Football is about much more than schemes and plans that account for every possibility, even though some might like you to think that's all it is. It is chess, but only if you believe chess comes with concussions and torn muscles, and mind-numbing exhaustion.
Former Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks knew better than that. That's why he used to say, "It's not about X's and O's. It's about Jimmys and Joes."
What he meant is that the game is decided by the players most of the time, and yesterday's stirring 38-34 victory at the RCA Dome certainly was decided by Willies and Teds. Mikes and Bobbys. Romans and Rodneys and Richards. It was decided a little bit by a Peyton, too, but in the end that was the Colts' problem, not the Patriots'.
The Colts erased a 21-point deficit in just over 12 minutes, but when they had to score a touchdown with a first down on the Patriots' 11-yard line, they couldn't gain a yard. Having settled for a field goal that made it 38-34 with 3:27 to play, one more touchdown would be necessary to complete a comeback that would have rivaled (but not exceeded) the one they pulled off in the final four minutes of a Monday night game earlier this season against the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.
For a time it looked like they might do it when they drove to New England's 2-yard line with 40 seconds to play. Wisely, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning called two straight running plays designed to a) score and b) prevent New England from getting its goal-line personnel on the field.
But those plays were stopped, and when Willie McGinest jammed his knee into the turf and was being tended to there was a moment of breathing room. Manning called time to try and figure out what he would do on third and goal from the 1. What he found out when he got to the sideline had little to do with schemes and everything to do with what happens when two kings of the jungle have spent three hours hitting each other in the face.
"Sometimes we've done things like that in the past when we've just punched it in before they [the defenders] have a chance to get set," Manning said. "We got down to the 1 and I called the timeout, thinking going over to the sideline that we were going to get into our goal-line offense. But when I got over there we didn't have a goal-line offense because the whole team is hurt.
"We had no fullback and no tight end. That's what it came down to. We had no personnel options. We still had to stay with our three-wide offense due to injuries."
They had to stay with what they had because the Patriots' defense had pounded on Manning's offense until both sides had left pieces of themselves on the field. Tight end Dallas Clark was out and Marcus Pollard was hurting. Indy's fullbacks were ground to dust. On the other side, McGinest was back in the game with a throbbing knee, Mike Vrabel had welts all over his body from skidding on the turf, and as for Ted Washington, how good was he going to feel carrying 360-odd pounds around less than two months after breaking his leg?
Still, they were out there and some of the Colts were not, and in the end it was the McGinests and the Washingtons and the rest who made the plays that decided one of the best games this season.
Early on, it looked like a blowout after the Patriots ran off to a 31-10 lead, but for once a team coach Bill Belichick called "explosive" (as in "the one word for the Houston Texans is explosive") really was. The Colts made some offensive adjustments that negated what New England was doing defensively, then the Patriots switched back to their 3-4 to counter that. But when it's fourth and goal on the 1, it's not about schemes anymore, although that doesn't mean it's not about thinking.
"It's like pushing a wall," Pollard said of the final goal-line stand. "It's two walls hitting each other, essentially. If it's a stalemate, then you just have to keep on pushing. A yard in this league is tough. Today we didn't get it. My hat's off to them. They did a great job of stopping us."
They stopped the Colts on first and goal at the 2 and second and goal at the 1 without even having their full complement of goal-line defenders on the field. Then they tightly defended a fade route on third down that Manning had to throw because he had used his last timeout to learn his goal-line offense didn't exist anymore.
That left both sides with one last opportunity to declare who they were. The Patriots' defense had held the Colts for half the game but the unit finally was overrun in a 12-minute period in the second half. Then, after Kevin Faulk fumbled at New England's 11-yard line, the defense stopped Indianapolis cold on three (inexplicable) pass plays before the Colts settled for a field goal that cut the lead to 38-34 with just over three minutes to play.
Then it was the Colts' defense that stepped up and shut down an offense that had ripped it apart much of the afternoon. Next thing you knew, it was fourth and goal at the 1 for Indy with seconds left and no place to hide.
As it turned out, there would be no place to run, either.
McGinest re-entered the game after his knee settled down. He lined up at outside linebacker on the final play, fully intent on stopping the run. But when the Colts came out with a slot receiver to his side he decided to try a little of what Don King would call "trickeration."
McGinest walked out toward the slot as if he was dropping into coverage. He faced that receiver, giving Manning the illusion he was there to jam the receiver at the line. Manning noticed and did something McGinest had seen before, a small action that convinced the wise old linebacker what was coming.
"I saw him tap his backside," McGinest said. "That usually means it's a run. I was never dropping into coverage but I wanted him to think I was. I flew inside and he [running back Edgerrin James] was right there."
Soon after, he was right there on the ground, losing both a yard and the game as McGinest hog-tied him.
"When I came off the edge, I came," McGinest said. "The D-linemen did a great job jamming the middle. Seymour, Bobby Hamilton. Big Ted [Washington]. Big Ted, that's two people right there."
The Patriots' defensive line beat back the Colts' offensive line on three running plays with only a yard of real estate between victory and defeat. With no more margin for error, they gave up nothing.
At that point, there was no scheme involved. No X's and no O's. There was thinking, as McGinest proved, but it was done by the Jimmys and Joes Fairbanks always acknowledged were the true deciders of games. Then comes the clash. Two tons of bodies slam into each other. One side surges forward, the other meets it like a seawall against a storm crest. Yesterday, the seawall held, and behind it McGinest came like his own flood, and drowned the hopes of the Colts by out-thinking Manning and out-hitting James.
He and everyone else on the Patriots' defensive front came forward on those final four plays, pushing the Colts back, filling every gap until there was no place for the Colts to go but down.
That is why the Patriots are 10-2 today. Certainly their coaches have provided them with intricate planning and solid schemes all season, but the Patriots are not chess pieces simply lifted and moved into the right place at the right moment. They are human beings who think and move.
They are football players, and yesterday they stood on the 1-yard line facing one of the most explosive offenses in the game and they pushed it back. They held not simply by outsmarting the other guy but by making him smart a little bit, too.
"All bets are off at the 1-yard line," linebacker Ted Johnson said. "It's whoever's tougher. Whoever executes the best there wins. We won that fight."
They won it the way most fights are won. They out-thought their opponents, but they did something more. They out-hit them too.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.