logoby Chris Warner

For New England, “first place” no longer means “elite.”

After Sunday night’s 18-15 humbling in Indianapolis, the Patriots still find themselves atop the AFC East, tied with the Bills and Jets at 5-3. Welcome to the middle of the pack. Or the head of the pack. Whatever.

Maybe New England fans should feel positive that this one stayed close. It sure looked bad in the first quarter after Indianapolis’ 15-play, nine-minute drive resulted in the home team’s 7-0 lead. That Anthony Gonzalez caught a pass in the right corner of the end zone was not nearly as disconcerting as the fact that he and Marvin Harrison were covered by Patriots rookies Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite due to injuries to New England’s defensive backfield. 

The Patriots got back into the game with a sustained drive of their own, mixing the pass and run well (four passes, eight rushes). Matt Cassel connected with David Thomas for 11 yards and Kevin Faulk for another 11, adding a five-yard scramble. BenJarvus Green-Ellis bolted up the middle for ten yards to Indy’s 27. The drive stalled at the 13-yard line on a missed pass to Benjamin Watson. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski did his thing to get New England on the board, 7-3, at the 10:24 mark of the second.

Wheatley went down with an injury on the Colts’ next drive in the second quarter after breaking up a deep pass to Harrison. No desperate phone calls to Earthwind Moreland or Troy Brown were necessary, however, as Mike Vrabel helped force a punt by keeping contain on a third-down Joseph Addai draw play.

Cassel looked sharp on the ensuing drive, but the team’s red zone woes continued. Though they’d used a so-called Wildcat play (shotgun snap to Faulk) to positive effect earlier (run for a first down), it hurt them a second time, as Faulk took the direct snap, juked as if to run, then threw to Wes Welker for a two-yard loss. With the Colts defense on the line to play the rush, Welker had no chance.

Coach Belichick decided to play for the field goal, letting Faulk run a five-yard draw on third and 12 to the 17-yard line. Gostkowski’s kick cut the lead to 7-6, Indy. That score remained for the half despite the Lucas Oil Stadium clock stopping for no good reason on a Harrison reception in bounds. (Not that I’m bitter. Okay, I am, but it was odd timekeeping at best.)

In the first half, Manning completed 14 of 18 passes for 143 yards and the lone TD. Addai gained only 19 yards on 9 carries. The Pats defense gaveth, and it tooketh away. Their game plan involved preventing the big play, and although four receivers had gains of over 17 yards on the night (Manning ended up hitting 21 of 29 for 254 yards), the visitors still managed to hold Indy to two TDs and a field goal.

For his part, Cassel hit eight of nine throws for 64 yards in the first half, while Green-Ellis and Faulk combined for 13 carries and 54 yards. For the game, Cassel completed 25 of 34 passes for 204 yards, with one interception and zero sacks. New England also had 140 yards rushing on the night.

(While you’re here, I have one complaint about Sunday Night Football: the theme song. For you youngsters, Faith Hill sings a remake of “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” by Joan Jett. (see the original video here). Is that really the best theme for a football game? I mean, using Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” and having Hill sing “I Love Sunday Nights” would have been better, right? Also, thanks to Toyota for making The Fixx’s “Saved by Zero” into a terrible, redundant commercial. Plenty of music got stuck in my head last night, most of it grating. The one exception, in my humble opinion, was Geico’s motorcycle insurance ad, featuring The Sounds. Enough digressing.

New England put together an extended possession of their own to begin the third quarter, going 72 yards in 7:48 to take a 12-7 lead. The Pats converted three third downs on the drive via a Cassel scramble (seven yards), an out pass to Moss (nine) and a crossing route to Welker (10). Green-Ellis punched it into the end zone, crashing through the middle for six yard and six points. Faulk’s rush for the two-point conversion was stopped inches short.

That lead lasted just long enough for the Colts to take the ball down the field, having to go only 57 yards after a 39-yard kickoff return by Pierre “Peter Boy” Garcon. With little success on the ground thanks to the front seven (Addai gained 32 yards on 17 carries, less than two per rush), Manning took what the Patriots gave him. Too bad what they gave the QB was four-of-six passing, including Gonzalez’s second touchdown catch on third and goal from the six. New England defensive back Mike Richardson had decent coverage on the play, but decent wasn’t good enough. Indy’s two-point conversion saw Reggie Wayne hold onto a pass in the face of a nasty hit by safety Brandon Meriweather, resulting in the high-school-like score of 15-12.

Yep. This sure ain’t 2007.

Near the end of the third, Jabar Gaffney seemed to take lessons from former Patriot Reche Caldwell (if you don’t know, look up “Reche+Caldwell+Indianapolis+drops“). Streaking down the right sideline with nothing but the end zone in front of him, Gaffney ended up missing a picture-perfect pass from Cassel. When I say, “missing,” it’s the same way in which my grandmother’s reading glasses were “missing” when they were sitting on top of her head. The ball-and a chance to take the lead-went right through Gaffney’s hands.

To his credit, Cassel continued to move his offense downfield, again converting a key third down by finding Moss at Indy’s 26. Cassel connected with Watson for another first, but his third-down pass to Welker came up one yard short on the Colt seven. After contemplating going for it (the play actually ran in the midst of his timeout), Belichick decided to call on his kicker. Gostkowski tied the score at 15 early in the fourth.

Indy’s next drive covered 48 yards. Adam Vinatieri, whose mother reportedly lives in a house of ill repute, (Not really, but I’m just saying) hit a 52-yarder to give the home team an 18-15 lead. It was the first 50-plus-yard field goal he’d made in 91 games. And it was the final difference. So, that’s good. Good for him. Awesome.

The Patriots looked great for most of the next drive, taking time off the clock and getting first downs. Starting at their own 19, Cassel hit Moss for 13 and Welker for eight. Green-Ellis got a first down to New England’s 44. Thomas caught a 16-yarder across the middle. After a shifty Faulk run netted eight yards and Green-Ellis gained one, the Patriots should have faced a third and one on Indy’s 31. With a first down, they could have had several options on offense with nearly five minutes left. Instead, for reasons known only to him, Thomas committed an unnecessary roughness penalty after Green-Ellis’ run. His ill-timed shove changed the Lilliputian one yard necessary into a Brobdingnagian 16 yards. Faulk ran his millionth draw of the day and got nada. Cassel’s pass on fourth down was intercepted by safety Bob Sanders at Indy’s 25, which did the Pats a favor, yardage-wise. Still, with the visitors out of timeouts and only four minutes left, the Colts merely had to convert one first down and punt into the end zone to more or less run out the clock.

Is it me, or were New England’s coaches literally off their game on Sunday night? I have plenty of evidence pointing to a certain hinkiness: The early challenge on an iffy Colts penalty (denied, loss of timeout); going for two in the third (failed); calling the final timeout on fourth down to kick a field goal; calling the umpteenth draw play to Faulk on third and 16 with under five minutes left (one-yard gain). At times the coach seemed a bit, well, off.

Maybe we shouldn’t blame him. He’s down to Faulk and a fourth-string running back, his second-string QB, and a slew of defenders he’d never met before this past February. Maybe, like the rest of us, he’s not exactly sure what he’s got.

So, what do we have on this Patriots squad? In fits of zeal over last week’s win vs. the Rams, many compared 2007 to the 2003-2004 championship teams. Those Patriots never seemed to blow anyone out; they’d allow yardage but limit points on defense while burning up the clock on offense. Well, here’s one big difference: while this year’s team waits for their opponents to make mistakes, those past Pats would force the issue. They could get a pass rush with four or maybe five guys. They could get an interception from man-to-man coverage. They could score touchdowns in the red zone.

It’s tough to tell whether or not the Patriots are better than what they showed on Sunday night. Maybe. Right now they’re tied at the top, but the fact is, they lost an opportunity for the kind of first place they could have had all to themselves.