FOXBOROUGH — In recent weeks, it had become evident that if the Patriots were going to win, they would need Tom Brady and the offense to carry the day.
On Sunday, however, Brady got some big help from the defense and special teams, which accounted for three touchdowns in New England’s 59-24 win over rookie QB Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium.
It was the second time this season the Patriots went over 50 points — they did so in Buffalo in September as well — and the 59 points tied the team record set against the Titans on Oct. 18, 2009, when New England shut out Tennessee on an unexpectedly snowy day in Foxborough.
Two interceptions run back for touchdowns and a punt-return touchdown meant the offense didn’t have as much on its shoulders, and the Patriots were able to celebrate a full team effort for their fourth straight win and seventh of the season.
But one of the Patriots’ biggest wins of the season included arguably their biggest loss as well.
Blocking on the extra-point try after New England’s final touchdown, tight end Rob Gronkowski broke his left arm after appearing to get tangled up with the Colts’ Marshay Green.
A league source confirmed the break, but did not have a clear timetable for Gronkowski’s recovery, saying more would be known on Monday.
Gronkowski had a standout day for the Patriots, with seven catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns, just as it appeared he was moving past the back troubles that he’d been dealing with earlier in the season.
New England held Aaron Hernandez, who has been dealing with an ankle sprain suffered in Week 2 that he came back from and then re-aggravated, out of Sunday’s game with an eye toward Thursday night’s matchup against the Jets.
That decision now seems prescient, given Gronkowski’s injury.
A few months ago, there was little expectation that the matchup between the Patriots and Colts would have much appeal: Indianapolis had lost 14 games last year, would be starting a first-year QB, had a new coach, and lacked depth on both sides of the ball.
But when Indianapolis arrived at Gillette Stadium, it had the same 6-3 record that the Patriots did. The Colts had come-from-behind wins against the Vikings and Packers, and had won four straight despite a number of injuries on defense in particular.
Luck has received a great deal of attention for his status as the No. 1 draft pick this year and also for his solid start to the season. Brady got a bunch of questions about Luck last week; he always says that he doesn’t play the other quarterback but rather the opposing defense, and he seemed weary from the Luck storyline.
In the end, it was Brady who made the statement: Luck may be the future of quarterbacking in the NFL, but Brady is still very much the present.
After a rocky start Sunday, the Patriots defense settled down, and Luck seemed to be pressing trying to get his team back into the game, leading to some mistakes. The Colts had 164 yards of offense on their first two drives and 448 for the game.
“The players really stepped up and delivered some big plays throughout the game,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I thought we played good complementary football; all three units worked together. The players did a great job of executing and playing for 60 minutes.
“It was a good week of practice, a good week of preparations, and that showed up on the field. Not perfect but I’ll take it.”
“It sucked tonight because we lost by however much,” Luck said when asked about playing opposite Brady. “I’ve never been big into who the other quarterback is or who the other wide receiver is.”
The Colts got the ball to start the game and just as Patriots’ defenders said he would earlier in the week, Luck showed poise and command of his offense. He got his team into New England territory in four plays, and had things made easier for him when Kyle Arrington was flagged for pass interference near the goal line on a long pass attempt for Donnie Avery.
Running back Delone Carter got the touchdown from a yard out for Indianapolis.
New England’s first touchdown drive included completions of 26, 16, and 4 yards to Gronkowski, the final one his ninth score of the year.
Luck answered with a 10-play, 84-yard effort, the big play a 25-yard completion to LaVon Brazill on third and 7. T.Y. Hilton got a step on Aqib Talib in the end zone, and Luck found him for the touchdown from 14 yards out.
The 14-7 lead was the last one the Colts would have.
The Patriots (446 total yards of offense) tied the game on Indianapolis’s first punt of the day, when Julian Edelman fielded the ball at the Patriots 32, the Colts missed a few tackles, Matthew Slater provided a big block, and Edelman darted 68 yards down the right sideline for his third return score of his career.
New England took the lead less than 60 seconds later.
On second and 1, Luck overthrew Reggie Wayne and newcomer Talib was in the right place for his first interception as a Patriot.
His runback was impressive, with a cutback near the 35 that allowed him to finish with a 59-yard touchdown.
“The punt return for a touchdown, the interception return for a touchdown, those were awesome,” Brady said. “When you get those type of plays, those are game-changing plays. I don’t remember too many times when we’ve lost games when we’ve gotten returns for touchdowns.”
The Patriots went into halftime with a 24-17 lead, as both teams got field goals in the closing minutes of the second quarter.
The Colts had a chance to get 3 more points, but Adam Vinatieri missed a 58-yard try wide left.
“It [game] started off pretty good,” Colts safety Antoine Bethea said. “All of the things we said we needed to do to beat this team, we didn’t do. Defensive we really didn’t get off the field on third downs and we didn’t get any turnovers. We have to give credit to New England – they played a heck of a game.”
New England, which had won the opening coin toss and elected to defer, scored on its first possession of the second half, with Edelman getting a 2-yard reception in the end zone.
The game was effectively put out of reach, 38-17, after a Rob Ninkovich strip-sack well inside Indianapolis territory gave the offense a short field. Brady hit Gronkowski on the first play for a 24-yard touchdown.
“He is such a big body and a fluid receiver,” the Colts’ Tom Zbikowski said of Gronkowski. “It’s not like he is going to burn you with his speed but he finds a way to get open every time and they also have a pretty good quarterback that can put it where he needs it.”
The forced fumble was Ninkovich’s fifth of the year, tying Mike Vrabel (2007) for the team record for a season.
“We were trying to make sure [Luck] wasn’t getting out of the pocket,” Ninkovich said. “The game plan was to restrict the pocket, try not to let him make plays with his feet.
“I didn’t see the ball until it was at my feet — I didn’t know if he threw it or what, I just knew I hit him.”