In Week 11, the Colts and Patriots met for the ninth consecutive season, providing another heart-pounding finish in one of the NFL's greatest rivalries. New England, powered by two Tom Brady TD tosses and a scoring run each from Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, took a 31-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, setting the stage for vintage late-game heroics from Peyton Manning.
After engineering two seven-play, 73-yard TD drives in a span of 3:11 — both ending in Manning-to-Blair White TD passes — Manning and his supporting cast got the ball back at their own 26-yard line with 2:25 left on the clock and all three timeouts. Manning marched downfield, with first downs converted by Jacob Tamme, Donald Brown and Reggie Wayne, putting the Colts in position to take the lead with 37 seconds remaining and the ball at the Patriots' 24-yard line. Instead of continuing to chip away, however, Manning went for the jugular, trying to connect with Pierre Garcon down the right sideline for the go-ahead score. The pass was badly underthrown, with S James Sanders making a diving interception to slam the door on the Colts' late comeback bid.
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The fact that the Colts were even in a position to win this game is remarkable, given their injury issues and inability to slow down New England's offense until the fourth quarter. Even president Bill Polian expressed his doubts on his weekly radio show last week, cautioning the fans on what a big challenge hanging with the Patriots in Foxborough would be with so many key contributors missing.
But Manning, being the ultimate competitor that he is, wasn't having any of it. He willed the Colts' offense, which was still without two of its top three running backs and two of Manning's favorite receivers — Dallas Clark and Austin Collie, who stood and watched the second half in street clothes on the sideline after suffering an unknown injury in the first half — back into the game before the ill-fated pick sealed it.
We've been talking all season about the superhero-like effort Manning has put forth under such difficult circumstances. And while Sunday was another prime illustration, with Manning keeping his team afloat in a seemingly unwinnable game, the burden of making so many unproven guys look like worthy sidekicks finally took its toll on Manning.
No run defense to speak of without two starting linebackers, no Joseph Addai, Mike Hart, Clark, Collie (for the second half) Pierre Garcon, who has really dropped the ball (pardon the pun) when his team has needed him most this season, had to have been in the back of Manning's mind, whether he would admit it or not, when he was pressing on that last play. He just always makes the right read in crunch time — but not on Sunday.
And despite all the adversity this team has faced, it still finds itself tied for the lead in the AFC South heading into Week 12, with the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the division. The walking wounded will have another week to try and get healthy before the shootout with the league's top-ranked scoring offense, the Chargers, next Sunday night. And Manning, who will likely be asked to jump into the phone booth and don his Superman cape once again, will have the luxury of doing so back at Lucas Oil Stadium under the lights in prime time. And we all know how that story typically ends.