If the Baltimore Colts had not found a way to beat the New England Patriots in the final 90 seconds Monday night, it would have been cruel and inhuman punishment for Ted Marchibroda. Given quality players and inspiration from management, he is as good as any coach in the NFL. Lately, he has gotten precious little of either.

Marchibroda is a coach more interested in winning football games than corporate power games. But that became necessary two years ago, when Joe Thomas built the Colts and then could not tolerate anyone else being given credit for their smooth and swift run to the playoffs.

Thomas and Marchibroda in concert might have had the Colts developing the sort of team that challenges for the Super Bowl almost annually - and wins two or three. Thomas is unsurpassed as a judge of talent, but cannot work with a strong-willed coach.

Marchibroda became a strong-willed coach.

But nobody is going to win very often in the NFL with his best players on the sideline, or in the hospital, or bickering with a stingy owner. Until Monday, the Colts had more talent in casts and slings than they did in helmets and shoulder pads.

The Colts lost their first two games by a nightmarish 80-0. It was indeed tragic, as Howard Cosell suggested and Colt owner Robert Irsay denied, but almost predictable. The Colts' best defense is their offense - 90 percent of the offense was gone.

That 90 percent was named Bert Jones and Lydell Mitchell, George Kunz, Raymond Chester and David Taylor. If that number sounds unbelievably high, you could look it up, and discover that of the Colts' 4.588 yards last season, Jones, Mitchell and Chester accounted for 4,001. Kunz and Taylor were the primary blockers.

If the Colts could keep a defense that featured four excellent linemen and little else off the field, they were in fine shape. With literally no one to run, no one to block and no one to pass, that was impossible. Their name should have been the Baltimore Shetland Ponies.

Of course, matters got worse.

Before the New England game, the Colt defense was hurting so badly that both starting cornerbacks, Nelson Munsey and Norm Thompson, could not play and neither could their best linebacker, Stan White, and solid tackle Joe Ehrmann.

Counting heads, Marchibroda and his staff realized they had more healthy linebackers than linemen. So they suddenly dusted off the 3-4 defense currently in vogue, realizing that it was almost totally unfamiliar to several of the players.

The Colts limped into New England to face a Patriot team with every incentive to win - and big. The Pats had been upset by the Redskins and needed a victory to keep pace with the Dolphins and Jets in the AFC East. They were stronger, healthier and more versatile.

And Baltimore won.

They won as exciting and dramatic a game as anyone could ask, even of the Patriots seemed generally to be lacking enthusiasm and a quarterback with an accurate fast ball. They may discover Tom Owen and release him from the bench, although the Pats' problems ought not detract from Baltimore's success.

Unlike similar situations in other important games over the years, Marchibroda's Colts attacked when matters became tense. The Redskins had given them a way, by exposing Patriot cornerbacks as weak against fake-run-and-pass plays, and the newest Colt hero exploit it.

Lydell Mitchell, which is to say the Baltimore offensive bellcow, is now named Joe Washington. And he could not have made a more dazzling full-game debut. He ran with flair, caught one touch-down pass and threw another.

And when justice seemed about to be trampled during a furious Pat rally when a rare sustained stretch of competence by quarterback Steve Grogan seemed capable of a successful comeback, Washington pulled a Tony Green.

In truth, Washington has been returning kick-offs longer than Redskin Green. That was a major reason he was a first-round draft choice for San Diego two years ago. He got a fortunate, wet bounce on the kickoff with the score tied at 27, fielded the ball and gave it a victory spike 91 yards later.

Washington and Mitchell swapped uniforms a month ago; Washington's numbers Monday had a Mitchell-like tone - 16 rushes for 53 yards, two receptions for 41 yards and one touchdown, one pass completion for 54 yards and a touchdown, two kickoff returns for 112 yards and a touchdown.

Until Jones returns in three weeks or so, Marchibroda at least has a tool with which to build a modest offense. And the Colts at least play some teams - the Bills, Eagles, Cardinals and Jets - that, with luck, they can beat.

A head coach in the NFL can be a rather lonely figure at times, and the cameras showed all the frustration and intensity dripping from Marchibroda as he stalked the sideline when a near-impossible chance for victory seemed to be slipping away.

His fate would depend on an uncertain reserve not botching an assignment, on the whims of a wet football on even wetter artificial turf.

Suddenly, it had all come together again and the camera once again caught Marchibroda leaving the field.He jumped up and shot a fist into the air, a frisky Colt once again.