INDIANAPOLIS - Time was on the Patriots' side for much of last night's contest with the Indianapolis Colts, but in the end time ran out - both on their clock-killing game plan and on their penalty-free play.
Despite rising to the occasion in yet another Patriots-Colts classic, New England (5-3) went home with an 18-15 loss last night in front of 66,508 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium, dropping them into a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, who visit Foxborough this Sunday.
Without quarterback Tom Brady and safety Rodney Harrison, with just three healthy running backs and an inexperienced and injury-saddled secondary, the Patriots decided their best defense was a clock-killing, possessive offense. They limited Indianapolis to just seven possessions for the game, held a 34:24 to 25:36 advantage in time of possession, and held the Colts to just 18 points.
The plan worked until the very end when an untimely drop, an ill-timed penalty, a lack of timeouts, and a timely clutch kick by former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri had the Patriots fall back behind the Colts.
"I thought we had our chances," said New England coach Bill Belichick. "We've just got to do a little more with them."
After Stephen Gostkowski booted his third field goal of the game with 11:33 remaining to tie it, 15-15, the Colts got the ball back and drove from their 18 to the Patriots 34. Vinatieri then connected on a 52-yard field goal with 8:05 remaining to give the Colts an 18-15 lead.
Matt Cassel, who acquitted himself quite well in his matchup against Peyton Manning, going 25 of 34 for 204 yards, got the ball at his 19 with 7:59 left and moved the Patriots to the Colts 32, where they had a second and 2. But tight end David Thomas committed a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty, blocking Colts defender Robert Mathis in the back after the whistle, on a 1-yard run by rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis (15 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown).
Suddenly the Patriots, who had no timeouts, were out of field goal range and facing third and 16.
With the Indianapolis wide receivers as open as the retractable roof at Peyton's New Place most of the night, Belichick elected to go for it on fourth and 15 with 4:40 to play and Cassel was intercepted by safety Bob Sanders at the Indianapolis 25.
"I was just trying to make a block and I never heard a whistle and it was a critical mistake and it really cost us," said Thomas.
Thomas wasn't the only one who made questionable judgment calls in the second half. On the Patriots' 15-play drive to tie the game at 15, Belichick called a timeout, rethinking his decision to go for it on fourth and 1, from the Indianapolis 7. The play was executed prior to the whistle and Cassel picked up the first down on a sneak, but the timeout negated it and the Patriots, who had no timeouts with 11:38 to go in the game, had to settle for a field goal.
Belichick said he didn't get a good look at the placement of the ball and thought that it was fourth and inches when it was closer to a yard.
"I thought it was too long for a quarterback sneak," he said.
However, it never would have come to that point if wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, who was wide open, had not dropped a would-be 39-yard touchdown pass at the 6-yard line earlier in the drive.
"I dropped it," said Gaffney. "He made a good throw. I dropped it. I don't make any excuses. It hit my hands. I should have caught it."
The Patriots had taken a 12-7 lead on the opening drive of the second half, an impressive 15-play, 72-yard march that was capped by a 6-yard TD run by Green-Ellis.
But the drive - and the decisions made on it - proved costly in the long run
New England had to squander a timeout on the drive and lost another one when Belichick, on first and 10 from the Indy 45, chose to issue a video replay challenge of an illegal substitution flag against the Colts that was picked up by the officials. He lost the challenge.
Trailing, 7-6, at the half, Belichick said he had made up his mind that if his team scored he was going for the 2-point conversion. But the Colts stuffed running back Kevin Faulk inches short of the goal line.
The Colts wasted no time retaking the lead, four minutes to be exact, as Manning (21 of 29 for 254 yards and 2 TDs) capped a nine-play, 57-yard drive with his second TD toss of the game to Anthony Gonzalez, a 9-yarder. The Colts also went for 2 and Manning threaded a pass to Reggie Wayne to give Indy a 15-12 lead with 3:12 left in the third quarter.
The Patriots' strategy was to take the air out of the ball and away from the Colts offense. All of New England's scoring drives were 13 plays or longer and the shortest lasted 6:18.
It was well-executed, but it just wasn't enough.
"As potent of an offense as Manning and those guys, to keep the ball away from them it's basically like playing defense in itself," said Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs.
"So, the offense, they did their job for the most part. Defense did their job for the most part.
"But as a whole we didn't do it enough because we didn't win."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.