Sunday, January 21, 2007

TATB live: Dynasty vs. Laser-Rocket Arm


So I'm upstairs with my 2-year-old daughter a few minutes ago, rocking out to the iPod shuffle and trying to get her to burn off that one last energy burst before bedtime, and what's the final song that comes randomly through our speakers? Cue Bono:

The heart is a bloom
Shoots up through the stony ground
There's no room
No space to rent in this town . . .


I trust Patriots fans don't need to be told what a good omen "Beautiful Day" is. But just in case, I've got the same superstitions going as last week, and the week before that: the old-school Pat Patriots long-sleeved T, the mangy old UMaine wool hat, the usual six-pack of Sam Adams Winter Lager . . . heck, I haven't even showered since the San Diego game. I smell like Booger McFarland's game socks. (Okay, kidding there.) But I'm ready for this. Now let's see if Peyton Manning is too.

FIRST QUARTER
We get our first of what is sure to be roughly 4,000 Adam Vinatieri sightings a few minutes before he boots the opening kickoff. Ask me, he looks terrified.

Three plays in, and I'm convinced the Patriots are sure they can run it down Indy's throats. On third and 7, Kevin Faulk gets 8 on a draw, and Corey Dillon could have had a lot more than 3 yards on second and 10 had he been able to make one more cut.

On the downside, Brady has bounced two of his first three throws, and Faulk let another doink off his hands on a screen that looked like it could have gone for big yardage. The drive stalls around the 35, and so Indy gets the ball and a chance to score first, something the Patriots really would like to avoid.

Indy's first play is a sweep to Tully Banta-Cain's side, a call the LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers got great results from a week ago. Of course, Joseph Addai isn't LT, but it bears watching, because it might be the main weakness of the Pats' D.

Richard Seymour hobbles off after the first play, clutching his ankle. Though it doesn't look serious, I'm having flashbacks to Rodney Harrison's injury early in the teams' previous meeting this season. Cross your fingers.

Colts go three-and-out. Manning has the Bledsoe Happy Feet going. Then again, he always seems to be jumping around back there even when he's on a roll, but I'll for now I'll take his jittery first series as a good sign.

The Pats get a first down on a Brady pitch to Reche Caldwell for about 12 yards, and Dwight Freeney hobbles off. Then, Laurence Maroney (who hasn't been hitting the holes nearly as hard since his rib injury) loses 2 yards, and linebacker Gary Brackett looks like he's down for the count. At the rate we're going injury-wise, this one could end up being a one-on-one game between Kelvin Kight and Aaron Moorehead at the end.

Another third and 8 draw to Faulk, and Jim Nantz isn't exaggerating when he says it's a "chain-link short." At midfield, the Pats take the first real gamble of the game and go for it . . .

. . . and 35 yards later, Dillon has the first down at the Indy 20, and the dome suddenly sounds like a mortuary. Major stones, Belichick. Major stones.

And if you had Logan Mankins in the "Who scores the first touchdown pool?", well, you must be a descendant of Nostradamus or something. How it came to be: On third and inches inside the 10, Maroney just plain drops Brady's handoff, the ball takes an odd bounce forward, somehow squirts away from a pair of Colts, and winds up in the end zone, where Mankins smothers it with every one of his 295 pounds. It's 7-0, Patriots, and you bet those are the kind of breaks that make people hate them.

Manning completes one to Harrison, then chucks one in the same direction incomplete, and he seems to be taking aim at Asante Samuel's side. I'm okay with that considering I don't trust Ellis Hobbs in anything but a dance contest.

On second and 6, Manning goes deep to Harrison . . . and Samuel tips it away with perfect coverage . . .

. . . but Indy is moving it, as Manning converts the third and 6 to Dallas Clark near the 40. He's covered by Eric Alexander, whom the Patriots have been using more and more during passing situations. Given the struggles by Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi in coverage this season, I can't say I'm surprised, though you wish there were a more experienced alternative.

Seymour's back. Exhale.

First down, Indy, at the New England 26. Hold your breath again.

Right tackle Ryan Diem gets called for holding, negating a nice run by Addai. And somewhere, Bill Polian sucker punches an intern.

On first and 20, Hobbs punches away a perfect deep throw to Reggie Wayne in the end zone. If he's going to keep making plays like that, I might just be able to tolerate his Canty-like antics.

Hey, look! It's Adam Vinatieri! Geez, when did the Colts get him? He's pretty good! (He bangs it through - barely - from 42 yards, and it's 7-3, Patriots. For the record, I'm cool with keeping them to field goals all night, if that's how they want to play it.)

Brady completes one to Ben Watson, the first quarter speeds to an end, and I'm off to correct my posting issues. Be right back . . .

SECOND QUARTER
. . . and we're back. The Pats have marched into Indy territory. Maroney gets two productive carries in a row, then Freeney let's us know he's back by zipping past Matt Light and drilling Brady, forcing an incompletion. The dude is quick.

Fourth and 6 from the Indy 35 . . . and the Patriots appear to be going for it. A 52-yarder for Gostkowski seems makeable from this vantage point, but I think they know they need to be greedy about points against Manning and Co.

Troy Brown. You know the rest. Is it okay to feel love for another man?

. . . and Dillon takes the draw, plods past the over-accelerated Colts defense, and walks into the end zone, making it 14-3, Patriots. So far, so very good . . .

Our first Manning commercial of the evening. Nice timing. For the record, we think he's great in just about every one of his ads, though it's probably not much of a thespian stretch for him to play an affable doofus . . .

. . . and our favorite 6-5, 230-pound, laser-rocket armed pitchman comes back and promptly turns Asante Samuel into Ty Law 2007, hitting the Patriots corner in stride for a 40-something yard touchdown and a 21-3 New England lead. There's no way I'm buying a Sprint phone now if I'm a Colts fan.

Three and out for the Colts again, with Samuel blanketing Harrison on a deep pass Manning heaved in desperation from the end zone. The way No. 22 is playing, he might get a $10 million a year offer from Scott Pioli at halftime.

The only pressure the Colts are getting on Brady is coming when they blitz - which, prior to today, I can't recall them doing all that often. Did I mention that I think Dwight Freeney is overrated and his stupid Yankees hat at yesterday's press conference was hideous?

First penalty against the Patriots, taking them back to the Indy 38 and setting up a third and 16. Somewhere, Bill Polian just released his chokehold on the chief of officiating.

. . . and make it back-to-back penalties, followed by a Freeney sack (what a wonderful player!), thereby stalling the drive and bringing on Todd (Thank God He's Not Ken Walter) Sauerbrun for the first time tonight. Our all-time favorite jacked-and-pumped punter pins Indy at its own 11.

And we arrive at the 2-minute warning with Indy at its own 30. The Patriots simply cannot let them march down and get a touchdown here - it's imperative to send them into halftime miserable, not with momentum.

Manning suddenly finds his rhythm . . . 10 yards to Moorehead . . . 13 yards to Clark . . .and Indy is inside the Patriots 30 with slightly less than a minute left.

First and goal, inside the Patriots 10, 23 seconds left. Time for someone to make a play. How about Bruschi? He's overdue. Hell, he's been overdue all season.

Addai goes nowhere . . . James Sanders ruins Clark's end-zone plans . . . and it's third and 10 . . .

And we have our first real controversy: Hobbs gets tangled with Wayne on a fade pattern, Wayne bites the dust, and the official on the other side of the field throws the flag. Pass interference? Nope. After a zebra conference, the official says there's no penalty, which shockingly, doesn't go over that well with Indy fans. As Vinatieri bangs a chip shot through to make it 21-6, Pats, an enraged Bill Polian kills a hobo.

So what's the take at the half? Well, a 21-6 lead is certainly the preferable side of things, but it's hardly enough against Indy (even though Phil Simms just noted that the Colts haven't scored a touchdown in their last 20 postseason possessions, which is downright stunning.) A three-and-out on the first drive would be reassuring to say the least. Offensively, the Pats ran for 85 yards in the first half, so apparently Bob Sanders is not the second coming of Ronnie Lott. I'd imagine we'll be seeing a lot more of Dillon and Maroney in the second half.

THIRD QUARTER
Sideline reporter Solomon Wilcots just said the "information was flowing" from Belichick during their obligatory chat at the break. I think he was being sarcastic.

Unfortunately, Indy comes out moving it, mostly via sideline patterns to Harrison (the chemistry between him and Manning really is something to behold) or runs by Dominic Rhodes, who's in for Addai.

Indy is inside the Pats 20, gaining a first down on a slant to Wayne despite Simms's assertion that the Patriots called "the perfect defense" to stop it. A touchdown here seems inevitable the way Manning is rolling in the hurry-up . . .

. . . and Manning sneaks (okay, lumbers) in from the 1, and it's a one-possession game, 21-13. Gulp. Time for Brady to answer.

On the kick return, Maroney gets blown up at the 15 by someone named Darryl Reed. "The momentum is shifting," says Nantz. No *&$#, Chief.

Brady chucks it away on first down after struggling to change the play. Not what we had in mind there, Mr. Bundchen.

Crap, three and out. Just what the doctor ordered. Why does it suddenly feel like they're down by 8?

I'm not worrying that it will come down to Vinatieri . . . I'm not worrying that it will come down to Vinatieri . . . I'm not worrying . . .

First play of Indy's possession, Manning hits Clark for 25 to midfield, then Rhodes busts for 19 more up the middle. I'm going to start using real swear words pretty soon.

Rashad Baker is in for Artrell Hawkins. I wouldn't know Rashad Baker if he walked through my living room right now.

Seymour gives Indy a first down on third and 5 with a neutral zone infraction. Inexcusable, particularly for a player of his ability and experience, but the defense is justifiably exhausted right now. Actually, I take that back. It is inexcusable, and Seymour has been a major disappointment this season.

Pass interference on Hobbs in the end zone. Couldn't have been more obvious - looked like he was defending a backdoor pass against Princeton. Even Chris Canty thought it was a stupid play.

The Patriots are getting a taste of their own medicine right now, as Dan Klecko (yeah, him) does a nice Vrabel imitation, getting wide-open on a swing pass for the touchdown, then Harrison makes a nice grab to convert the 2. It's 21-21, and this sucks.

New ballgame. Time for Brady and Co. to wake the hell up, put together an extended drive that results in a touchdown, and get the defense some friggin' rest.

I'm sure you heard Nantz tell us Indy has put up 18 points in the last 11 minutes of game clock. Simply amazing.

Well, this might be one way to answer. Hobbs takes Vinatieri's short kick all the way to the Indy 20 with a smart and dazzling return (Vinatieri, who's apparently slowed since his Herschel Walker-catching years, whiffed on the tackle), and you know the importance of getting 7 out of this.

Reche Caldwell, meet Jackie Smith. Jackie Smith, meet Reche Caldwell. Goddammit.

Jabar Gaffney, who somehow doesn't have his usual 10 catches tonight, hauls in Brady's third-and-10 wobbler at the back of the end zone and gets one foot down before he's cranked past the end line. The Colts wisely challenge . . . and still, it's for naught. Touchdown, Patriots, and it's 28-21, Pats. What's the over-under in this one, anyway?

Someone named Ben Utecht is down for Indy. Nice of him to help the Pats' D rest up.

Rhodes is murdering the Pats on short passes out the backfield. I'm fairly sure Manning is aware that the Pats linebackers couldn't cover Ben Utecht right now.

FOURTH QUARTER
I'm done with the play-by-play of the Indy Offensive Machine. Let's just say it sure as hell looks like they're going to tie it after a sick pitch-and-catch by Manning and Clark.

. . . and they do, appropriately freakishly, with Jeff Saturday recovering Rhodes's fumble in the end zone, an almost identical play to Mankins's TD to start this game. It's 28-28, and this is going to be one messed-up box score.

Simms: "New England needs first downs, to give their defense a chance to rest on the sidelines." Nice thought, but suddenly it's third and 8, and Maroney does his Savion Glover routine and can't pick up the first down on a short pass. The kid hasn't exactly shown up tonight.

Now would be a nice time for the Patriots' so-called pass rush to show up. As it is, the Patriots have Indy in a crucial third-and-17 after an incompletion and a Manning stumble for a 7-yard loss . . . and they hold 'em. Thank god, they finally bleepin' hold 'em.

Finally, one former Patriots does something nice for his former teammates tonight: Dexter Reid, who was a poor man's Guss Scott, gets called for a 15-yard facemask penalty on the punt, giving the Pats the ball near midfield. It goes without saying that you don't look a gift horse in the mouth, so to speak.

Manning's getting his thumb on his throwing hand checked out. Just rub some dirt on it, you doofus. (And in case you still have some optimism left, the Colts' backup quarterback is named Jim Sorgi. I'm pretty sure he's not one of the Manning brothers.)

Brady, with back to back lasers to Caldwell and Gaffney, taking the Pats to the Indy 14. Now this is what we've been waiting for . . .

. . . but not this, dammit. Caldwell just boxed another one to the ground after Brady finally realized there was no Colt within 15 yards of the receiver after the snap. Talk about a lost opportunity.

Gostkowski bangs through a short 3 after Caldwell gets slapped around without drawing a flag on a fade pattern, and it's 31-28, Pats, with slightly more than 7 minutes remaining. Here's hoping Manning's laser-rocket thumb has already been amputated.

Dallas Clark, for 52 yards to the Pats 20. Ordway is going to be insufferable . . . well, moreso than usual. The Patriots are going to need a touchdown to win this thing.

On third and 5, the Colts . . . run. Two yards later, Vinatieri jogs onto the field with a chance to tie it . . . and he does, barely. It's 31-31, with 5:31 remaining. This one's up to you, No. 12.

Hobbs takes it back to the New England 46. I take back all of the mean things I said - he's been huge, particularly on special teams.

First play, Brady hits Daniel Graham for 25. Would it be greedy of me to suggest a slightly better throw might have led to another 20 yards? I still think we find out a Brady arm injury in the immediate days after the season's end. He's thrown more inexplicably inaccurate passes this season than he had in the previous five years combined. Something's just not right.

Third and 10 at the Indy 32. How many times have I said the season hangs in the balance the last two weeks? And what's the play-call? A DRAW TO HEATH EVANS! WHAT THE $&%&#& IS THAT??? Josh McDaniels can take the Raiders' job right now as far as I'm concerned. (Curiously, Simms is okay with it, and I feel a little better after Gostkowski drills a 43-yard to make it 34-31, Pats.)

All right, Mr. Laser-Rocket Arm. A little more than three minutes remain. You're down three. You've got the ball. You've got two timeouts, plus the 2-minute warning. I guess we're going to find out if it really is "your time" after all.

Ray Mickens, you just earned your entire salary on one play. On third and 10, after two shaky Manning throws, the longtime Jet and midseason free-agent pickup springs in front of Moorehead and bats away the pass at the last instant. The Pats have it back, 3:22 left. Thank you, Ray Mickens.

Five yard penalty for too many men in the huddle, first and 15 . . .

Seven-yard out to Caldwell, second and 7 . . .

Four-yard out to Watson (a "dangerous, dangerous pass," Simms says, and a hell of a catch), third and 3 (and it'd be a first down if not for that dumbass penalty) . . .

How about a little Troy Brown action right now?

And damned if Bob Sanders wasn't thinking the same thing. Indy will get it back, and Brady's lucky that wasn't seven points the other way.

All right, Mr. Laser-Rocket Arm. A little more than two minutes remain. You're down three. You've got the ball. You've got one timeout, plus the 2-minute warning. I guess we're going to find out if it really is "your time" after all. (Man, that sounds so familiar.)

After Manning completes a pass to someone named Fletcher for a healthy gain, Tully Banta-Cain is nailed for roughing the passer after hitting Manning in the helmet. Half the distance to the goal, 1:53 remain. Very Charger-like, Tully. (And we won't even mention Wayne reeling in his own fumble after the catch.)

Third and 2, Indy at the Pats 3, 1:02 left. Season hangs in the balance, yada yada yada. Paging Mr. Willie McGinest . . . Mr. Willie McGinest, please report to the goal line.

Addai up the gut. 38-34. My stomach is in my throat.

Be a hero, Hobbs.

Eighty yards in 54 seconds. Is that even possible?

Sadly, no. Marlin Jackson is now officially a cursed name throughout New England. The Colts' cornerback catches Brady's final throw of the season, clinching the greatest comeback (from 18 points down) ever in a league championship game, and like that, we're just one of the 30 fan bases who'll could give a flying #*$*$ about the Super Bowl.

As for parting words . . . well, what can you say? I'm pissed that the Pats let it get away - it was so unlike them it's disconcerting. I'm having a hard time comprehending that this just happened. But there's no denying that Indy deserves to play on. They could have quit after Samuel's interception return made it 21-3, but unlike Indy teams of the past, they didn't. They sucked it up, Manning found his groove, the Pats' defense came down with one massive leg cramp, the team that had the momentum for the majority of the game finally took the lead in the final moment, and Bill Polian gave his manservant a big, sloppy kiss. Sure, this feeling sucks, and the thought that the dynasty might be in its final, wheezing hours is a depressing one, but I just can't find any shame in this defeat.

I just wish the game was two minutes shorter.

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