FOXBORO -- The atmosphere at Gillette Stadium was about what you'd expect for a game between a team that came in with an 8-3 record and a team that came in 0-11: More August than December. And in August you worry more about process than result.
So the Patriots' 31-24 victory over the winless Indianapolis Colts Sunday wasn't without its New England concerns.
The Colts moved the ball with disconcerting regularity, putting together scoring drives of 86, 86, 93 and 90 yards. The New England defense once again couldn't get off the field on third down, allowing the hapless Colts to convert 10-of-15 attempts. The Pats seemingly had the game in hand with a 31-3 third-quarter lead, and couldn't put Indy away.
Scoring, summary, statistics
But this is December, not August. In December, it's results that count.
And this result raised the Patriots' record to 9-3, keeps them two games up on the Jets in the AFC East race (the fading Bills lost again and are now four back with four to play), and kept them in the hunt for a first-round bye -- and perhaps top seed -- in the playoffs.
"It's good to be 9-3," Bill Belichick said at the start of his press conference. "I think we put our team in decent position here. Hopefully we can improving here through the last quarter of the season."
Bottom line: New England appeared to put just enough effort into this one to guarantee victory. When asked if he thought his team had eased off the gas pedal -- and, in fact, had found it hard to get emotionally invested from the start against their once-bitter but now overmatched rivals -- Belichick responded with a non-answer that would do a politician proud:
"I think we did some good things today. There are other things we didn't do as well. That's the way it is every week."
The Patriots even seemed to treat the game like a late-August exhibition, using wide receiverspecial-teams specialist Matthew Slater at safety for most of the afternoon and also giving Niko Koutovides plenty of reps alongside Jerod Mayo at inside linebacker. On offense, Nick McDonald was the starting center . . . but that may have been more a case of Ryan Wendell -- the main fill-in for the injured Dan Connolly -- being banged up himself and unable to go.
Belichick, of course, shed no light on the topic.
"We tried to put the best people out there we could out to be competitive," he said when asked about the, ah, different personnel packages. "That's the way it is every week."
For three quarters, none of it seemed to matter. The defense made a goal-line stand, holding the Colts to a field goal after a first-and-goal from the New England 1, and also stopped an Indianapolis drive by forcing a fumble. (Later, in the fourth quarter, they also got an interception from Jerod Mayo.) The offense was, in the words of Tom Brady, "awesome" in the second and third quarters, scoring touchdowns on four consecutive possessions in turning a 3-3 tie into a 31-3 lead.
But they couldn't slam the lid, on either side of the ball. The offense went three-and-out on its last three full possessions. (The Pats took a knee the final time they had the ball.) The Colts torched the defense for three TDs in the last quarter and, strange as it sounds, came within a recovered onside kick of having a chance to force overtime. Deion Branch was able to snare the kick at the Colts 49 with 36 seconds left, ending the game.
"We've obviously got to do a better job of finishing the game," said Belichick. "That was disappointing . . . "
"We have to do a lot better job finishing than we have been the past few weeks," agreed Wes Welker, who caught 11 passes for 114 yards.
Even though Welker was Brady's main target, it was tight end Rob Gronkowski who came away with the headlines. He caught 5 passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns -- tying the NFL record for single-season TD receptions by a tight end (13) -- and scored a third time on what originally was called a five-yard touchdown pass (and a new record) but was later changed to a lateral, and technically a running play.
The scoring change also meant Brady, who completed 29 of 38 attempts for 293 yards, only had two touchdown passes instead of three. But that was hardly on his mind afterwards.
"We played good for 45 minutes and then didn't do anything offensively in the fourth quarter," said Brady. "We'll hear about that from Belichick tomorrow."
More vehemently than they'd hear about it in August, too.