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Plenty to feel good about with Patriots

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  November 22, 2010 09:05 AM

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Please, no talk about the pass defense, about fourth-quarter collapses, about near misses and breakdowns. That would be disrespectful to the Indianapolis Colts. And just as significantly, it would be disrespectful to the Patriots.

In a complete role reversal today, we are urging you to think positive.

For only the second time in their last seven meetings, the Patriots have defeated the Colts, this time by a 31-28 score at Gillette Stadium in yet another riveting epic. There were plays made on both sides. There were mistakes, too. But with the Patriots and Colts, all that really matters is who wins at the end, and the reaction of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick following the game should have told you that.

Standing at the podium for his customary postgame briefing, Belichick actually, you know, smiled. He bantered. He then all but skipped off the platform as if playing hopscotch, the gloom and doom of his typical stride displaced by the bounce of someone who just got a promotion.

In some ways, the Patriots did.

They are now, indisputably, on the highest level of the 2010 NFL hierarchy.

But we digress. These are the Colts we’re talking about. And this is Peyton Manning. In the aftermath of yesterday’s win, much of the postgame discussion and threads focused on the near repeat of last year’s debacle in Indianapolis, a game in which the Patriots held a 17-point fourth-quarter lead (sound familiar?) before getting blitzed by Manning and the Indy offense in the final minutes. That game triggered a Patriots collapse during the second half of the season and prompted Belichick to purge his locker room of many veterans and malcontents.

That all brought us to this team, this year, this game. As Belichick himself noted, the difference between the Patriots and the Colts is often one or two plays, a reality that took last year’s loss and turned into a win.

To wit: With the Patriots facing a third-and-7 from their own 32-yard line late in the game, Brady threw an incompletion. Had the Patriots gained, say, five yards, Belichick would have been faced with a fourth-and-short from deep in his own territory with the game on the line. Instead, he punted. And so one year after the Colts took over on the New England 29 needing a touchdown with exactly two minutes to play, these Colts began at their own 26 with precisely 2:25 to go.

This time, forced to go 74 yards, Manning threw an interception, his third of the game. He has now thrown five interceptions in his last two games against the Patriots. We’ll never know how last year might have turned out had Belichick punted instead of going for it, but what we do know is that Belichick sees his team much differently than he did a year ago.

Proof? The coin toss. The Patriots won and elected to defer, putting the ball in Manning’s hands to start the game. We all know how much the Patriots like to set the tone for any game, to score first, to make the other team chase. But in this case, Belichick gave Manning the ball, reversing his final decision against Indianapolis in 2009 with his very first decision against them in 2010.

So what happened? Manning threw an interception. Then the Patriots scored and forced a punt. By the time the Colts scored, the Pats already had a 14-0 lead and the assurance that they would start the second half with the football.

Now, as for when the score was 31-14, be realistic. The Patriots were never going to blow out the Colts, not with their pass rush being what it is and the Indy running game being almost wholly useless. (Minus one run by Donald Brown – admittedly, it was a big one - the Colts gained 35 yards on 19 carries.) The problem with playing Indianapolis is that it puts pressure on your offense, if for no other reason than you cannot help but assume that the Colts will score a touchdown every time they have the ball.

So, after Julian Edelman failed to catch a potential touchdown pass from Brady that forced the Patriots to settle for a field goal, it was only natural for your wheels to start spinning. A touchdown, stop, and a touchdown would make the score 31-28. Then Manning would only need a field goal. The game ended up folding precisely that way, and Adam Vinatieri was warming up when Manning made a throw that James Sanders plucked out of the night.

Maybe it was a poor throw by Manning. Maybe it was a good play by Sanders. Maybe it was a little of both. (Weigh it however you want.) But in the modern NFL, particularly with regard to the Patriots and Colts, the margin between victory and defeat is measured with a micrometer. Whatever element pushed the difference in the Patriots favor this year is certainly open to debate, but make no mistake.

The 2010 Patriots have it.

The 2009 Pats did not.

That is something to celebrate, not bemoan.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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