Sat, Sep 11, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Patriots continue winning ways

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , FOXBORO, MASSACHUSETS

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, left, breaks a tackle by Robert Mathis of the Colts during the first quarter of their season-opening game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro Massachusetts, Thursday.

PHOTO: EPA

In a glitzy pregame ceremony, the Patriots unveiled their latest Super Bowl banner, and then the players emerged from the tunnel, without helmets, to take a victory lap. After a tense rematch Thursday night with the Indianapolis Colts, whom they vanquished in the playoffs in January to go to the Super Bowl, the party rolls on in New England.

Tom Brady reminded everyone that although he may not have Peyton Manning's US$98 million contract, he may be the best quarterback in the NFL. The Patriots held off the Colts, 27-24, to extend their winning streak to 16 games and begin their quest to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

The Patriots did not make it easy, tempting fate and the foot of the league's most reliable kicker, Mike Vanderjagt. The Colts had the ball with 1 minute 43 seconds remaining but no timeouts. They moved inside the Patriots' 20-yard line, but Willie McGinest blitzed and sacked Manning for a 12-yard loss with 42 seconds remaining. That pushed a field-goal attempt to 48 yards. Vanderjagt, who had made an NFL-record 42 straight, pushed it wide right with 24 seconds remaining.

For the Patriots, their winning script showed few revisions from last season. They forced critical turnovers and got superb play from Brady when they needed it most. For the Colts, the beginning of a month-long litmus test -- three of their first four opponents were playoff teams last year -- began on an achingly familiar note.

The Patriots had a 10-point lead at the end of the third-quarter, but the Colts had made it a 3-point game with 11 minutes remaining when Brandon Stokley beat cornerback Ty Law and caught a 7-yard touchdown pass.

Brady, who was 26 of 38 for 335 yards with three touchdowns, was driving the Patriots again but threw an interception that was as rare as a Patriots loss. He had thrown 288 passes in regular-season games at home without an interception. But this one, picked off by Nick Harper, looked especially damaging, especially after the Patriots' defense held the Colts and forced a punt, only to watch Deion Branch fumble the punt.

That fumble gave the Colts the ball on the Patriots' 33-yard line. With the help of a pass-interference penalty, the Colts moved to the 1-yard line.

Running back Edgerrin James took the handoff and thrust himself into the pile. He was hit, and the ball popped loose. It was recovered by Vince Wilfork, the Patriots' rookie defensive tackle. The Colts had turned the ball over five times in the American Football Conference championship game. Now, a turnover with 3:43 remaining in the season opener -- their third turnover of the game in the red zone -- had nearly doomed their chances to avenge that loss.

The Patriots, who are never predictable, opened the game in a spread offense, with two tight ends and three wide receivers. Operating without a huddle, Brady threw eight consecutive passes before Adam Vinatieri kicked a 32-yard field goal to give the Patriots a 3-0 lead.

It looked like the AFC championship game redux when the Colts got the ball. Manning, who entered the game 0-5 at New England, led the Colts to the Patriots' 6-yard line, then threw an interception to Tedy Bruschi. In January, the first of Manning's four interceptions against New England came on the first drive, in nearly the same spot.

Manning finished 16 of 29 for 256 yards.

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