Patriots 27, Colts 24
The New England Patriots decorated Gillette Stadium with another Super Bowl championship banner before the season-opening kickoff Thursday night, then played as if they're prepared to do it all over again with a dramatic 27-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, the team they defeated in January in the AFC title game.
The Patriots had no shortage of close escapes during last year's run to the Lombardi Trophy, and this season started no different. A missed 48-yard field goal by Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt with 19 seconds left proved to be the difference.
Vanderjagt earlier had extended his NFL record to 42 straight made field goal attempts with a 32-yard kick in the second quarter. But his game-tying attempt sailed wide right a play after blitzing linebacker Willie McGinest had sacked Colts quarterback Peyton Manning for a critical 12-yard loss back to the 29-yard line.
With Tom Brady, the Super Bowl MVP, throwing for 335 yards and three touchdowns and newly acquired running back Corey Dillon quickly endearing himself to the hometown fans by gaining 86 yards in 15 carries, the Patriots won their 16th straight game going back to the 2003 season, and 12th in a row on their own field.
"It seems like all our games against the Colts are like this," Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said. "It was back and forth the whole way. We were able to make just enough plays to win. We've still got a lot of work to do . . . we made a lot of mistakes. But they're a good football team, and they'll make a lot of people make errors."
Despite two fourth-quarter turnovers, the Patriots still managed to continue their mastery over a Colts team that also has legitimate title aspirations, despite another dispiriting loss to their AFC East tormentors.
This was the Patriots fifth straight victory over the Colts, and 13th in the teams' last 15 meetings. The Patriots also showed some new wrinkles, starting the game with nine straight passes and a no-huddle offense that had the Colts back on their heels on the opening drive.
Still, three costly turnovers by the Colts -- the last an Edgerrin James fumble at the New England 1-yard line with 31/2 minutes remaining -- also proved to be a decisive factor in the final outcome.
For the Colts, the night was almost a re-run of that AFC title game loss in January, when they had four turnovers and lost by 10 on a bitter cold day on this same field. Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning surely had that deja vu feeling Thursday when he tossed up an interception in the first quarter on a second and goal with the Colts at the Patriots 6.
In January, it was Patriots safety Rodney Harrison who picked off Manning in the end zone in the first quarter with the Colts driving toward an almost certain touchdown. On Thursday it was veteran Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi who got the interception at the 1 when Manning threw into a crowd at the goal line.
One of the biggest defensive plays came with the Colts about to re-take the lead late in the fourth quarter. A pass interference call on Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel trying to defend against Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne in the end zone gave the Colts a first down at the Patriots 1 with less than four minutes left.
On first and goal from there Manning handed off to James, who had enjoyed a big night with 142 yards rushing in 30 carries. But on this attempt, the running back was jarred at the line of scrimmage with a flying tackle from free safety Eugene Wilson, knocking the ball out for James second fumble of the night.
The loose ball was recovered in the end zone by Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, who lugged it back out to the one with 3:43 remaining. The Patriots eventually moved the ball out to the 19 before being forced to punt, then had to make one last stand just after the two-minute warning.
The Colts got the ball with 1:43 remaining and seemed in decent shape when Manning found a wide open Brandon Stokely running free down the middle of the field. Stokely gained 45 yards to the 19, and a capacity crowd of 68,756 was watching in somewhat stunned silence as overtime seemed likely, if not a Colts victory.
Three plays later, Manning, who completed 16 of his 29 passes for 256 yards, dropped back one more time. Over on the New England bench, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel gambled with a blitz from both edges. Harrison came on a safety blitz from the right side and was picked up, but McGinest lined up on the left side and went in untouched on Manning, who never saw him coming.
"Romeo called an outside blitz," Belichick said. "Manning read that Harrison was coming, but they missed McGinest on the back side. Willie gets there in a hurry. It was a clutch call by Romeo."
Said McGinest, "It was coming down to crunch time and [Crennel] said we have to be aggressive. I was going to swipe at the ball and try to make him fumble . . . but I just wanted to get [Manning] down and get them out of field goal range. I'm glad [Vanderjagt] finally missed."
Instead of having to attempt a 35-yarder if Manning had been able to get rid of the ball before the sack, Vanderjagt had to make a 48-yarder to send the first game of the 2004 season into overtime.
His kick seemed a bit rushed, and it never had a chance, going wide right as Patriots players celebrated the victory, their 28th straight when they held a lead after three quarters.