As always, there were several fascinating subplots in the New England Patriots-Indianapolis Colts matchup, but the primary topic of conversation is what it has always been – the exploits of Peyton Manning(notes) and Tom Brady(notes). Manning, who has been playing quarterback about as well as it can be played this season, did throw a couple of head-scratchers for interceptions, but was absolutely surgical down the stretch as the Colts erased a 34-21 deficit with less than five minutes left in the game.
Two late drives – one of six plays and 48 yards, and one of four plays and 29 yards – ended in touchdowns, and the Colts walked out of their home stadium with the 35-34 win that kept them undefeated, put them three games ahead of their archrivals in the fight for home-field advantage in the playoffs, and tied New England's two 18-game winning streaks, the second-longest in NFL history behind the Pats' 21-gamer from 2003-2004.
Neither Brady nor Manning went into this game expecting a balanced attack – the Pats attempted 42 passes and the Colts 44 – and New England opened their first defensive series with two down linemen. Everyone knew what was coming, and neither defense was especially expert in stopping it. The Pats rolled tight end Dallas Clark(notes) in a ball of coverage, leaving Peyton's other targets open enough for Reggie Wayne(notes) to catch 10 balls and two touchdown passes (including the game-winner) and Pierre Garcon(notes) to haul in three catches and a score. New England espoused a little more of a ground attack, getting decent yardage out of do-it-all back Kevin Faulk(notes), but the home runs had to come from Brady and Randy Moss(notes), who exploited Indy's undermanned secondary for nine catches and two touchdowns.
From a star standpoint, it was as even as it gets – both glamour-boy quarterbacks and #1 receivers had their A-game going, and it took one very questionable late coaching decision to allow the Colts to pull away at the end. When Bill Belichick decided to go for it with 2:08 left in the game and fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line, he was either exhibiting too much confidence in his offense, or not enough in his defense. The short pass to Kevin Faulk was bobbled by the receiver, and the call was to deny Faulk the forward progress that would have given New England the first down and the game. Having used up all his timeouts, the coach couldn't challenge the call. Chris Chase will take a closer look at this decision, but in an achingly tight game that lived up to every battle of its kind, Belichick walked away knowing that the key to his team's defeat lay in his own hand.
Still, it's wrong not to lay equivalent credit for the win at Peyton Manning's feet. No matter how far the Colts get, at the end of this season, we're going to look back at the way Manning is playing as one of those "we can tell our grandkids about this" extended performances that define all that's great about this game we love. And once again, the Patriots-Colts game was everything it was cracked up to be.