Patriots misfire in clutch

INDIANAPOLIS – Just call it karma.

And not just because the New England Patriots had eliminated the Indianapolis Colts from two of the previous three postseasons.

Or that the Colts answered a touchdown by New England guard Logan Mankins with two scores of their own by offensive linemen, including one by former Patriot and moonlighting defensive tackle Dan Klecko.

No, poetic justice stung the Patriots when the ball stopped bouncing their way. For a team which has had its success this decade predicated on capitalizing on good fortune, New England was left contemplating blown opportunities after a 38-34 loss to Indianapolis in the AFC championship game on Sunday.

"We let too many opportunities get away," said quarterback Tom Brady, who was intercepted by defensive back Marlin Jackson with 16 seconds left as he tried to mount another game-winning drive. "We had the ball in good field position at certain times. We should have got the ball in the end zone."

The Patriots did with regularity in the first half, building a 21-3 lead. But then something happened on the way to Miami.

For this one game, the Patriots became the Raiders, Steelers, Chargers and all the other teams they've eliminated from the playoffs in the Bill Belichick/Brady era. Time after time, New England sent those foes packing by taking advantage of a second chance or a meltdown.

But on the road at the RCA Dome, after silencing the home crowd and seemingly marching toward a fourth Super Bowl trip in six years, the Patriots were the ones who imploded.

"In the first half, we beat their heads in," said New England cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who was flagged for a questionable defensive pass interference penalty that set up the Colts' second touchdown in the third quarter. "Then we came out flat and just basically let them in the game again.

"It's kind of like a boxing match. You keep punching, keep punching at them and we didn't punch hard enough."

Even more, the Patriots were unable to overcome a mighty body blow after halftime.

You'd have to look long and hard in the history books to find the last time New England blew an 18-point lead, or had wide-open receivers repeatedly dropping balls, or failed to force a turnover in a situation like Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne's recovery of his own fumble as two Patriots tackled him on Indy's game-winning drive.

New England overcame one drop by wide receiver Reche Caldwell when Jabar Gaffney scored on the next play. However, the Patriots were forced to settle for a field goal in the fourth quarter when Caldwell vigorously alerted Brady that he was uncovered pre-snap and then dropped the quick throw.

"It feels like a dagger in my heart," said cornerback Asante Samuel, whose 39-yard interception return in the second quarter gave New England the 18-point lead. "It hurts."

The Colts know the pain. They've been on the other side of several big Patriots moments this decade.

While many folks view the "tuck rule" game in the 2001 divisional playoffs against the Raiders as New England's turning point, the start of its championship run really goes back to Week 3 of that season. After Drew Bledsoe was injured in Week 2 against the Jets, the Patriots were forced to start the relatively green Brady against the heavily favored Colts. The outcome? Brady was a modest 13-of-23 for 168 yards as New England rolled 44-13.

And the last time the Patriots made the trek to Indianapolis, they won 38-34 after blowing a 21-point second-half lead but finished with a great goal-line stand to deny Indy the victory.

No such repeat this time.

"It pretty much sums up our year. Kind of up and down," Wayne said. "When we came in at halftime, coach [Tony] Dungy said, 'We're all right. Let's go out here, score in the second half, stop them, score again and make it a football game.' "

The comeback left the Colts giddy and in good spirits. One member even tried comedy.

When tight end Dallas Clark, who finished with game highs of six catches and 137 yards, was asked if he could recall a bigger moment on the field, he replied: "I don't know. There was a pee wee game in which I … Nah, I'm just kidding."

There was no laughing in the other locker room. For the most part, just reflection and disappointment.

"This," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said, "is a tough one to swallow."

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