For the past five years, the New England Patriots have been the National Football League's talented team that couldn't. "We never seemed to make the big play or win the big game," quarterback Steve Grogan said.

Today, the Patriots got the big play and won a big game. The play came midway in the third quarter when Horace Ivory went 98 yards on a kickoff return for a touchdown. That gave the Patriots a 24-21 lead and the impetus they needed to beat the Baltimore Colts, 37-21, in front of a Memorial Stadium crowd of 53,924.

The victory moved the Patriots (6-1) into sole possession of first place in the American Conference's Eastern Division. The Colts dropped to 4-3. For New England, a big win. For Baltimore, a big loss.

Ivory's return came just when it looked like the winner was going to be whichever team touched the ball last. The colts had gone ahead, 21-17, with 7:36 left in the third quarter on an eight-yard Bert Jones to Reese McCall pass, Jones' 1,000th completion as a pro.

Steve Mike-Mayer's kickoff sailed to Ivory on the two-yard line. He ran up the middle, cut left, then suddenly went back against the grain and across the middle of the field, leaving the Baltimore tacklers in the wake.

"I got the blocks," Ivory said, "and, yeah, I made one good cut when I saw some daylight. I just ran on instinct." He has run on instinct all season after being pressed into kickoff return duty for the first time in his four-year career when others failed to pan out for Coach Ron Erhardt.

Before Ivory's run, the game had been a superb duel between Jones and New England quarterback Steve Grogan. Jones finished the day 15 of 21 for 180 yards. Grogan, listed as questionable all week with sore knees, emerged as cohero with Ivory, hitting 15 of 24 passes for 264 yards. Six of those completions went to 13-year veteran Harold Jackson, good for 127 yards. That total gave Jackson 9,328 yards receiving, moving him into third place on the all-time list behind Don Maynard and Lance Alworth. Today, Jackson passed former Colt great Raymond Berry, now New England's receivers coach. Berry had 9,275 yards in his career.

Both teams moved almost at will in the first half, each scoring on two of three possessions. But the Colts got two touchdowns to the Patriots' touchdown and field goal and led, 14-10, at the half. Each team then scored on its first second-half possession, Don Calhoun going 19 yards for New England before Jones hit McCall. Then came the New England heroics.

"Horace's return and the blocking I got up front were the keys," Grogan said. "We knew they were afraid of our speed so we ran a lot of out patterns to Harold and Stanley Morgan (five catches, 84 yards) because we knew they would play them soft."

The Patriots used Ivory's return to get on top. Two plays in the fourth quarter buried the Colts.

After Ivory's return, Mike Haynes and Ray Clayborn intercepted passes by Jones, setting up John Smith field goals of 29 and 37 yards, stretching New England's lead to 30-21.

But with 13 minutes left, Jones still had time to bring the Colts back.

He did. From his own 25, Jones drove his club to a first down at the Patriot eight-yard line. Marvin Sims got two and Joe Washington zip. Third and goal at the six. Then came the two killer plays.

First, Jones went back looking for the touchdown. McCauley was standing by himself in the end zone frantically waving his arms, calling for the ball. But Richard Bishop sacked Jones before he could get off the pass and the despondent quarterback stalked to the sidelines to watch.

He did not like what he saw next. Mike-Mayer came on for a 35-yard field-goal attempt that would have put the Colts within six points. The snap appeared good but holder Greg Landry did not get the hold right. With the ball almost flat on the ground, Mike-Mayer kicked a sailer, wide left.

"We really sagged when we missed the field goal," Colt Coach Mike McCormack said. "Six points down, we know we can come back. Nine points, though, is two scores. That's awful tough."

The Patriots made it impossible by methodically and efficiently killing 6:55 of the reamining seven minutes with a 15-play, 80-yard drive that could provide material for the ultimate book on ball control. Chuck Foreman finally scored with five seconds left to provide the coup de grace.