INDIANAPOLIS-- --When the still-perfect New England Patriots defeated the formerly perfect Indianapolis Colts, 24-20, yesterday, it proved a number of points. The hype was justified -- this did turn out to be Ali-Frazier, Magic-Bird, USA-USSR. It was Super Bowl 41 1/2 , and not only will it be hard to wait for their next meeting in the AFC championship game, it will be hard to watch the actual Super Bowl, because the gap between these two and the other 30 NFL teams is so colossal.
Most important, though, the Clash of the Titans at the RCA Dome proved this: If the Patriots and their offense are in the process of making history, it is not because they score gratuitous touchdowns in the fourth quarter against the likes of the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins.
It's because they can stare down a 20-10 deficit, a rabid crowd, a dwindling clock, the defending Super Bowl champs and their own clumsy, inefficient selves and not blink. They can take a game from you in a heartbeat.
That's how they beat the Colts yesterday, before the eyes of the football world. The Patriots were losing by 10 with less than 10 minutes left, the Colts were pushing them around, making all the smart plays and leaving the dumb plays -- missed tackles, turnovers, 146 yards in penalties -- to the visitors. The Colts had two healthy wide receivers most of the game (no Marvin Harrison at all, no Anthony Gonzalez for most of it) and a backup protecting Peyton Manning's blind side, but for 50 minutes they made it work.
And suddenly, the Patriots were in the end zone, capping a 73-yard drive, in just 103 seconds. Next time they got the ball, down 20-17 with 3:58 left? Another touchdown, on a 51-yard drive, in three plays, expending 43 seconds of effort. Their kneel-downs at the end of the game took more time, literally.
Between the go-ahead score and those kneel-downs came Jarvis Green, swooping in on Manning from behind, stripping him, Rosevelt Colvin catching the loose ball. Again, now you see the game in your hands, now you don't.
Defeat was within Tom Brady's line of sight, and much of it would have been on his head. Until this: strike to Randy Moss, strike to Wes Welker, strike to Donte Stallworth, strike to Kevin Faulk. Buh-bye.
Brady quickly forgot the two interceptions that equaled his total going into that game. The one to linebacker Gary Brackett on the previous possession had set up the Colts' touchdown that pushed the lead to 10. All day, from the opening snap (thanks to Robert Mathis' face-plant), he had taken a beating from the Colts' ferocious front line.
The Patriots had won a lot of games under these circumstances during their Super Bowl seasons, but none this season. They remembered how yesterday, just in time.
"This was the first time we were really in a ballgame late, and I'm real proud of the way the guys responded when we were down," Brady said. "There was never really any loss of confidence or determination, and we're going to need that for the next seven games."
Not to contradict you, Tom, but no, you won't.
The 40- and 50-point games likely will resume after their bye week, depending on whether Bill Belichick is still feeling persecuted by the universe. To the game's everlasting benefit, yesterday both defenses reminded everybody that scoreboard pyrotechnics against unworthy opposition do not a serious champion make.
The Patriots went scoreless in the first quarter and managed one touchdown through three quarters, yet it was still not only anyone's game, but it also was an outstanding game.
The Colts had been far more impressive moving the ball all day, even if you exclude the thunderclap at the end of the first half, the 73-yard, zig-zagging, tackle-breaking Joseph Addai catch-and-run for the touchdown that sent the Colts into the locker room with a 13-7 lead. They had controlled the ball and the clock. Yet three first-half trips inside the 25-yard line had yielded two field goals and another try that was deflected.
Everybody, even the fans wearing faux video equipment on their heads dubbed "Cheater-Cams" in Belichick's honor, knew that the Colts' missed touchdown opportunities would haunt them later.
Colts coach Tony Dungy definitely knew it, because he knows the Patriots. "They force you into playing perfect," he said. His Colts didn't, and the Patriots, who were even less perfect for a longer time, made them pay.
The bill came in the last 10 minutes, stunning the crowd into silence. That's also a championship trademark, exiting another team's building to the sounds of little more than feet shuffling down the aisles.
Beating up on the lame and spineless proves nothing. Wins like this -- instant classics against teams of your own caliber -- signify greatness. Too bad Jan. 20, Patriots-Colts II, is so far away.