Sunday, November 05, 2006

TATB Live: Colts at Patriots

Yup, TATB is in the house, glued to the couch for the next four hours in the name of blogging duty, and let me tell you, I'm jacked and pumped like Pete Carroll at a Trojan pep rally. I haven't anticipated a regular season game like this since . . . well, since the Colts-Pats game last year. And I like their chances a whole lot better this time around against Peyton and the Ponies. Having Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour in the lineup tends to swell your confidence.

So how's it gonna go? Let me put it this way - the '72 Dolphins will be popping some champagne corks around midnight tonight. I think the Patriots' obvious plan of attack will be the reality - they'll pound Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon (both of whom basically enjoyed a bye week against Minnesota) 40-something times against the porous Indy run defense, which is allowing 5.4 yards per carry. I think Ben Watson will build on last week's breakout performance, and I think at least one Manning pass will find it's way into the hands of Asante Samuel (playing the Ty Law role), and I think Adam Vinatieri's return will be little more than a footnote. The pick: Patriots, 34-17.

Some quickie pregame notes/observations:

• NBC just showed Marvin Harrison running various patterns, including a couple of slants over the middle. It's worth noting that he does not practice turtleing like a frightened schoolgirl during warmups. It just comes naturally.

• On the ESPN pregame show, Jaws and The Players Hate Their Coach took the Colts, while Ditka, You're With Me Leather, and It Was My Buddy's Crackpipe, Officer took the Pats. All in all, I'd rather have Jaworski on our side. He's the best, and it makes me slightly nervous that he's not in the Pats' corner.

• Eugene Wilson, Stephen Neal, and Daniel Graham are among the Patriots' inactives, while safety Bob Sanders is apparently playing for the Colts. Not bad considering each team had 53 players listed as questionable midweek, but I really wish Graham was playing - he makes such a difference in the running game.

• Pink looks like she's auditioning for the Tim Curry role in "Rocky Horror Picture Show 2006." Let's play the game already . . .

Pats start with the ball . . . and it looks like they're planning on keeping it for a while. After Dillon was stopped for a two-yard loss on the first play from scrimmage, the Pats have methodically advanced to midfield, with three strong runs from Dillon and two from Maroney . . .

. . . and just as I write that last sentence, Brady throws an ill-advised pick on deep pass into the end zone, and the drive stalls. Crap, I should have known I'd jinx 'em. It really would have been nice to get some points on that first drive.

John Mellancamp is doing a very effective job of convincing me to never plant my ass in a Chevy ever again. Who knew Mr. Farm Aid was such a sellout? Looks like they've changed the visual from the unbelievably tasteless Hurricane Katrina/Vietnam footage to some shots of pickup trucks and wheat fields and other tame Midwestern Americana. Good call there. Whoever came up with that original commercial should have been reassigned to the mailroom.

The Colts come out in a no-huddle, and after Manning tosses a pair of incompletions, he makes perhaps the first improvised play of his career, rolling out to the left and, just as he's clobbered by Rosey Colvin, unleashing a 44-yard bomb down the middle to Harrison. Worse, Rodney Harrison stays on the ground when everyone else gets up. Looks like a shoulder injury. So much for overconfidence.

And after one more first down, Manning hits Harrison for an eight-yard TD on a slant pattern, and as Al Michaels puts it, "First blood drawn by the Colts." It's 7-0, Indy, and while my confidence remains intact, I wish Indy's had been taken down a few notches with a stalled first drive.

The bleepin' Mellancamp is airing during every commercial break - I think it's four and counting. I might end up buying a Ford truck out of spite before the first half is over.

Troy Brown catches a short pass inside the Patriots 40, flips the ball to the official . . . and is called for taunting, a 15-yard penalty. I can say with a great degree of confidence that in, what, the 14 years we've been watching Brown, we've never seen him taunt anyone. In a related note, the official looks suspiciously like Archie Manning.

Reche Caldwell with a drop on 2d and 8. He's also already got an offensive pass interference penalty tonight. Someone needs to tell him to get his damn skeeter eyeballs back into their sockets and relax.

On the positive side, it seems the Patriots will be able to move the ball at will. Maroney and Dillon have Wilfork-sized holes to run through and Doug Gabriel already has one nice catch and run, getting a first down on 3rd and 20. Even on 4th and 3 inside the Colts 20, the Pats have the confidence/wisdom to go for it and gain the first down on a Brady to Kevin Faulk pass. It's 1st and goal at the 5 as the first quarter passes in a blur.

Two Dillon carries and five yards later, and it's all tied at 7. It's worth noting that much of Dillon's yardage is coming over the right guard. I'm not sure who's filling in for Steve Neal (perhaps it's Billy Yates, previously known as the World's Highest-Paid Practice Squad Player) but he's kicking some Colt butt.

Uh-oh. Chad Scott has moved to safety, Ellis Hobbs is in at corner, and Rodney Harrison is in the locker room. Andrea Kremer tells us that Harrison has a right arm injury and that his return is probable. Could be worse, I suppose, but I'm pretty sure this secretive Patriots regime would tell us Hart Lee Dykes's return is probable at this point.

Manning is under siege and handling it with poise, throwing over the top of the rush to find Reggie Wayne for 16 yards and Dallas Clark down the middle for another decent gain . . . and then, under no rush, he rolls left and hits Wayne for 44 yards to the Patriots 1. Joseph Addai takes it into the end zone on the next play, and the Colts go up, 14-7. Can you say shootout?

Here's our second Manning commercial of the night - the one where he's disguised as Fred Smerlas and pimping cell phones. I'll admit that he's pretty good in most of his 18,839 commercials, particularly the MasterCard ones. I still think he looks like the spawn of Beavis and Butthead, though.

John Madden just compared Maroney to Clinton Portis. Pretty good company there, though I think Our Guy is a little bigger and runs a little tougher and is considerably less insane. I always tell people he reminds me of Fred Taylor back when he broke in with the Jaguars, you know, before he was so tragically stricken with leprosy. Just an ideal combination of speed and power. Maroney's had at least five carries in a row by the way, all for nice chunks of yardage, and the Pats are closing in on the Indy 20.

Third and 4, Brady hits Troy Brown on a quick out pattern for a first down, and I cannot think of a more appropriate way for him to become the all-time leading receiver in Patriots history, besting the great Stanley Morgan's record. Brown might be the greatest role player in the history of Boston sports, and I feel privilege to have watched him all these years.

Dillon, looking refreshed after his vacation in Minnesota last weekend, plows in from the 4, and we're tied again, 14-14. A three-and-out by Indy would be wonderful right about now . . .

. . . especially since Indy gets the ball at the Pats 40, thanks to a streak up the right sideline by Terrence Wilkins, who ran over Stephen Gostkowski (he ain't the tackler he predecessor was, apparently) and would have had a touchdown if not for the remarkable hustle of defensive tackle Mike Wright, who somehow gained ground on him and tripped him from behind.

Still no Rodney Harrison, and apparently Manning has noticed - on the first play after the kickoff, he launches a missile toward Marvin Harrison inside the Pats 10. Chad Scott, who is struggling at safety after playing so well at corner, obliges with a pass interference penalty, and Indy is on the verge again. Harrison must be having his arm amputated to keep him out of this game.

The Pats back Indy into a 3rd and 17 thanks to a sack by the rejuvenated Junior Seau, but Samuel is called for holding on a floater toward Harrison in the end zone, and the Colts get a second life as the 2 minute warning arrives. I'm feeling queasy . . .

. . . but somehow Indy is held to a Vinatieri field goal, and at this point a 17-14 deficit feels like a moral victory.

I'm thinking this might be the play that your buddies are rehashing at the office tomorrow: Fourth and 1 at midfield, 1:02 remaining, and the Patriots go for it . . . and on a quarterback sneak in which Brady appears to be stopped, one official comes charging in and immediately signals first down. Upon first glance, it appears to be a blantantly bad call, and because it's within 2 minutes, the booth reviews it. It might not be an exaggeration to suggest the game's outcome could hang in the balance of this review.

Whew. The play stands. Curiously, the official looks quite a bit like Jonathan Kraft. The Pats can't afford to waste this gift.

Brady threads a beauty through three defenders to Ben Watson at the 30. Unfortunately, he's borrowing Mark Blount's hands for the evening, and it drops harmlessly to the ground. Big Ben 2K6, still the enigma.

Third and 6 at the Indy 48, Dwight Freeney has Brady in his mitts, but apparently having to forgot how to sack a quarterback this season (he has 1/2 sack, and that is not a typo), he lets him slip away. Brady promptly hits Brown for the first down.

Consider that gift wasted. Brady goes deep to a triple-teamed and well-covered Watson, the oh-so-slightly overthrown pass deflects off his aluminum left hand, and Bob Sanders comes away with it at the 3. Looks like we'll be going into the break with a three-point deficit. Taking inventory: Thus far, their stud QB is outplaying our stud QB, Rodney Harrison is down to three limbs, and the Pats' hopes hinge on Belichick making his usual shrewd halftime adjustments. Yeah, I'd say it's living up to the hype so far.

(This is coming down to Vinatieri, isn't it? Damn, I'd hate for the jackals to be right.)

Andrea Kremer just reported that Tony Dungy said the Patriots know they need to score a lot and because of that, Tom Brady is pressing. I'd be pissed if it didn't look like he was correct.

Do the Colts even carry a punter? Is it still Rohn Stark? I thought we were about to find out, but after Ellis Hobbs makes a spectacular leap to bust up a deep pass in the end zone on 3rd and 8, Mike Vrabel is called for a phantom hands to the face call, and Indy gets five yards and a first down. I suppose it's not good form to bitch about the refs, but that was a bad call. Friggin' Indy pansy receivers.

The Pats somehow hold 'em again, and Vinatieri trots out to kick a 37-yarder. Automatic, right? Nope, wide right. Told ya the guy was nothing but a dome kicker. It goes without saying that the Pats need to take advantage of this.

And here we are, at another crossroads: On the first play, Dillon coughs up the ball as he hits the ground, Raheem Brock falls on it, Matt Light falls on him, and Brock gets up and runs the ball into the end zone anyway. Can you say replay? After a Patriots challenge and the official's extended stint under the replay hood, the call is fumble, Indy's ball at the Pats 31. The Patriots have turned the ball over three times to Indy's zero. They're not going to win if they don't improve the turnover margin soon.

Shockingly, Indy goes three and out. Hunter Smith is the name of the Colts punter, and it's a pretty good gig if you can get it.

Kremer just reported that Rodney Harrison still hasn't come out of the locker room, and yet the Patriots are still calling his return probable. I wouldn't be shocked if he'd had an autopsy by now.

Brady bounces a screen pass, and Madden says, "The Patriots don't need this. Just run Maroney, run Dillon, because they haven't been able to stop it. This is the one think the Colts can defend . . . I don't know why they think they need to trick this defense." It's a great point - they're getting way too cute. I have to say, Madden is on his game tonight. There must not be a terducken in the booth to distract him.

NBC just showed Manning playing football in the yard as an 11-year-old. He had a head like a cereal box even then. I'm guessing little Eli was inside playing with his Malibu Barbie when the footage was shot.

Dammit, I hate all of Manning's annoying histrionics on the line. Just run the damn play. And it's even worse on Madden '06 - turns out video game Peyton is as annoying as the real thing. Um, not that I still play Madden or anything. Have I mentioned I'll be 37 this month?

On 3d and 7 inside the 20, Harrison runs a fade, catches Manning's pass with his outside hand, drags both feet just before he falls out of bounds, and in an act entirely out of character, spikes the ball in Ellis Hobbs's face, drawing a 15-yard taunting penalty. Something tells me Hobbs, whose mouth has run a whole lot faster than his legs this season, has been jabbering smack all game. Either way, it's 24-14, Indy, and the Patriots offense needs to cut out the cutesy *$&# and get its act together, pronto.

After another good Maroney return and a first down on a pass interference call, Brady's suddenly looking scatterarmed, missing Gabriel open over the middle and Bledsoeing a 3rd-and-10 pass in the flat to Watson. I miss the Minnesota defense. Fortunately, Gostkowski drills a 49-yarder, and the Pats are back within a score . . .

. . . and here's the turnover we were pleading for. Wilkins, who apparently has found a soft spot along the ride side of the Pats' kick coverage, looks on the verge of breaking one when Artrell Hawkins arrives via the blind side, pokes the ball loose, and makes the recovery at the Indy 47. "This could be the play that turns things around for the Patriots," Madden says. Ya think?

Dillon plows for nine on the first play. The fumble has made him angry, and an angry Corey Dillon is an effective Corey Dillon. Knock off the dink-and-dunk stuff and give Dillon and Maroney the damn ball already . . .

. . . or I suppose Brady could underthrow a third-down pass to Dave Thomas, then watch as Gostkowski pulls a Vanderjagt on a 36-yarder. File under: Botched opportunity. The way they're playing, it's a wonder they're only down a touchdown.

So it's gotten to the point here that ol' No. 80, the all-time leading receiver in Patriots' history, is on the field as an extra defensive back. Hmm, wonder if Manning will notice.

Brown gets called for hands to the face on an incomplete pass on 3rd and 7. Where's Hank Poteat when you need him?

. . . and here's the second turnover we were pleading for. Manning hits Chad Scott right between the 3 and 0 on his jersey, and Scott zig-zags to the Indy 45. Nice pick, nice return, right out of the Ty Law playbook.

A receiver screen. Brady gets creamed. Caldwell wisely covers the ball. CAN WE KNOCK OFF THIS CUTESY CRAP PLEASE, JOSH McDANIELS? Um . . . nope. Brady passes on the next down, Robert Mathis deflects it, and Indy intercepts. I feel like I'm watching Rex Grossman. That's three picks, seven penalties, and a missed field goal for the Pats tonight. They're playing like they got into Belichick's kid's stash at halftime.

A 3rd and 10 jump-pass from Manning to some tight end I've never heard of nets a first down, and on the next play, Rosey Colvin, auditioning to be the new Chris Slade, cheap-shots a Colt, giving Indy their fifth first down by way of a penalty. This is shameful.

Indy can't punch it in from the 12, thanks to Jarvis Green getting into Manning's mutated grill, but the Colts get a crucial 3 when Vinatieri slips a 31-yarder inside the right goal post, and it's 27-17, Indy. Not. Looking. Good.

Nine minutes left, down 10 points, and Madden is still pushing the Pats to run the ball. I'm not sure they have enough time, but as I type this, Maroney busts off a 17-yarder, and they're in Colts' territory again . . .

. . . and inside the 15 (Troy Brown catch) . . .

. . . and inside the 10 (pass interference against Watson) . . .

Words I've written 33,000 times: I do not trust Kevin Faulk to handle the ball in tight situations. Give it to Maroney. Give it Dillon. Give it to Vagas Friggin' Ferguson. But a draw play to shrimpy, fumble-prone Faulk? Not a good idea.

. . . and as if on cue, Faulk, drops a pass two yards from the goal line on 3rd and 7. (Somewhere, J.R. Redmond mutters to himself, "I'd have caught that.") At least it wasn't a fumble. Gostkowski drills the short 3, and the Pats are back within a touchdown, 27-20.

Indy starts at their own 39, 5:42 remaining. It's fair to say that this series is the ballgame.

Harrison catches a slant on 2d and 7, converting the first down before diving to the turf. He has 8 catches for 145 yards and 2 TDs tonight. Something tells me he'd be much warier (and less effective) had Rodney Harrison not gotten hurt. I do hear he's probable to return, though. Keep your fingers crossed.

Three minutes remaining, and another Indy first down. Belichick calls timeout with 2:37 left. The fat lady is warming up her voice. Whoops, my bad. That was Booger McFarland.

Third and 5, Indy runs a draw, and the Pats stuff it . . . and now Vinatieri gets a chance to stick a dagger in his former team, just as he did to so many other teams when he called Foxboro home. What drama. Here's the truly fascinating part - the kick is a 45-yarder, and it was pretty obvious in recent seasons that Belichick thought Vinatieri's range was declining. One of them is going to come out of this looking good, and one of them isn't.

And with chants of "Trait-or, trait-or" filling the air, Vinatieri misses wide right. Point, Belichick. Man, I remember when Vinatieri could make a 45-yarder in a blizzard. (Cue Streisand yowling "The Way We Were").

Well, so much for that comeback. After a long completion to Watson, a Brady pass clangs off Faulk's hands, Cato June catches the rebound, Manning ambles out to take a knee . . . and that's all, folks. Indianapolis 27, New England 20. As far as an immediate postmortem, well, what can you say? Manning thoroughly outplayed Brady, Harrison's absence was crushing, and the Pats played from behind all night and, perhaps relatedly, didn't commit to the run nearly as much as they should have. While it's a discouraging loss - it's always a shock when the Pats don't play well in the biggest games - I remain convinced that the Patriots will beat the Colts when it matters. Maybe that's blind faith - after all, Indy now has a 2-game winning streak in the rivalry - but it seems to me their poor play tonight was self-inflicted more than anything, they lost by only 7 despite a string of blunders, and you have to figure Brady is too proud to play this poorly should they meet again. In the meantime, here's hoping Bob Griese and friends didn't prematurely pop the corks. The unbeaten Indy machine rolls on.

Oh, an in case you were still wondering, Andrea Kremer is reporting that Rodney Harrison has an arm injury. His return tonight? Probable. Someone please tell her she can go home now.

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