Outside Memorial Stadium this afternoon, there was this highly unusual bit of NFL bartering, between a fan with a die-hard football battery inside him and a man with a $12 ticket to the Colts-Patriots game:

"Give you six for it."

"Need eight."

"Okay, but all I got is a one and a twenty."

"Gimme the one."

The game lived down to everyone's expectations -- achieving parity of a sort that might drive Pete Rozelle to soccer -- the Pats-Are-Patsies coming from ahead twice and becoming the worst team in the NFL by just two points, losing, 23-21.

Had this been their season-long goal -- and they often played as though it were -- the Colts entered the affair the favorite, having been successful in 14 straight must-lose situations since beating the Pats-Are-Patsies in the season opener. New England had lost just eight in a row.

The Stupor Bowl, nearly everyone -- except the players -- was calling it. The game where even the winning coach probably would be fired. The one where the losing team would score a victory of sorts: the right to the first choice in the next NFL draft.

Office Christmas parties would draw more people, and surely be more lively. Baltiless was going to be the dateline if the Colts happened to want defeat more this bitter day.

Right from the beginning, the Pats-Are-Patsies seemed to be lower, to have a better flair for tragicomedy. They were gloriously awful from the first kickoff, with enough follies to keep pro-football haters laughing for months. If it wasn't the most dreadful series of plays to open a game in decades, nobody in the NFL office will scurry to find something worse.

Here's what happened:

On first down from their 25, Vagas Ferguson was thrown for a loss of a yard. On second down, All-Galaxy guard John Hannah jumped offsides. On the second second down, Sam Cunningham was tackled for no gain. On third down, quarterback Tom Owen was sacked for an eight-yard loss by a defense particularly lacking in this skill.

So it was fourth and 24.

The worst was yet to come.

The New England punter, Rich Camarillo, kicked the ball toward Ray Butler, who fumbled. The Pats-Are-Patsies recovered; they didn't get the ball, because Steve King had charged downfield too soon. Kick again. Disaster. Camarillo caught the snap, then dropped the ball before lifting his kicking leg. The ball hopped back into his hands, and Camarillo caught it.

Eight yards.

Naturally, the Colts could get just a field goal out of this largesse. Patriot fans knew it would be the margin of defeat.

Safety Tim Fox put it into perspective best for the Pats-Are-Patsies.

"When you go into every game," he said, "you want to win. But now that it's over, it's good that we lost. We get the easier schedule (next year), the top draft pick (believed to be Texas defensive lineman Kenneth Sims). And we'll be known as the worst team in football, which will help us (as an incentive). If you're 27th best (in the NFL), you're still terrible.

"We've been known as having the greatest talent in football for years, and it's hurt us."

Can the team reverse itself?

"Sure," said Fox.

In one year?

"Hell, we went downhill in one year (from the only 10-6 team in the league not to make the playoffs last season).

Had Fox seen a game as weird as today's?

"Yeah, 16 of 'em."

The zaniness took place before 43,532 empty seats. Of the 34,127 tickets sold, slightly more than half, 17,073, were used. Surprisingly, a few thousand stayed until the end.

Parolees, somebody said.

The Colts won by being competent, their record-setting defense (512 points surrendered before today) being the stingiest it has been in any game this season. They held the Pats-Are-Patsies to 77 yards rushing, recovered one fumble and intercepted three passes.

Still, they tried a 46-yard field goal into a wind estimated at about 18 miles an hour and saw the ball not come within seven yards of the goal post. And quarterback Bert Jones once dashed around end and slid to earth after seeing a sideline marker. It was the wrong marker; Jones was eight yards shy of the first down.

The Pats-Are-Patsies were far more dazzling. They tried for a first down once on fourth and five, and the quarterback started backpedaling before the center hiked the ball. Two defensive backs collided, missing Ray Butler on a touchdown pass.

"We had a helluva start and a helluva finish," Colt Coach Mike McCormack said. He added that he expects to meet with owner Robert Irsay in a few weeks, saying: "I have a gut feeling how that meeting will go, but I'm not going to talk about it. I'm not considering resigning."

In their fashion, the Pats-Are-Patsies had a helluva start and a helluva finish today. If the ultimate losing points were bumbled away on the first series of silliness, any chance for victory evaporated with dumb-headed play selection in the last 71 seconds.

With no timeouts, the Pats-Are-Patsies did exactly what was necessary to assure defeat. From their 17, they completed dumpoffs over the middle instead of trying for stop-the-clock completions near the sidelines or long prayers. Four times they took what the defense gave them, and gained nine, four, seven and six yards.

Finally, with 14 seconds left, on second down from their 43, Matt Cavanaugh heaved the ball downfield, into a crowd -- a crowd as large as any huddled in the stands. Lin Dawson caught it at the Baltimore 15. But all the Colts needed to do to win was slam him to the ground.

Even they could not fumble a man.