Monday, January 22, 2007

AFC Championship: Colts 38, Pats 34

The day after.

The aftermath of the Pats devastating, emotional, gut-wrenching, soul-crushing, humiliating, mind-boggling, disheartening, unfathomable and incredible loss to the Colts has felt like a slow & painful death for Pats fans.

It feels like being poisoned. At the end of game last night, when Tom Terrific threw the interception to Indy's Marlin Don't Call Me Tito Jackson which sealed the Colts biggest win since the Mayflower vans left Baltimore, I thought I had been hit with a poison dart- my immediate reaction was numbness, shock and confusion mixed with a healthy dose of dull pain.

The next day it's as if the lethal toxin has spread throughout my body, causing me to feel nauseous, irate, weak and dizzy. My brain is frazzled and my extremities are useless. There is a sharp pain in my head and a sick feeling in my gut. "Has this really happened? Did the Colts really perform an exorcism on the demons from New England that have haunted them for all these years, and was it the presence of shaman Adam Vinateri that finally turned the tide away from the East Coast conquerors and towards the team from middle America?"

I know I have to review the game before I can spew bile-filled comments about it so I will attempt to put a coherent summary together before my brain is completely overrun with hysteria.

The game started out the way any red white & blue Pats fan would want it to. On New England's second drive they went 75 yards in 8 plays highlighted by a 35-yard run by Corey Dillon on 4th & 1 from the Colts 48 (Brilliant Call # 1) and capped with a wacky, lucky touchdown that made it feel like the football gods were shining on our team once again. Brady handed off to Lawrence no show Maroney (8 rushes, 13 yards) who fumbled the exchange just before the goal line. Three or four Colts players surrounded the ball but somehow it squirted out of that circle of humanity and was pounced on by guard Logan Mankins in the end zone for a miraculous touchdown; 7-0 New England and it was just get started.

Manning & Co. countered with a long 14-play 53-yard drive that fell short of the end zone thanks to a holding call on the Colts at the Pats 26. Old friend Adam Vinateri kept his streak alive of never having missed a kick in this arena by nailing a 42-yarder to slice the lead to 7-3, and New England's infamous "bend-but-don't-break" defense held true.

The second quarter would bring so much joy to Pats fans that we could hardly contain our giddiness. As the quarter opened New England was already mounting a 72-yard drive that began at the end of the first quarter and featured a 27-yard pass from Brady to Troy Mr. Clutch Brown on 4th & 6 from the Colts 34 (Brilliant Call #2) that set up Dillon's 7-yard touchdown scamper and the lead was 14-3 before Indy even knew what hit 'em.

If that wasn't bad enough for the 56,000+ yokels that packed the stadium what happened next just about brought tears to their eyes. After a three yard run by Dominic Rhodes put the Colts at their own 31 yard line manning threw an ill-advised pass to the right sideline intended for Marvin Harrison. Unfortunately for Indy Assante I shoulda been in the Pro Bowl Samuel jumped the route and picked Manning off, returned it the 31 yards for the score and sent the legions of Patriot fans into a "this is too good to be true" tizzy. It was now 21-3 New England just 5:00 minutes before halftime and you got the feeling that the folks back home were already planning the team's itinerary for Miami.

So even when Indy mounted its best drive of the game, marching 80 yards on 15 plays in just under three minutes and tacking on a 26-yard Vinateri field goal to cut their deficit to 21-6 at the half, no one on New England's side really batted an eye, least of all thought that drive would spell the beginning of the end of the good times for the Pats.

Soon after the second half started everyone would realize that the way the game began was not the way it was going to end. The Colts received the opening kick and promptly embarked on a monstrous 14 play, 76-yard endeavor that chewed up the first 7:00 minutes of the 3rd quarter and culminated with a 1-yard TD run by Manning. The drive featured a long play of 12 yards and it was that Chinese water torture style of offense that started to eat a hole in the Patriots stoic defense. That score cut the deficit to a workable 21-13 and the Patriot fans started adjusting seating positions in an effort to squelch the queasy feeling growing in our bellies.

That feeling would grow to a full-fledged salmonella scare after a quick 3 & out by Brady & the offense. Then CBS put up a graphic showing that the Colts have run 29 of the last 30 plays spanning the halves and Solomon Wilcots (where did they dig this guy up from?) reports that the Patriot sideline is starting to resemble a scene from "Grey's Anatomy"- contusions, sprains, cramps, dehydration & a gale force of sucking wind.

As all of this is going on Manning goes right back to work on that beleaguered defense, orchestrating another 76-yard drive, this time aided by 2 costly New England penalties an, offsides on Richard Seymour on 3rd & 5 from the 27 that gave Indy a first down and a pass interference on Ellis Hobbs, who played the game of his life, for face guarding Harrison in the corner of the end zone that set up 1st & goal from the one.

This was the part that really stung the most for New England players, coaches, and fans: Dungy & the Colts used a play straight from the Hooded Genius' playbook to tie the game and swing the momentum fully over to Indy's side. Manning took the hand off and everyone thought the play was going to be a run up the middle. But Manning rolled out and threw to a wide open man on the left flat who cruised into the end zone for the touchdown that sent the whole;e state of Indiana into a frenzy and the Patriot Nation into a state of shock.

The player who waltzed in with the score that broke the Patriots' back? Defensive tackle and former Patriot Dan Klecko. Ouch.

Manning completed the 18-point comeback with a 2-point conversion to Harrison and the game was tied at 21, yet it felt like the Pats had already lost something. I think it was their impenetrable aura of playoff invincibility, but I'm not sure.

From here things just got worse, and that sickening feeling growing inside my stomach was turning into a full blown Norovirus. The Pats would tease us into thinking they were going to pull this one out somehow, just like they did in San Diego last week despite the odds being stacked against them, but it wouldn't last. The brief hope was provided courtesy of an 80-yard return on the ensuing kick by Hobbs which quickly gave New England the ball at the Indy 21. Five plays later, including a wide open drop in the end zone by Reche slippery fingers Caldwell, Brady hit the other Gator Jabbar Gaffney on the back end line for a great grab as he was shoved out of bounds. After further review the call stood and New England briefly regained their composure & swagger, holding a tentative 28-21 lead entering the final quarter.

It was that final quarter that will go down as this team's Waterloo, the 15 minutes that deconstructed the Patriot myth and exposed the Team of the Decade to be the second best team on the field this night. Of course after the go-ahead score Manning immediately marched his troops down the field, slicing and dicing the exhausted Pats D for another 67 yards in a mere 3 minutes and tying the game on what would prove to be the most unbelievable of all the crazy touchdowns scored on the day.

Rhodes took the hand off from the 2 and barrelled forward towards the goal line but had the ball knocked out of his grip by a ballistic Patriot helmet. The ball dropped down and was recovered by center Jeff Saturday for another touchdown by a lineman, the third of the game, and it was like an "anything you can do we can do better" type of score. This mad dash to the finish line was knotted at 28 and it definitely looked like whoever had the ball last would have the chance to win this game.

Things looked good for New England when a 15-yard return coupled with a face mask penalty on Indy gave the Pats the ball at the Colts 43 but a costly penalty, an illegal shift on Gaffney, and another wide-open drop by Caldwell forced them to settle for a 28-yard field goal by Stephen Adam who? Gostowski. The damage was done though as the Pats could have had an easy touchdown; Caldwell lined up with no one opposite him, but by the time Brady realized it Caldwell was so anxious to get the score and atone for his earlier drop that the ball clanged off his hands and fell harmlessly to the turf.

Did the Pats chances of winning this game fall with it?

It would appear that way because on the next series Manning had his playoff coming out play, a play that said "we're not gonna take it" anymore and began lifting the ginourmous monkey off his back. On first down from his own 23 Manning hit Dallas Clark at midfield who zigged & zagged his way to the Pats 25 for a back-breaking 52-yard reception that stunned the Pats defense and elated the Colts sideline. Although Indy had to settle for a 36-yard Vinateri field goal that knotted the game at 31 the damage to the Pats psyche was done:

the Patriot defense absolutely could not stop the Colts offense in the second half.

Another terrific return by Hobbs, who had 220 yards worth of returns on the evening, gave New England great field position again, but again they had to settle for 3 points instead of 7 despite a 25-yard completion to Daniel Graham that put the ball on the Colts 29.

So it was 34-31 New England and after the teams traded punts the Colts took over with 2:17 to go from their own 20.

What followed will forever be known as Indy's version of The Drive in the annals of Indianapolis sports folklore, as small as those annals are.

Once again RainManning moved the team down the field, splicing a devastating 32-yard pass to Bryan Fletcher, who was being "covered" by 2nd year linebacker Eric Alexander, around two other completions, two Joseph Addai runs and a highly questionable roughing the passer call on Tully Banta-Cain to get the Colts to 3rd & 2 from the 3. When Addai took the hand off, put his head down and ran through a gaping hole for the score to make it 37-34 with exactly one minute left the Colts had their first lead of this see-saw battle and had unquestionably lifted that gigantic gorilla off their backs.

The only question was would Tom Brady be able to place that hairy beast right back on Peyton's shoulders?

Fifty four seconds and 79 yards was all that stood in the way of another miraculous win or the monkey being lifted off Manning's shoulders for good. After a 19-yard completion from Brady to Ben Watson and a 15-yarder to Heath Evans got the ball to the Indy 40 everyone in the country was sitting on the edge of their seats just waiting to see how Tom Terrific was going to do it again. Everybody except Peyton, that is. The CBS cameras showed Manning on the sideline with his head in his hands, unable to watch the life get sucked out of his team by Mr. America yet again.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the inevitable; Brady's next pass was picked off by the (now) immortal marlin Jackson and the Colts were on their way to the Super Bowl at the expense of the shell shocked New England Patriots.

The greatest comeback in Championship game history was complete as well as New England owning the dubious distinction of being the highest-scoring losing team in team in Championship game history as well. Wow. Talk about a double-dip of a devastating defeat.

The monkey has been put to the side for Manning, Dungy and the rest of the underachieving Colts team. It's on to the Super Bowl to face another primate-saddles squad, the Chicago Bears.
The Colts finally succeeded in displacing their arch rival on the field in a meaningful game, and the off-season of wondering what could have been and whimpering begins today for New England and its fans.

It's too early to tell if this is a "Chicago Bulls overcoming the Detroit Pistons" moment or a "Sox beating the Yanks in the ALCS" moment for the Colts yet. Meaning the 1990 Pistons went on to win two titles and become a dominant team for years after finally getting over the hump that was the Michael Jordan-led Bulls. But the 2004 Red Sox team that dispatched the Stanks in the biggest series comeback in sports history fell to a miserable 3rd place just two years later and have to spend lavishly just to keep pace with the Evil Empire. Is this win just a one-year blip for the Colts & pats, or has the tide really turned in favor of the perennial postseason losers?

It's hard to say but many of Patriot Nation's worst fears were realized last night on the FieldTurf at the RCA Dome:

-Peyton Manning can indeed win the big one. He has just beaten the two toughest defensive teams in the AFC in successive weeks, one in a tough-as-nails grinder on the road (12-6 @ B-More) and another a come-from-behind shootout against his personal Goliath at home to reach that elusive Super Bowl.

-The Colts can no longer be considered Regular Season Wonders.

One of my favorite nicknames I've hung on a team or a player is now wiped off my list. After yesterday's victory, coupled with playoff wins over the Chiefs and Ravens, even if the Colts go on to lose the Bowl this run has eliminated them as Regular Season Wonders forevermore (unless they go 14-2 next season & lose in the first round. Fingers crossed.)

-Tom Brady is human
Despite supermodel & actress girlfriends, 3 Super Bowls & 2 SB MVPs, a Hall of Fame career and the love and adoration of millions of fans worldwide we found out at the end of the game last night that there is a mere mortal man behind the Wizard's curtain. When Tommy Boy took the ball with less than a minute left and 80 yards to go for the win everybody and their brother just knew he would guide the team down the field and lead his troops to yet another postseason comeback victory. You know the rest.

He didn't and a little chip was taken out of the Brady Mystique that let us all realize he is human after all.

That's all I can muster right now. I'm heading back to my dark bedroom to look up at the ceiling for a few hours and think of all the witty comebacks I'm going to have to throw back at gloating Patriot haters for the next year.

As Dan Shaughnessey so perfectly put it in today's Globe, "Red Sox pitchers & catchers report on February 18th."

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