The New England Patriots continue to win despite injuries, mistakes and pressure-filled games.
That trend could be difficult to continue when they visit the Indianapolis Colts in a matchup of two of the NFL’s elite teams.
Both New England and Indianapolis are trying to improve their playoff position while moving closer to winning their respective divisions. The Patriots, owners of the league’s longest current win streak at seven, are trying to hold off Miami in the AFC East while the Colts are tied with Tennessee atop the AFC South.
Kansas City enters this weekend with the AFC’s best record at 10-1, but Sunday’s matchup could go a long way in determining which team earns a bye in the first week of the playoffs. The Patriots, 9-2 for the first time in franchise history, have already beaten the Titans so a win over the Colts would give them control, at least temporarily, of the second seed in the conference.
Adam Vinatieri kicked a 28-yard field goal with 41 seconds left in overtime Sunday, lifting New England to a 23-20 victory at Houston. The winning kick came after Vinatieri had a 37-yard attempt blocked earlier in overtime.
“The whole overtime period seemed like a long 12 minutes,” Vinatieri said. “It took a while but our defense did a good job of stepping it up. I just kept thinking, ‘Just give me another shot.”’
It came as no surprise the Patriots played another tight game and won. Of their last five wins, two have been in overtime, another came on Tom Brady’s 18-yard touchdown pass to David Givens with 30 seconds left and two more came in games they led 6-3 and 9-0 after three quarters.
The Patriots have been an extremely resilient team, but know they won’t beat Indianapolis if they allow four sacks, commit three turnovers and have a punt and a field goal blocked as they did against Houston.
Making mistakes against the Colts, owners of the NFL’s second-best offense, will surely end New England’s streak at seven—its longest since winning nine in row to close the Super Bowl 2001 season.
“We’ve had guys make big plays the last few weeks to win football games,” linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. “We do some of the things this week like we did last week, the chances of us winning are very slim.”
Indianapolis also rallied to win Sunday, as Peyton Manning engineered touchdown drives on consecutive possessions in the final 14:51, sparking the Colts to a 17-14 victory at Buffalo.
Manning finished 26-of-42 for 229 yards, and was most efficient with his team down 14-3, going 8-of-10 for 70 yards in the final 15 minutes.
“He’s just phenomenal,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “I’ve been around some good ones. Warren Moon had that same charisma that you felt like you were going to win every time you had him. And Peyton’s in that same category.”
Patriots safety Rodney Harrison knows keeping Manning, the NFL leader with 3,105 passing yards and a 67.4 completion percentage, from making big plays is critical to beating the Colts.
“That’s going to be the key to this game,” Harrison said. “Because that’s what they thrive on, is big plays. Taking shots with Marvin Harrison down the field and having their little guys make plays. That’s the key, making them earn everything and not giving up that one 55-yarder or 65-yarder.”
Making Indianapolis even harder to defend is the re-emergence of running back Edgerrin James, who has 64 carries for 235 yards and five touchdowns in the last two games. James, who also has 12 receptions for 72 yards in that span, looks stronger than at any time since he tore his left ACL on Oct. 28, 2001.
“He’s breaking tackles, falling forward to gain extra yardage,” Dungy said. “That’s something, I think, that comes with him feeling better.”
Sunday’s matchup will pit one of the league’s best offenses against one of the best defenses. The Patriots have surrendered more than 20 points just once in the last six games while the Colts had reached the 20-point mark in nine consecutive games before Sunday.
Both teams have injury concerns.
New England, already without wide receivers David Patten and Givens, is hopeful receiver Troy Brown can play after missing two games with a leg injury.
Harrison has been bothered by a hamstring injury, but the Colts’ leading receiver played against Buffalo and caught six passes for 47 yards. Tight end Marcus Pollard could miss his third straight game with a sprained left knee while rookie tight end Dallas Clark is questionable with a back injury.