Flashback to 2006…
On their way to becoming Super Bowl XLI champions, the Indianapolis Colts (12-4) had to host the New England Patriots (12-4) in the 2006 AFC Championship game. The Patriots were able to get the ball moving early and stop the Colts dead in their tracks, taking a commanding 21-3 lead just before halftime. I was tremendously excited: my Patriots were thirty minutes of football away from heading to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in six years.
Of course, as everyone knows, it didn’t quite end that way. Indy came roaring back, the entire New England defense either caught the flu or forgot how to play, and the Colts ended up taking their magical mystery tour all the way to their first Lombardi trophy in 36 years.
Flash forward to tonight, The 6-2 Patriots are on a three-game winning streak and have reignited the flame of the past. Meanwhile, the 8-0 Colts looked surprisingly mortal, barely eking out 3-4 point wins against mediocre teams like the San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans. Indianapolis was also suffering from multiple injuries in their secondary, and it looked like the legendary Pats offense would be having a field day if they could protect Tom Brady.
The Patriots again came out swinging and got a 24-7 advantage in the second quarter as well as a 31-14 edge in the fourth. Again, it was all in vain. The Patriots pissed it all away and allowed Peyton Manning (who is indeed the greatest quarterback of our generation) to squeak by with a 35-34 win. Instead of the defense, it was head coach Bill Belichick that caught amnesia and made a series of decisions as questionable and game-changing as anything I’ve ever seen him do.
For those that don’t know, Belichick is considered a genius at football. He’s won 71% of his games since 2000, as well as three Super Bowls. His strategic prowess is the stuff of legends, and it helps that his quarterback, Tom Brady, is about as brainy as he is and can make the quick reads that his position requires.
With the game on the line, the Patriots faced 4th and 2 from their own 28 with 2:08 left to go in the fourth quarter. Up 34-28, the obvious decision is to punt the ball and force the Colts offense to get 60-70 yards down the field in two minutes with one timeout. Brady goes to the sideline, then starts motioning as if to plead to Belichick to go for it. Belichick instead takes his last timeout, presumably to smack Brady upside the head and get his offense off the field, but then lets them stay there to go for it.
At this point, you could pretty much call it a 50-50 shot. If the Patriots convert, it’s huge because the Colts only have the two minute warning and one timeout to stop the clock. They can pretty much ride out the clock to victory, or at least force Manning to go 70-80 yards down the field with 1:20 left or so. The Pats’ play is really strange, and the result is even stranger: Brady drops back and slings it to runningback Kevin Faulk, who bobbles the ball before finally catching it and falls backwards just behind the first down line! Unlike most receivers, he doesn’t get the forward progress of the pass because he bobbled the ball (which would have given them the first down) and it is marked at about the 29 yard line. The Colts get the ball, drive down the short field, and score a touchdown with 0:13 left. Colts receiver Reggie Wayne shakes Pats corner Jonathan Wilhite out of his shoes for a one-yard touchdown pass, and the whole stadium erupts.
It was the AFC championship game all over again. Same uniforms, same Tom Brady glare, same number of Patriots points scored, same awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s the kind of loss that just kills any momentum that the team might have had. With this win, the Colts (9-0) have more or less guaranteed themselves the #1 seed in the 2009 playoffs, and the Patriots (6-3) are now a game behind the out-of-nowhere Cincinnati Bengals (7-2) for the #2 spot. They remain two games ahead of the Jets (4-5) and Dolphins (4-5) for the division lead, and play the Jets next Sunday.
And now, just like then, I still can’t get completely shitfaced and forget about the game. Ronald Reagan sucks.