FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – For years, we have looked at the Indianapolis Colts the way a skeptical jeweler inspects a precious stone. We weighed. We measured. We sought out every small blemish.
And most importantly, we wondered: Are we seeing the real thing?
Each year, we could always count on the New England Patriots to provide a definitive answer. They were the microscope that brought Indianapolis' flaws into focus. But when the Colts left Gillette Stadium on Monday night with a 40-21 win, we were presented with something we'd never seen before from Indy.
The Colts were as close as it gets in the NFL this season. And their performance should have driven that claim home with an exclamation point.
For the first time in his career, quarterback Peyton Manning walked out of Foxborough as a winner. Cynics will point out that the victory didn't occur in the playoffs and that this wasn't the same brand of New England football that has trumped Manning and the Colts in the past. While those things may be true, both seem to be hollow facts – because this isn't the same old Indianapolis team, either.
If a 19-point win didn't prove it to the doubters, then maybe nothing will.
"We are more of a team," said Manning, who was 0-7 against the Patriots in Foxborough before Monday. "We feed off of each other. We've got a lot of youth and enthusiasm on defense. Practices are kind of exciting. Guys are flying around and it is a little bit of a different feeling. You always go out and try to score as many points as you can. But I sleep a little bit better at night now, knowing that Dwight (Freeney) can get a sack anytime and that Bob Sanders can make a huge hit for a fumble.
"You think those plays are going to happen now. It used to be you were kind of watching, kind of hoping (an opponent) makes a mistake. Now you're kind of surprised if Freeney doesn't get a sack. It's nice to have that offensive and defensive camaraderie. It's definitely the best camaraderie we've had as far as both sides pulling for each other and feeding off one another."
No moment epitomized the Colts' growth more than the final six minutes of the second quarter, with Indianapolis grasping to a 14-7 lead and driving for another touchdown. In what looked like the typical crossroads between these two teams, New England linebacker Mike Vrabel showed blitz, then craftily dropped into coverage and picked off a pass from Manning, who was backpedaling to avoid Willie McGinest.
It was one of those junctures that have happened so often with these two teams – typically ending with Manning frustrated and the Indy defense struggling to keep the Patriots from capitalizing. But this time, the plot took a twist. Six plays later, Sanders jarred the ball loose from New England's Corey Dillon, and the Colts seized the game's momentum. That turnover led to a 10-yard touchdown catch by Reggie Wayne and a 21-7 halftime lead by Indianapolis.
Ultimately, the margin would be insurmountable. Mirroring their first seven games, the Patriots were flawed. The defense fell into a familiar trap, giving up big plays and forcing uncharacteristic gambling. The biggest risk came in the middle of the third quarter when Bill Belichick called for an onside kick with his team trailing 28-14 and needing a spark. The trick was unsuccessful – the Colts recovered the ball and eventually kicked a field goal to go up 31-14 – and for the first time, Belichick's familiar lament of being "out-coached" actually looked legitimate.
"We were down," Belichick said in what was a short, terse press conference. "I was trying to get the ball."
What Indianapolis left behind was an unusually angry Patriots team – one that, as Tom Brady put it, got its "butt kicked." The unsettling loss featured many of the same old problems. New England's front seven rarely had an effective pass rush, and the secondary was in shambles, with cornerbacks Duane Starks and Asante Samuel surrendering several big plays. It was the kind of bitter defeat that left even Brady at a loss for words. His press conference lasted less than one minute, as Brady made a statement and took no questions.
Which seemed appropriate. With the Colts now 8-0 and owners of five road wins already, it's their turn to talk. This truly is a team that has plenty to offer, with an offensive balance that's unmatched in previous years and a defense that thrives on pressure and playmaking.
All aspects were all on display against the Patriots. On one side of the ball, Peyton Manning passed for 321 yards and three touchdowns (two to Marvin Harrison), while Edgerrin James pounded out 104 yards on 34 carries. Meanwhile, Indy's defense recovered two fumbles and notched a pair of sacks while getting consistent pressure on Brady and limiting Dillon to 40 rushing yards on 12 carries.
The defense wasn't perfect – Brady still threw three touchdown passes – but it managed to hold New England down early and allow the Colts to get going offensively. And Indy's D came through in a game where all the pressure was on the Colts, who consistently had teased expectations and then fallen flat against the Patriots.
"How often does a major magazine put the pregame on the cover?" said Manning, referring to this week's Sports Illustrated, which featured him and Brady on the front. "Usually, it's after the game. We realized this was a big game, an important game."
Not to mention a pivotal hurdle. The Colts finally cleared it by beating the team that dealt them playoff defeats the last two seasons. But now the climb gets steeper. With every Indianapolis win, talk of an undefeated season will grow. And now that the Colts have proven they can get by New England, Super Bowl expectations will swell to unparalleled dimensions.
That alone made Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy's postgame speech predictable.
"I told our guys in the locker room, Pittsburgh beat these guys last year in the regular season and couldn't do it in the playoffs," Dungy said. "Week 9 doesn't really guarantee you anything."
True. But a win like Monday's can showcase a newfound perfection all the same.