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On Football

Strategies unfolded like clockwork

By Mike Reiss
November 3, 2008
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INDIANAPOLIS - Great games come in different forms. Some are shootouts. Some are defensive struggles.

But the entertaining, thrilling game the Patriots and Colts played last night fell into a different category - it was possession-based, filled with long drives, played with a razor-thin margin for error.

The Patriots needed to go that route if they were to win, mainly because their pass defense was a bad matchup against Peyton Manning and Co.

It turns out the Colts, also minus key players in the secondary, needed to go the same route because they feared receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

"It was really a field-position game and both teams were really working the clock a lot, and I think that's mutual respect from both teams," said Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, whose 52-yard field goal turned out to be the difference in the 18-15 victory.

"You try to keep their offense off the field because both teams have a lot of explosive firepower that can put points on the board," said Vinatieri. "It seemed like it was real methodical drives that were taking six, seven, eight minutes. It just made each possession that much more important and you had to capitalize on every one of them."

In the end, both teams had just seven drives, and in games like that, coaches and players from both sides agreed that it's the team that makes the plays in critical situations that comes out on top.

And that's where the separation ultimately came into play, with the Patriots hurt by a dropped would-be touchdown by Jabar Gaffney in the third quarter, and a devastating personal foul penalty on tight end David Thomas that knocked the team out of range for a tying field goal in the fourth.

It also hurt that the Patriots were out of timeouts, the result of a failed challenge in the third quarter in which Bill Belichick felt the Colts had 12 men on the field, another timeout taken later in that drive, and then a final timeout burned early in the fourth quarter on a fourth-and-1.

With both teams vulnerable on defense, they adopted conservative plans. Colts receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark said the Patriots were playing cover-2, keeping their two safeties in the deep part of the field to take away the big play. So the Colts adjusted and found success in the real estate in front of those safeties.

The same was true with the Colts' defensive approach, as they were without starting cornerbacks Marlin Jackson (injured reserve) and Kelvin Hayden.

"It was a tough matchup on us," said Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy. "We played some double coverage on [Wes] Welker and then they went to [Randy] Moss. We didn't want to single [Moss] all that often, and give him a chance to make big plays, so we played a lot of zone. Then they threw the ball underneath, and they had some good runs [on] us.

"It was one of those [games] where we did all we could on defense, and did keep them from having the big plays."

Said Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel: "You have to take what they give you. In this type of ballgame, it comes down to one possession, and they were able to get that last possession at the end of the game and we weren't able to counter that. We had the penalty late, and that hurt us. That makes the difference."

In possession-style games, third down and red zone loom large. The Colts were 6 of 10 on third down, while the Patriots were a solid 8 of 14. The difference came in the red zone, where the Colts cashed in on both of their trips with touchdowns, while the Patriots could punch it in just once in four tries. That helps explain how the Patriots, who had drives of 13, 13, 15, 15, and 8 plays, could have a commanding time of possession edge (34:24-25:36) and still lose.

The game was played in a tidy 2 hours, 41 minutes, tied for the Patriots' quickest of the year.

"You really kind of figure that's how it's going to be with these guys, because they do a great job of possessing the ball and of time management," said Clark. "We were scoring touchdowns when we got into the red zone, and they were getting field goals, and I thought that was the big part of the game."

"We knew it would come down to the last possession," Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "That's pretty much what it came down to."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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