The Pats Win the Battle, But Not the War

Maybe it was that both teams were still unbeaten. Maybe it was the sheer volume in the RCA Dome at kickoff. Maybe it was that Boomer Esiason called it “Super Bowl Forty-One-and-a-Half.” Maybe it was that ESPN had been doing a countdown until kickoff since last Monday. Maybe it was that both teams flat out don’t like each other. And maybe it was just that Patriot’s Head Coach Bill Belichick actually decided to wear a collared shirt for game day. Whatever it was, the game between the Colts and the Patriots this weekend seemed like much more than a regular season game with a 4:15 start time.

Of course, this game was not actually as important as a playoff game. It was just a regular season game between the best two teams in professional football. It was not Monday Night, John Madden was nowhere to be seen, and both teams were almost guaranteed to make the playoffs, so nothing definitive was going to be decided. But for some reason, it seemed like something so much more.

The intensity and excitement of Sunday’s game in Indianapolis is a credit to the theatrics of the NFL today. From the opening snap, Peyton Manning was his usual self. He seemed calm and composed when he took the snap and dropped back, almost as if he had lived in the pocket his whole life. He stepped back, looked, pulled his arm back and delivered the ball with a lethal combination of velocity, accuracy, and confidence. Before the camera even panned over to Reggie Wayne or Dallas Clark, Patriots fans gasped and the chain gang marched down the field.

But Peyton Manning wasn’t the only spectacle to behold on that first drive. As Manning drove down the field, CBS kept a close eye on the only man in the stadium who didn’t seem terrified by the offensive clinic Manning was running on one of the best defenses in the NFL. Unlike everyone else in the stadium, he was not watching the game. He kept his helmet in his hands, eyes adorned with two small strips of eye black, facing the ground, walking back and forth. Tom Brady had been waiting all week for his chance to take a shot at the defending Super Bowl champs and hardly able to contain himself any longer, he paced the sideline like a caged animal.

Then the Colts attack broke down. By some miraculous stroke of Belichick defensive genius, the Colts were forced into a fourth and short situation and brought out kicker, Adam Vinatieri. After a Vinatieri miss, Brady sprinted onto the field. Colts fans held their breath, just as Patriots fans started to get comfortable. Everyone in the stadium could see what was about to happen. Brady was going to get the snap, take three steps backward, rear his arm back, and let the ball fly right into the arms of Randy Moss. Unstoppable to some, but Robert Mathis did not see it that way. The 245-pound defensive end slowly walked toward the line of scrimmage and positioned himself inches outside of the left tackle. When the ball was snapped, he took off, flew past the Patriots tackle and crashed into the back of the unsuspecting former Super Bowl MVP. At that point, the RCA Dome went nuts and so did Robert Mathis. As he flexed his muscles for the crowd and celebrated with the rest of the defense, Brady scrambled to his feet. Instead of questioning left tackle Daniel Federkeil, he stood up and looked over at the sidelines to get the call for the next play. Brady was unnerved. He was chasing perfection. One measly sack was not about to get in his way.

For the rest of the afternoon, the momentum shifted back and forth, neither team accepting defeat, both desperately trying to claim the title of the best team in football. In the end, it was Tom Brady who was able to command his team to victory, scoring fourteen unanswered points in the fourth quarter, to the disappointment of the fans at the RCA Dome.

For the rest of the year, the Patriots will pursue an undefeated record. Analysts will go on TV and talk about how the 2007 New England Patriots are the greatest team in the history of football, and America will be ready to crown the Patriots Super Bowl champions. But right now, the Colts still are still defending champs. The Patriots will likely meet the Colts one more time in the playoffs, and Peyton Manning is not going to give up his crown without a fight.