happens here in New England, there is the ever-increasing chance that the Patriots gave new life to perhaps the greatest season in NFL history.
The Indianapolis Colts won again last night, folks, pulling out a 35-31 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars that improved the Colts to a perfect 14-0 this season. The Colts have won an NFL record 23 straight regular season games to set (and extend) a new league record once held by your beloved Pats (21 straight). The Colts have come from behind in the fourth quarter this year to win seven games, the most in history since the NFL and AFL merged in 1970 according to a report in this morning’s Indianapolis Star.
As you might recall, one of those comebacks came against the Pats in Week 10, when Bill Belichick and his charges held a 34-21 lead over the Colts with 4:12 to play. And should the seasons of the Patriots and Colts continue along their current paths, those 252 seconds forever will serve as the axis on which the fortunes of both clubs indisputably spun.
Unless, of course, the Pats and Colts just happen to meet again.
As such, these questions persist:
- Do the Patriots deserve another chance?
- Can they realistically get one?
And if the answer to those first two questions is yes, will the Colts even be there when the Patriots show up?
On five occasions last night, the Jaguars took the lead over the Colts. All five times, the game’s next points came via an Indianapolis touchdown. The final score of the night came on a 65-yard touchdown pass from Peyton Manning to Reggie Wayne with under 6 minutes to play, further tightening the Colts’ death grip on home field advantage in the AFC playoffs and leaving just the Jets (at Indy next week) and Bills (hosting Indy in Week 17) as the only obstacles between the Colts and just the second 16-0 regular season in NFL history.
For Indianapolis, as was the case when the Colts owned a 13-0 record in 2005, the debate has begun anew.
To play or not to play?
"Personally," Manning said during last night’s interview on the NFL Network, knowing full well that the 2005 Colts self-destructed by pulling back the reins in a similar situation, "I hope we still play."
If the Colts did not learn their lesson the last time, shame on them.
For Pats followers, the investment here is obvious. What if fourth and 2 ends up as the single greatest pressure point in Indy’s 19-0 season? Will Belichick’s controversial decision have an even more damning effect then? Had the Patriots closed out a win at Indy in Week 10, the Pats would have been 7-2 and the Colts would have been 8-1. New England would have showed up for work in Week 11 with the billing as a legitimate Super Bowl front-runner, as a team having just made an significant breakthrough in its development.
In retrospect, would that have made a difference? Would the Pats of today be a more confident, self assured and simply better team if the Indy game had ended differently? Or did the losses at New Orleans and Miami reveal such great flaws that the Indy game now means virtually nothing at all as it pertains solely to the long-term capability of the 2009 Pats?
Amid all of that debate in New England, the Colts, too, have more than their share of questions to answer. When the Pats won 21 straight from 2006-08, New England did so without winning a Super Bowl. The Colts who began the 2005 season with a 13-0 mark similarly stumbled in the postseason, losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the division playoffs. Manning and the Colts rebounded in 2006 en route to a victory in Super Bowl XLI, but Manning’s postseason career is dotted by more failures (eight losses) than successes (seven wins).
All things considered, wouldn’t it be just like the Colts to go 16-0 only to get bounced in the first round? Indeed, since defeating the Chicago Bears by a 29-17 score in the Super Bowl, Manning and the Colts have not won a postseason game.
This week, on the heels of a sloppy and unconvincing win over the Carolina Panthers last Sunday, the Pats travel to Buffalo for a meeting with a Bills team that had the Pats beaten in Week 1. With roughly five minutes to go in that affair, Buffalo led 24-13. Aided considerably by Bills mistakes, the Pats rallied for a rather miraculous one-point win – sound familiar? – and clung to the mystique that has made them one of the most successful franchises in sports in this millennium.
Several weeks later, the Pats all but gave that mystique to the Colts.
One can now only wonder if they will have the chance to take it back.
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