INDIANAPOLIS -- T.J. Rushing was all set. The Colts don’t boast much of a return team and he had fair caught three of the balls off Chris Hanson’s foot, allowing the other to be downed. Now, he’d get one more chance.
With a fourth-and-2 from the Patriots' 28-yard line, he was ready to line up and hoping he wouldn’t have to wave before catching punt No. 5.
“I think I was going to line up at the 25-yard line, about 45 yards away from him, because he was hitting them pretty good today, so I was hoping he out-kicked his coverage,” Rushing said. “Third-down stop, I got excited because I thought I was going to get a chance to make a play.
“I ran out on the field, I saw [Tom] Brady still out on the field, and I was like, ‘What is happening?’ They’re on their own end of the field, there is no way they are going to go for it.”
What was happening was Patriots coach Bill Belichick was deciding on an all-or-nothing gamble. He sent his offense back on the field to get the first down, to end the game with a gain of six feet with 2:08 left on the clock.
“That was like a video-game play,” Rushing said. “You’re playing your buddy and you’re like, ‘I’m just going to go for it.’ I guess they figured no matter what, if the offense got the ball back, we were going to win. That’s the only thing I can think of.”
Strong safety Melvin Bullitt lined up on running back Kevin Faulk with a mentality much like Rushing’s. He was going to make the game-swinging play. Defensive backs coach Alan Williams had told his guys all week in a fourth-down situation like this one, the Patriots would go to Wes Welker or Faulk.
Brady took a shotgun snap and threw to Faulk on the right. Bullitt was right there, wrapping up Faulk and taking him down for a 1-yard gain. Colts’ ball, and, four plays later, Colts’ game, 35-34, after a Peyton Manning-to-Reggie Wayne touchdown.
In showing confidence in his offense, Belichick set off an inadvertent side effect.
The Colts' defense was offended by the boldness.
“I was thinking, ‘Man, they’re going to try us like that? They’re going to disrespect us like that?' ” linebacker Philip Wheeler said. “We’ve got to stop them. We’ve got to man up. And we did that. Maybe it wasn’t disrespectful, maybe it was the smartest thing they could think of to do. I think we handled our business when they did it.”
“We just felt as though, that was a slap in the face,” free safety Antoine Bethea said. “Fourth down, in their territory? That was just a smack in the face. But the defense, we stood up and made a big play.”
Former Colts coach Tony Dungy, on NBC’s postgame show, questioned the logic.
“You have to punt the ball in that situation,” Dungy said. “As much as you might respect Peyton Manning, you have to play the percentages and punt the ball.”
The Colts (9-0) needed Belichick’s bailout plan because they’d played a game lacking their typical crispness and efficiency.
The fierce pass rush was stonewalled, the secondary toasted for 179 yards and a pair of touchdowns by Randy Moss. The offense stumbled, with rhythm issues and drops.
Pierre Garcon was targeted 11 times, and while all those throws from Manning were hardly perfect, he pulled in only three of them. He didn’t think his 29-yard touchdown catch offset the errors. Rookie Austin Collie booted at least one pass too. Manning even threw a wobbly duck for one of his two picks.
“There were a lot of things,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “One of the things we certainly can’t do is give up big plays and early on there Moss was kind of having his way with us I think. … You get him where he’s even with you and Brady’s not going to miss him. He puts that ball right on the money.
“Then we had penalties that set us back a little bit and dropped passes. So there are a lot of things for us to work on. It’s great to get a victory when maybe you didn’t play as well as you’re capable of.”
The Colts’ best work may have come on the play that produced the decisive points.
Earlier, Manning had looked unsuccessfully for Wayne on a fade in the left side of the end zone. From the 1-yard line with 16 seconds left, Manning was looking to try it again.
“I gave him my C.C. Sabathia shake off,” Wayne said. “I felt like I wanted to show fade and just come with the slant and it worked. [It was] at the line of scrimmage. You’ve got to be quick with it. You’ve got to shake him off and go on to the next call. I shook him off and I gave him the signal. I think after nine years he can trust me.”
The tired Colts shrugged after it was all over as they considered just how it unfolded.
“That’s the craziest win I’ve ever been involved in,” Bullitt said. “They’re bold. We never expected anything less.”