Little do they know, but the New England Patriots just made everything a whole lot more interesting in the AFC thanks to Sunday night's 18-15 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
A win would've given the Patriots sole possession of first place in the AFC East with a 6-2 record and dropped the Colts to 3-5, dealing a serious blow to Indianapolis' playoff hopes. Instead we have a three-way tie atop the East between New England, Buffalo and the New York Jets, while the 4-4 Colts suddenly find themselves in the hunt for a wild-card berth down the stretch.
Only in a weird, wild season like this can one game make such an impact on the entire conference.
"We came up a couple plays short," coach Bill Belichick said. "They just did a little more than we did."
The Patriots left Indianapolis feeling as if they'd let one slip away. They finished with just one touchdown in four trips to the red zone, including one possession on which Jabar Gaffney dropped what would've been a sure touchdown pass down the left sideline. They also blew a timeout on a curious replay challenge in the third quarter, leaving them with no chance to stop the clock prior to a fourth-down play in the closing minutes in which Matt Cassel rushed the play and threw a critical interception.
For the first time in a while, the Patriots were out-coached, and Belichick received more than his fair share of criticism in what turned out to be a winnable game gone awry.
"I don't think 'slipped away' is the right expression, but it definitely got away from us," left tackle Matt Light said. "It's just frustrating when you lose a game like we lost (Sunday). We played a good game."
One play that had nothing to do with Belichick was tight end Dave Thomas' unnecessary-roughness penalty on New England's next-to-last drive that set up a third-and-16 from the Indianapolis 45. The following play resulted in a 1-yard shuffle pass to Kevin Faulk. With no timeouts left, the Patriots flip-flopped between punting or going for the first down on fourth-and-15. Cassel ultimately rushed back onto the field, took the snap and fired an ill-advised pass over the middle that landed in the arms of Colts safety Bob Sanders.
Though Thomas didn't agree with the call, he acknowledged his mistake.
"We're out there playing hard, being physical. Obviously, the ref felt like I hit the guy after the play," Thomas said. "He made the call. We have to live with it. I have to live with it."
So does Gaffney, whose gaffe cost the Patriots an opportunity to retake the lead in the closing seconds of the third quarter.
"I dropped it," Gaffney said. "I don't make no excuses. It hit my hands. I should have caught it."
With too many mistakes and not enough big plays, the Patriots let one slip through their fingertips in Indianapolis. Now, instead of opening up a slim lead in the AFC East, they find themselves in a dogfight for the division title and, perhaps, a subsequent battle for a wild-card spot depending on what happens down the stretch.
"A lot of guys are really down because we let a game like this slip," wide receiver Randy Moss said, "but when things happen, you have to watch what you say. Guys don't want to get fined, but there was some real iffy calls out there."
Gaffney Gets Support
--WR Jabar Gaffney took all the blame for dropping QB Matt Cassel's sure touchdown pass down the left sideline, and his teammates rewarded him with their unwavering support.
Said WR Randy Moss: "I'd just tell him like any true homey would say, 'Pick your head up, go home, kiss your babies, and I'll see you on Wednesday.' You can't let one play get you down. It's a long season. There's a lot of football left."
A Bad Trend
--The Patriots have now lost three of their last four regular-season games against Indianapolis and four of their last five overall, including the postseason.
Faulk's Production Imptessive
--One positive from Sunday's loss was the performance of the running game. Kevin Faulk averaged 6.0 yards per carry, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored another touchdown with some hard-nosed goal-line running as the Patriots racked up 140 total yards on the ground.
Even without Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan, the Patriots ran at will against Indianapolis. Their health should improve in the coming weeks. Jordan is closer to returning after practicing last week, and Morris could be at least one more week away from getting back on the field despite a knee injury.
Can't Believe They Lost
--The Patriots are still stunned they lost Sunday's game given the fact they felt they dominated the Colts at various points.
"You come in with a game plan and you execute it for the most part, and it still doesn't go your way," cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "You kind of wonder what happened."
Another silver lining is Cassel played well again, albeit in a losing effort. His teammates are confident he can lead the team down the stretch in a tight playoff race.
"I like what I see, and I don't think I'm the only one," Moss said. "I think Matt is carrying this offense really well. I think we're still getting acclimated to him being out there, but he's doing a heck of a job."
--The Patriots kept it simple on offense Sunday, utilizing a season-low three positional groupings. They operated primarily out of a two-tight end set with David Thomas and Ben Watson playing the majority of the snaps.
Indianapolis used its base 4-3 defense for most of the night, so the Patriots had no need to spice up their offense. They didn't take many shots down the field against the Colts' banged-up secondary either, so having two tight ends on the field turned out to be an appropriate game plan given the nature of their attack.
Eight games into the season, it's become clear the Patriots have established their identity offensively as a ball-control unit determined to establish the run and utilize all their personnel to turn short-yardage plays into long gains.
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