AFC South: Patriots-Colts
|Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
|Indianapolis quarterback Peyton has a strong, efficient game Sunday, leading the Colts to a much-needed win Sunday.|
INDIANAPOLIS -- This is unfamiliar stuff, a .500 record halfway through the season. Of course the alternative was even more unfamiliar for the Indianapolis Colts.
Sunday night's Patriots-Colts game at Lucas Oil Stadium was hardly the high-octane battle we've come to expect from a matchup that's often for AFC supremacy. While it was a tense contest, it felt as if it was played between two careful teams working very hard to build drives and not make a blunder.
Indianapolis was resourceful in finding its way to an 18-15 win. While the Colts got Bob Sanders back from a long injury layoff, the defense featured two reserves starting at cornerback and three safeties in the nickel package. But it all worked against the dangerous Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
The hosts also benefitted from mistakes, some forced, some served up -- highly uncharacteristic clock management trouble for Bill Belichick, who also undid a made fourth-and-1 conversion with a last-second timeout, as well as a bad unnecessary roughness foul by Patriots tight end David Thomas in a game with only three penalties.
"Here lately, that's been us," said Colts left guard Charlie Johnson. "That's been us, having to call the timeouts, getting penalties that stop drives, all that. It does feel good for us to play mistake-free football and have somebody else make the mistakes."
Buffalo, New England and the Jets are all 5-3 now, so the two who don't win the AFC East are right there at the head of the wild-card fight along with Baltimore. Indy is with Miami just a game off the pace.
"We feel like every game right now is almost like a playoff game," receiver Reggie Wayne said. "It's kind of like everybody that's not leading their division are kind of like in a big ball. So each game is going to be crucial. We also know that everybody that's in that big ball, most of them have got to come through us. We pretty much control our own destiny."
Whatever degree of control they reacquired, the Colts did so with a crisper game than they've been playing lately. They had one penalty, no sacks allowed, nice distribution in the passing game, pretty good tackling by the defense, good red-zone defense and Adam Vinatieri's first regular-season field goal of longer than 50 yards since 2002.
And, of course, efficient play by Peyton Manning, who posted 121.9 passer rating while hitting Anthony Gonzalez with two precise touchdown throws near the same front-right corner of the end zone below the picture window.
"He was really in control of things and understood what we were trying to do and made some really big throws especially in the red zone," coach Tony Dungy said. "The two balls to Anthony [were] very, very tight and balls that we needed. It was a very, very good performance against a defense that doesn't give you a lot."
The Colts don't exactly have a heart-on-their-sleeve locker room, but I sensed some palpable relief keyed around the ability to survive the limited personnel in the secondary and the revived sharpness in the passing game.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis isn't excited about being 4-4. But a week after a loss in Nashville put the division out of reach, at least the Colts got themselves alone into second place in the AFC South all by themselves.
That doesn't mean a lot by itself, but it does mean they are only one game off the pace of the group of teams that are currently at the head of the line for Wild Card slots.
While the Colts allowed the Patriots some success running the ball, they largely neutralized Randy Moss and made New England move in small increments. Meanwhile Peyton Manning did better finding a rhythm with his receivers and the Colts got the first field goal from Adam Vinatieri of longer than 50-yards since 2002 for the winning margin.
They also benefitted from an unnecessary roughness penalty against tight end David Thomas and some odd clock management by Bill Belichick that left him depleted of timeouts early in the second half, prompting him to go for a late fourth-and-16 that wound up a Bob Sanders interception.
One game can't undo all the things that have gone wrong for the Colts through half the season, and this hardly felt like recent Colts-Patriots clashes where AFC supremacy was at stake. But Indianapolis was more than happy to take a win in a game that often felt like it was played between two teams being quite cautious.
Tonight's been a different story just in the first half, as Wayne has three catches for 39 yards and Harrison three for 36 with the Colts up 7-6.
Peyton Manning's been efficient, hitting on 14 of 18 passes. On the game's lone touchdown drive he was 8-for-8.
And he's gotten bigger chunks than New England's Matt Cassel, who's programmed to take small bites and who's 8-for-9. While Manning's got connections of 26, 17 and 17 yards, Cassel's got three passes of 11 yards.
INDIANAPOLIS - As expected, the Colts are playing safety-heavy on defense.
New England's had two possessions so far, moving to a field goal, and have not seemed to try to exploit it.
Peyton Manning engineered a very nice drive to get the Colts up 7-0 moving his offense 91 yards in 15 plays with a nice balance - eight passes and seven runs.
Usually cast as a regular-season AFC title tilt, typically a game with bearing on home-field advantage for the postseason, Sunday night's Patriots-Colts game lacks the luster of matchups from the last five years.
"It's obviously not two undefeated teams," said Peyton Manning.
Tom Brady is missing and Manning isn't chasing any records or lighting up any scoreboards.The 5-2 Patriots have done good work reinventing themselves without the injured Brady. The 3-4 Colts are struggling to get back to the sort of ball that's made them such a dangerous team in the Manning era.
It's still featured on NBC Sunday night and there is still plenty of intrigue. But 8-6 is the worst combined record the two teams have had heading into the annual matchup in this six-year drama.
If it takes a 10-6 record to get a wild card berth, the Colts can only afford two more losses, and they still have road games at Pittsburgh, San Diego, Cleveland and Jacksonville, plus a regular-season finale against Tennessee at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Patriots ran away with a weak AFC East last year with their undefeated regular season, but are now in a major battle with Buffalo and the Jets.
The Colts have conceded they won't win a sixth consecutive division title. The Patriots still have a chance to do it. After Indy they play three division games in a row -- Buffalo, the Jets and at Miami -- before a home game against one of the AFC's best teams, Pittsburgh.
But first, a new version of Patriots-Colts.
"This is definitely different, but both teams, I think, have great confidence in themselves and they have great leadership," Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark told New England reporters. "I feel both teams aren't really kind of panicking [or] hitting the panic button yet. I think the leadership -- that's really going to help jell the teams and really get through this tough time for both teams.
"And I think both teams are definitely going through some adversity they're not used to facing, but I think everyone is approaching it the right way. This is definitely a different situation for us and we're definitely looking forward to the challenge."