by Scott Benson

Face it.

The joke is no longer on Peyton Manning and the Colts.

Now it’s on the Patriots.

The Indianapolis Colts left no doubt which team now has the upper hand in the storied rivalry with a crippling 27-20 defeat of the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium tonight.

It was their second straight win in Foxboro, after many well-documented humiliations. Which are now, evidently, ancient history.

There are still a half season of games to play, and anything can happen, but this much is known – the Patriots have lost head-to-head home matchups with the two best teams in the league, Indianapolis and Denver, and are probably already a long shot for a first round bye in January.

Tom Brady had four passes intercepted and the Patriots offense (coaching staff included) coughed up a major league furball to lose this game. Five turnovers and an abundance of ill-timed, gain-negating penalties. A pass-first game plan that de-emphasized the run against the NFL’s worst run defense.

The Patriots defense had a white-knuckle ride trying to keep up with Manning (326 yards and 2 td’s) and his featured receiver Marvin Harrison (8-145 with both of Manning’s scores), but in the second half they (along with special teams) still gave the team a chance. With the Colts up by seven, Artrell Hawkins stripped Terrance Wilkins on a kick return and recovered the fumble at the Indy 46; minutes later, Chad Scott picked Manning deep in Pats territory and returned it to midfield.

The Patriots – despite facing one of the NFL’s most mediocre defenses – scored a grand total of ZERO points on those opportunities, and the Patriots were finished.

After all, the Colts scored only 10 second half points after a back and forth first half, and Adam Vinatieri missed TWO field goal attempts – including one that would have iced the game at the two minute warning. The game was there for the Patriots. And there it remained.

In the Battle of the Titans, Manning outplayed Brady by a wide margin. They had nearly identical attempts and completions, but Manning’s always counted for more. He also avoided the turnovers; though the four picks weren’t all Brady’s fault. It seemed like every tipped ball found its way to a Colt. Naturally, Kevin Faulk was prominently involved, as he muffed a short pass from Brady – which flew directly to Cato June – as the Pats drove to a potential tying score with a minute left.

Despite the Colts’ historically bad run defense, the Patriots threw more than they ran. Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon were both limited to 13 carries apiece, though Dillon ran for both Patriots scores. He also had a third quarter fumble that contributed to the Patriots misery. Maroney was impressive at times, but the Patriots invariably went back to the pass. Twice in the first half Brady took end zone pot shots on 1st down plays inside Colts territory; both throws went into close coverage and were intercepted. Call me a second guesser, but I’m thinking right there they might have mixed in a run.

Instead, the burden went to the receivers, and they shrank from it. A small game played by all of the Pats receivers; Watson, Caldwell, Gabriel, the backs, and so on. 35 throws, and nobody makes a play. Special dispensation is awarded to Troy Brown, who made 5 catches and passed the great Stanley Morgan to become the Patriots all-time receiver.

Brady was under assault most times he threw, but the Patriots o-line didn’t allow a sack. The holes were there when the Pats went to the run, except for a late first half Belichick 4th and inches (curious) gamble at midfield. Then, Brady couldn’t get anywhere behind Billy Yates, and only a terrible ball spot saved the Pats (Brady later threw a pick anyway). I still don’t know what Belichick might have been thinking there, as a stop would have given the Colts (up by three at the time) the ball at midfield with a minute left.

Something was screwy tonight. Left-field coaching decisions, lousy execution, one freaking penalty after another – this is like the Seinfeld where George and Elaine switch places. All of a sudden its the Pats who are flustered, unable to pull off their game plan, making the critical mistakes. The worm has apparently turned.

I can’t kill the defense for giving up 27 points to the Colts, and the brightest spot for the Pats was the play of its defensive line and linebackers, who stuffed the Colts few run attempts and put great pressure on Manning from start to finish. But for the second straight year, the Patriots secondary gave maddening 10-12 yard cushions to Indy’s receivers, even on short yardage plays. And just like last year, the Patriots gave up far too many easy completions. Even when Manning was hurried, even under wraps, he was able to loft a ball to a spot, where Harrison or Reggie Wayne or freaking Ben Utecht would be waiting, alone. Didn’t the Patriots once make their bones by hammering the Colts receivers at the line? Whatever happened to that?

Maybe it was Ron Winter, and people like him. This was by far the most delusional officiating crew the Patriots have had all season, which is saying something, because they’ve also had Jeff Triplette. TWICE. Winter and his crew couldn’t wait to make a good impression on the Competition Committee, AKA the Colts front office, so they threw the ‘illegal contact’ flag on every Manning imcomplete pass. It seemed like it, anyway. What they don’t call, apparently, is offensive holding on the Colts. Ever. Just saying.

But the referees didn’t lose this game for the Patriots tonight; their offense did. With the Jets up next Sunday, it’s suck-it-up time for the Patriots. After tonight, that divisional lead is the best thing they have going for them.