By Michael Felger
If the Patriots had lost that game I would have blamed the offense. Seriously.
It wouldn't have been for playing a bad game, per se, because the unit clearly didn't. It would have been for not playing winning football.
It's the only thing that matters, after all.
The Patriots beat the Colts at Gillette on Sunday, 31-28, becasue Peyton Manning, for all his brilliance through most of the game, puked on his shoes when it counted.
But it never should have come to that. If the offense had merely performed at a fraction of the effectiveness in the final 15 minutes that it had over the previous 45, then it never would have come down to Manning pulling a Favre.
The reason Manning was in a position to choke, in other words, was because the Pats offense choked first.
You think I should be pointing a finger at the defense? Well, sure. Duh. That side of the ball was overmatched yet again for stretches of the game, including a pair of crucial drives in the fourth quarter.
But don't you understand? The Pats' defense was SUPPOSED to lose it's battle with Peyton Manning. He's pretty good, you know. One of the best ever, in fact. And the Pats countered with a young defense that may be good some day but just isn't right now. What did you expect to happen? For the Pats -- with nine first- and second-year players on defense -- to hold the Colts to a touchdown and a field goal? To stuff Manning in a fourth-quarter, no-huddle situation?
On the play before Manning's game-ending interception, for example, Pat Chung was matched up with Reggie Wayne in man-to-man coverage in the middle of the field. A second-year safety against one of the best receivers in the league. Again, what did you expect to happen? If you were hoping for anything other than the result of the play -- a 15-yard reception -- then I think you're expecting too much.
I don't know about you, but if you had told me before the game that the defense would hold the Colts to under 30 points while picking off Manning three times, I'd have taken it.
The strength of the Patriots -- with Randy Moss or without him -- remains the offense. That's the side of the ball that is going to have to win the big, close games.
The point total is irrelevant. Yes, 31 points should be enough to win on most nights. But a game against Manning doesn't constitute "most nights." Against Manning, you need to be close to perfect. You need to put the game out of reach when the opportunity arises -- and the Pats failed to do that on Sunday night.
Their first possession of the fourth quarter resulted in a crap out in the red zone. The Pats had a first down at the Colts' 11 when they ran two wimpy running plays and then opted to try and get the ball to Julien Edelman over the middle on third-and-6. Drop. The Pats settled for a field goal and a 31-14 lead when it should have been a more comfortable 35-14.
On their next possession, after Manning had cut it to 31-21, the Pats went three-and-out. Their third-down play was a little button hook to Deion Branch that was close to being called a defensive pass interference -- but wasn't. Blame Branch for not getting more separation. Blame Brady for not putting the ball outside the defender. Blame whoever you want, but going three-and-out in that situation was inexcusable. Felt like fourth-and-2 all over again -- only this time the Pats punted on fourth down.
After Manning made it 31-28, the Pats offense was only marginally better the next time out. They managed four plays before Zoltan Mesko came out for the punt. The third-down play here was even worse than the one before, as Brady should have been intercepted by linebacker Tyjuan Hagler only to have the ball bounce off his shoulder pads and to the turf. Lucky.
In short, the Colts defense was as soft as puppy poop, and the Patriots did the appropriate damage to it for three quarters. But when it counted, it was like 2009 all over again. The only thing that saved Brady and the offense was James Sanders.
You know how I feel about the decision to trade Moss. It's the best thing Bill Belichick has done in a long, long time. It was the final act in getting his team back. You just can't hope to have a tough, smart and resilient football team and have Moss in your locker room. He's antithetical to those values. And he's now attempting to blow up his third team in two months, so good riddance. Branch, meanwhile, has had his three best games as a 2010 Patriot in the three toughest games on the schedule: Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. That's what you should expect from him. He's a competitor.
I haven't changed my mind on the Moss thing one bit. The Pats are far better off without him, even on offense. And my prediction remains: I'll see all you folks at the AFC Championship game Jan. 23.
But If the offense is going to turtle with the game on the line like it did on Sunday, then the Pats might as well get Moss back here.
Then at least I can blame him.
Felger's report card will post on Tuesday and his Patriots-Lions game column will post on Friday. E-mail him HERE and read the mailbag on Thursdays. Listen to him on the radio weekdays, 2-6 p.m., on 98.5 the Sports Hub.