INDIANAPOLIS – For one auspicious second at the RCA Dome Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts had a chance to seize control of the 2007 season, an opportunity to be the undisputed and undefeated heavyweight champion of the football world. But with a stunning victory over the New England Patriots within their grasp, the reigning Super Bowl winners dropped the ball.
With nine minutes left in the most anticipated regular season NFL matchup in more than a decade and Indy holding a 10-point lead, Colts safety Antoine Bethea, who'd already intercepted one Tom Brady pass, nearly secured another while running in stride near midfield. But Bethea couldn't hold onto what looked like a sure pick-for-six, and the ball landed at his feet. Thirty seconds later, Bethea was tackling New England's Randy Moss after a 55-yard catch, and another classic Brady comeback was immutably in motion.
Sometimes it's that fine of a line between glorious victory and the gut-punch of a 24-20 defeat that Indy experienced in front of 57,540 deflated fans. But even as they squandered a golden opportunity, the Colts presented a gift to the football-watching world that should not be underestimated: The promise of a thrilling January.
Had the Patriots stomped on Indy the way they had their previous eight foes, it would have been exceptionally difficult, barring an unthinkable injury to Brady, to imagine New England not rolling to a fourth Super Bowl victory in seven seasons. The league would have been broken down into two groups – the Pats and their patsies.
The playoffs, in turn, would've held about as much suspense as an acting competition between Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves. But the Patriots (9-0), who had destroyed their eight previous foes by an average margin of more than 25 points, who had run up the score on the Cowboys and Redskins and were on pace to become the most statistically impressive attack of all time, didn't look so unstoppable against the Colts (7-1).
From New England's first offensive play, when defensive end Robert Mathis blasted across the middle of the Pats' line and sacked Brady before the quarterback knew what had hit him, it was clear that Indy would be no pushover.
The Colts punched the NFL's resident bully in the mouth, and Bill Belichick's team buckled before summoning the mettle required to pull out the dramatic victory.
"I definitely think we showed the country that they're beatable," Indy defensive end Dwight Freeney said afterward in the subdued home locker room. "Compared to what they were winning games by, 52-7 and all that (expletive), this was a much different story. At least we showed there is a formula to beat them. Now we've got to figure out how to finish them off."
The Colts will spend the next two months trying to position themselves for a second crack at a maniacally driven team that may very well remain unbeaten during that span. Driven to destroy all comers after the Spygate scandal caused some opponents, including Indy coach Tony Dungy, to question the legitimacy of the Patriots' past successes, New England has a very real chance to match the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only teams to finish a regular season undefeated.
After a bye week the Pats, with victories over the Bills, Eagles, Ravens, Steelers, Jets, Dolphins and Giants, could very plausibly end up 16-0.
Getting to 18-0, however, should be a far more difficult task.
There's no assurance the Colts and Patriots will meet in the AFC Championship game for a second consecutive season, but it certainly seems as though a rematch is inevitable. And with the Pats currently holding a game-and-a-half advantage, along with the head-to-head tiebreaker, chances are that game would take place in Foxborough, Mass.
That should, in theory, give a big edge to New England. But upon closer inspection, playing at Gillette Stadium might not be as daunting to the Colts as you might imagine.
Physically, this is a different Indy team than the one which got manhandled by the Pats in chilly road games during the '03 and '04 postseasons. Though those Colts had an All-Pro halfback in Edgerrin James, they have since developed a more refined power running attack, and second-year halfback Joseph Addai is becoming a star. On Sunday, Addai ran for 114 yards and gained 112 more on five receptions, including his thrilling, 73-yard dash with a dump-off pass from Peyton Manning that gave Indy a 13-7 lead with 13 seconds left in the first half.
New England, meanwhile, continues to struggle on the ground, though its former power back, Corey Dillon, could come out of retirement to give the team an alternative to the eternally banged-up Laurence Maroney (15 carries, 59 yards).
The Indy defense is also poised to play the kind of punishing and turnover-provoking football it takes to win a cold-weather playoff game, something the Colts couldn't do in those previous trips to Foxborough. From the frequent hits on Moss, to Bethea's aggressive leap in front of Donte' Stallworth to secure his second-quarter interception, to safety Bob Sanders' drive-killing cutdown of Mauroney on third-and-1 from the Indy 14-yard line late in the third quarter (the Pats settled for a Stephen Gostkowski field goal to get within 13-10), to linebacker Gary Brackett's leaping, juggling pick of Brady and 28-yard return early in the fourth, the Indy defense looked championship-caliber – until it wilted down the stretch.
Most important of all, from a psychological standpoint, the Colts are in a better position to succeed. They are no longer under the Patriots' spell. Manning, who once seemed flummoxed by Belichick's schemes, dispensed with those demons last January when he and his teammates pulled off that huge comeback in the AFC Championship game, capped by the game-winning, 80-yard touchdown drive he completed with a minute remaining.
Had Manning played just a bit better on Sunday, the Colts might well have defeated New England for the fourth consecutive time.
"We lost that game, man," wideout Reggie Wayne said, shaking his head. "We lost it ourselves. You feel me?"
Wayne didn't state the obvious – that his fellow Pro Bowl wideout, Marvin Harrison, had missed the game with a knee injury, as had Indy's starting left tackle, rookie Tony Ugoh, with a neck problem. With Harrison out, and rookie replacement Anthony Gonzalez departing early after suffering a finger injury, Manning was forced to aim big throws in the direction of Aaron Morehead – or, as Colts fans know him, NoMorehead.
With a healthy Harrison – no guarantee, by the way, given his age and the potential nature of his injury – Indy might have been able to close out the game. That's another reason the Colts can hope to do better if and when they get another shot at the Pats in January.
For now, New England remains the team to beat, and when all is said and done, the Patriots may well go down as one of the best of all time. But before the coronation comes, it looks like they'll have a hell of a fight on their hands.
"We've got to look at the long haul and not get caught up in the short term," Wayne said. "We feel like we can go anywhere and win. Last year wasn't a fluke; we're the champions for a reason. People can say what they want, and New England's a good team. But we had opportunities, and even if we'd won this game, it wouldn't mean anything."
But by battling the Pats so closely on Sunday, the Colts increased the prospects for a meaningful January, and for that a suspense-seeking audience is grateful.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• When Adrian Peterson described himself to prospective employers at February's NFL scouting combine as "a cross between LT and LJ", most talent evaluators thought he was channeling the cockiness of TO. It turns out Peterson, a.k.a. AD ("All Day"), was simply being truthful, as he demonstrated most convincingly Sunday at the Metrodome in breaking Jamal Lewis' single-game record with 296 rushing yards. In leading the Minnesota Vikings to a 35-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers, a team that began the afternoon with the NFL's No. 7 rushing defense, Peterson, in his eighth NFL game, showed that he is already the league's best runner. That he did it with the great LT (16 carries, 40 yards) watching from the opposing sideline only made the statement more emphatic.
• In most years, given the impact he has had on his new team, Marshawn Lynch would be a strong contender for rookie of the year. Understandably overshadowed by Peterson's crazy-insane effort Sunday, Lynch had the best day of his young career for the Buffalo Bills, now 4-4 after defeating the Cincinnati Bengals for their third consecutive victory. Lynch (29 carries, 153 yards) threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to tight end Robert Royal for the go-ahead score, then put the game out of reach by busting a second-effort, 56-yard scoring run with 2:22 remaining. In case you haven't seen Buffalo much this season, he can catch and pass protect, too.
• It's now official: The New Orleans Saints have their swagger back, and the precise moment I realized that was when Sean Payton called for and easily pulled off an onside kick after taking a 3-0 lead on the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday. Suddenly, after its fourth consecutive victory – an impressive, 41-24 triumph over the Jags – New Orleans is only a half-game behind the first-place Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC South. Drew Brees has shaken off his early case of the cooties and is back in full command of Payton's diverse offense; he completed passes to nine different receivers en route to a 445-yard passing day on Sunday. And if this team goes to the Super Bowl, I'm going to try to keep a straight face when I boast, "I never lost faith in my preseason pick."
• Speaking of winning streaks, the Browns' come-from-behind, 33-30 overtime victory over the Seattle Seahawks gave Cleveland (5-3) its third straight victory. The Browns have now exceeded their win total from 2006, and with the way Derek Anderson is playing, how weird is it that Brady Quinn now seems destined to wait far longer than JaMarcus Russell (signed on Sept. 12) to make his NFL debut?
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
•"Here's how you should bill this game," a Kansas City Chiefs player told me last week in advance of the Green Bay Packers' visit to Arrowhead Stadium. "It's their god (Brett Favre) against our god (Carl Peterson)." Notwithstanding the sarcastic dig at Kansas City's team president, who recently dressed down his offensive players during a team meeting, the Chiefs will need to play better than they did in Sunday's 33-22 defeat to the Pack if they want to take advantage of the Chargers' struggles. Now tied with San Diego for the AFC West lead at 4-4 (eccch), K.C. might have to gut out the next few weeks without star rusher Larry Johnson (the LJ in Peterson's Combine comparison), who appeared to suffer a significant ankle injury in the fourth quarter. Two weeks ago, Chiefs players wondered whether resurrected veteran Priest Holmes would push Johnson for playing time. Now, it seems, we're about to see if Holmes truly is up to the challenge.
• Lost in Sunday's record-fest at the Metrodome – congratulations to the Chargers' Antonio Cromartie, who came as close as someone possibly can to having a 110-yard return for a touchdown (a rare case in which an athlete actually did give 110 percent, or at least 109 percent) off Ryan Longwell's missed field goal – was the fact that San Diego took a serious step back after three consecutive victories. I've been hard on Norv Turner all season, and defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell has been a worthy target of criticism as well, but Sunday's defeat was on the players, with quarterback Philip Rivers at the front of the line. The Chargers had better get it together, and fast. Beginning Sunday night at Qualcomm Stadium, their next six games are against the Colts, Jaguars, Ravens, Chiefs, Titans and Lions; all are better than the Vikings.
• Thanks to the Dallas Cowboys, Lincoln Financial Field resembled a touchdown emporium Sunday night. And if Donovan McNabb still thinks the road to the NFC East title goes through Philly, he's as high as … oh, never mind.
• Hey, all you David Carr supporters who used to send me emails blaming his struggles on the Houston Texans' offensive line: Did you happen to catch the Carolina Panthers' 20-7 defeat to the Tennessee Titans in Nashville Sunday? Carr was sacked seven times, three by defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who afterward told reporters, "You've got to credit David Carr, too, because he held the ball. That allowed me to get there a little bit." The last time the Titans dropped an opposing quarterback seven times in one game? It happened on Oct. 9, 2005 against Houston – which was quarterbacked by Carr at the time.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How it took me until the end of October to see "Knocked Up." Granted, I have three kids and, by extension, no life, but this was a movie that seemed like it would be very funny and delivered in a big way. And though Judd Apatow and the gang put the theory to the ultimate test, I apparently will never get tired of long hair and beard jokes.
2. The NFL's inconsistency when it comes to Andy Reid. Back in May, commissioner Roger Goodell, while being interviewed by Boomer Esiason for the MSG television network, said he told Michael Vick, "People living in your house and people on your property is your responsibility." Yet now that it seems obvious that Reid, who as a coach should be held to an even higher standard than a franchise quarterback, was housing two sons who were engaged in various illegal drug and weapons activities on his property, the word is that he won't face any discipline. I like Reid and feel for him as a parent, and I don't want to add to his misery. But if I'm an NFL player, I'm thinking that this is a serious double-standard.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
It's hard not to beat up on the Chargers after what went down in Minneapolis Sunday, but here's another way of looking at San Diego's precipitous fall from last year's 14-2 regular season: Maybe the '06 Chargers weren't that good in the first place. Knowing what we know now, how impressive, really, was that team's 5-1 record against AFC West foes or its 4-0 mark against NFC West teams? Before blowing its divisional round playoff game against the Patriots, San Diego's signature wins had come against Seattle, the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos – overrated teams that were all, clearly, on the decline. There's no disputing that this year's Chargers, at 4-4, are a decidedly mediocre team. But anyone who still believes the '06 Chargers could compete with this year's Patriots or Colts is semi-delusional.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Mr. Silver, if that's your real name, do you have any idea how great of an asset Bill Polian is for the Colts? Obviously not because you're just trying to make up a stupid column before your deadline; and don't try and defend yourself by saying its not simply another angle because it is, and its a poor attempt to make a story. Time for improvement 'Silver.' "
Damn, Sherlock, you caught me – I am not in fact Michael Silver; I am a secret agent employed by Bill Belichick commissioned to stir up trouble before big Patriots games. As such, while the Indy team president is an exceptional judge of talent, I can tell you in the strictest of confidences that I have some idea how great of an ass Polian is for the Colts.
"Re: Front and center By Michael Silver, Yahoo! Sports November 2, 2007 You homer! You lifted all that material straight from the Boston newspapers. Come on? Indy raised the thermostat, slick field, blah, blah, blah. I know you said it doesn't matter whether it is true, because the Pats believe it … but you actually give this dribble credence when you write it nationally. And why is it that everything you said was cannon fodder for the Pats and nothing for the Colts? Come on … (Tony) Dungy saying that it would be disturbing if it were found that the Pats cheated? That's locker room material for the Pats? It's the truth. And if you don't find that disturbing, then something is wrong with your frame of reference. That's like saying don't remind the burglar that it's illegal to steal, because it might get him mad at you."
Do we have to go through this again? Deep breath. Attention, devoted fans of all NFL teams: I am not a homer. I root for none of your teams. The only teams for whom I blatantly cheer either have Cal on their jersey (my alma mater), are based in England (and I only adopted the Reading Royals nine days ago) or have my kids on the roster (currently the Adrenaline Rush, Bruisers and Fiery Red Meatballs, for those of you snoring at home). Finally, if you don't think even the most innocuous of comments gets turned into bulletin-board material by Belichick, you haven't been paying attention.
"For all this media portrayal of the Colts as good and the Pats evil, I was glad to see you give folks a glimpse into the world of one of the NFL's most chronic whiners and complainers, Mr. Polian. We had to listen to him whine about our defensive backs beating up his precious cargo in '03 (or for that matter, Willie McGinest's injury in the regular season meeting). Then, more whining in '04 when his vaunted offense parked a 3 on the board at the Razor. And of course, now that they've actually won something (a temporary condition, I'll assure you), the insufferable Mr. Polian continues with his shenanigans. My question: what will happen after this year's defeat? Will he lobby to have all receivers over 6-foot-3 banned? Maybe a rule where the Colts get to play 12 guys against the other team's 11? Or maybe adjustable goals, so that he can shrink it or expand it at his leisure. In any case, a personal note to Bill Polian and any other Colt whiners – shhhhhh!”
Now that , Brian, is a homer
"Yo Mr. Silver, I think that Dungy meant the comparison of the Patriots to Barry Bonds to be favorable. I think that Dungy sides with Bonds in that controversy, and you shouldn't just assume it was intended an insult because you think Bonds cheated. Consider the source. Has Dungy ever said anything insulting about anyone else in public before? Regarding the other part of his comment, who wouldn't agree that the possibility of cheating is disturbing? Why is that a controversial insult, regardless of what you think of the Patriots? Polian is also very complimentary of the Patriots on his radio show, and he extends himself beyond the average courtesy of saying that they play well. I think there are a lot of rumors in your article that might ring false with people who know something about and consider the characters of the people involved. Regards."
You listen to a team president's radio show? Wow. No offense, but that, to me, is kind of disturbing.
" 'Had to write a written apology …' Huh? Is it possible to speak a written apology or maybe write a spoken apology? I'm just giving you a hard time. You're actually one of the few sports writers who knows how to write and doesn't rely on clichés or descend into poor grammar. I enjoy your columns, but I couldn't let that odd turn-of-phrase go without remark."
Ouch. Sorry for that little visit to the Department of Redundancy, Dept.
"Just wanted to say I really enjoyed your column this week. Great stuff, funny, topical, and on point. Don't let all the (expletives) with their mean emails get ya down."
La Mesa, Calif.
Thanks Ian, and don't worry – I am thick as a brick.
"When you ranked the Chargers at the bottom of the list a few weeks ago, I wrote to inform you that your brain certainly must lack any desire to put out intelligent thought. Regardless of how the Chargers do, I must say that I was in fact incorrect in my declaration of your idiocy. I have now come to see that you write what you are feeling at the time, with little pretension or arrogance. It seems you are free to write whatever you want and you do. I actually applaud you for that. Keep the uninfluenced and unbiased prose coming."
Gladly. Thanks for sticking with me.
"What is your obsession with correcting the spelling of your readers every week? Why would you try to embarass the people who support your work? You should spend more time correcting the content of your own articles."
What's my obsession with correct spelling? That's like asking a mathematician, 'What's your obsession with correct addition?' And when someone writes, 'Your an idiot,' that isn't necessarily the most supportive of statements. OK, now it's your turn: Embarrass has two 'r's.'
"I enjoy your writing, but just a quick comment on your email responses. You're missing a great opportunity when (expletives) write in slamming you – Most of the time you call attention to their poor grammer/spelling/whatever. Could you forget the professional writer in you for a minute and take the time to strike back? Otherwise, its like this: 'Hey Michal, you're a douche 4 likng soccer!' 'Errr … You can't spell.' Come on! Burn those internet trolls for all of us. Or hire me to do it if you don't have time. Hatred and venom make great reading."
Stony Brook, N.Y.
I hear you. But I try to save the heavy artillery for the bullies of the sports world, particularly certain GMs, coaches and owners. Just out of curiosity, though, what's your hourly rate?
"Michael, love your stuff. I love when you also appear on KNBR 680! I have a bet with a buddy of mine. I said I saw a profile of you in Money Magazine in the early '90s … say 1993 maybe. My friend says I am full of (expletive) … like he normally does). I think I am right. Anyway, keep up the good work and Go Bears."
San Jose, Calif.
Yeah, you are both on and in the ‘Money.' That was yours truly, featured primarily because I had so little of it (relative to some of my ex-high school classmates, who were also spotlighted) at the time. Of course, I had my dreams.
"Michael, I really enjoy your style of writing. Whenever I read one of your articles, I can't help but think of you subbing for the regular call in host (I think I have that right) on KNBR on a Saturday afternoon many years ago … you were parodying awards to the dumbest of athletes for guns/drugs at airports, etc. It was hysterical and you were definitely 'crossing the line' – might have gotten into a little trouble with KNBR management – but I feel fortunate to have been in the audience and caught your radio act that day! It was classic stuff. Keep up the great work Michael."
Ladera Ranch, Calif.
Wow – another 1993 memory, and this one of the ill-fated "Jockline," which had roughly the same impact on pop culture as New Coke, only with far less fizz. Despite the fact that I co-hosted the pilot with hilarious San Francisco Chronicle columnist Scott Ostler, the show's producer, Mike Fleiss, failed to give us much help, though the blackout at the Warriors game, the blowout in Berkeley and the non-malicious blowoff by a certain future Hall of Fame quarterback killed us, too. I wonder whatever happened to that overmatched producer, anyway? Was I correct in declaring he'd "never work in this business again"?
"I don't know why I get such a kick out of it, but please never stop ridiculing morons that write you e-mails for their butchering of English spelling and grammar. Also, what are the odds the Bears get Jeff George, and he leads them back to mediocrity?”
About the same as the odds of Vikings coach Brad Childress being cast as Carlos Valderrama in a film about Columbian soccer legends, unfortunately.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL OF THE WEEK
"All day!!! Rare and unusual. Favorite player in the draft. Not just rookie of the year, he might win player of the year."
– Text from the scouting director of a team which didn't draft Adrian Peterson.