- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Willie McGinest delivered the stop heard 'round the NFL, the stop that could carry significant ramifications in AFC playoff seedings and potential home-field advantage.
Everyone in the RCA Dome wondered what the 31-year-old McGinest was doing on the field. With 1:09 remaining in an unbelievably emotional Patriots-Colts shootout, McGinest had to be helped off the field after his left foot got caught in the turf, resulting in a knee sprain. With the Patriots out of timeouts, referee Bill Leavy gave the Patriots a free injury timeout and a chance to get McGinest off the field.
"My leg got caught in the turf," McGinest said. "I would never fake an injury to come off the field and miss a couple of plays. Not during a game like that."
But on the biggest goal-line play of the season, McGinest believes he baited Peyton Manning into audibling to a running play on fourth-and-goal at the Patriots 1-yard line. McGinest charged from his outside linebacker spot and stopped Edgerrin James for a 1-yard loss in a game-saving play of a 38-34 victory over the Colts.
"I walked up to the slot receiver and tried to make it look like I was in coverage," McGinest said. "I saw Peyton turn and tap his backside. That's usually a check for them to switch to a run. I was never in coverage. I was only baiting them. I stayed there for a little while and I crept and I crept and I crept. The big guys were going to clog the middle. I came off the edge like a bat out of hell. It was either going to be a great play-action play or I was going to get Edgerrin."
The Patriots goal-line defense stopped the Colts on four consecutive plays from inside the Patriots 2 in the final 40 seconds of play. Throw in a three-and-out from the Patriots 11 with less than four minutes left, and the Patriots limited one of the league's most explosive offenses to seven yards on nine plays inside the 11 in the final four minutes. The Colts, who rallied from a 21-point deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter, couldn't get the final yards to secure their 10th win of the season.
"That's situational football," McGinest said. "It comes down to the last second or the last play. It's pressure football. The team that is the most focused that can execute the best will be the team that wins."
As it turned out, the Patriots defense was more focused in the end of Sunday's game and it may be the difference between going to the Super Bowl or coming up short. The Patriots and Colts entered Sunday's game at 9-2 knowing they were fighting for their division titles in games next Sunday. The Patriots host the Dolphins. The Colts visit the Titans. But before moving on to Week 14, the former AFC East rivals had to settle this wild affair.
Bethel Johnson returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown during the final 12 seconds of the first half to give the Patriots a 24-10 lead at the intermission. Pats coach Bill Belichick warned his team at the half to treat this game as if the score was tied. The Colts are too explosive, he emphasized. Even a 1-yard Mike Cloud touchdown run midway through the third quarter that opened up a 31-10 lead didn't make the Patriots coach comfortable.
"When you come into a game like that, you expect it to come down the way it did in terms of coming down to the wire and coming down to a few plays," Belichick said. "For our guys to hang in there like they did, on the road, my hat's off to the players."
Manning fulfilled Belichick's fears by reeling off three touchdown passes in six minutes to tie the score at 31 with 10:21 remaining in the game.
"He came up to us when it was 31-31 and said, 'What did you guys expect?" Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "It was a tie ballgame in the fourth quarter. He said it was something that all of us asked for. We said, 'Okay, here we go.' The fans were into it. We couldn't hear a thing out there."
Like they did in their Super Bowl run a couple of years ago, the Patriots focused for the big plays at the end of the game. This time, they didn't need a Tuck Rule call in the snow. This time, they didn't need that last drive to set up an Adam Vinatieri Super Bowl winning field goal against the Rams.
It came down to the defense -- Belichick's specialty.
"No time left on the clock fourth-and-one that is what championship teams are made of," McGinest said.
Of course, it wasn't an accident that the Patriots defense was prepared for the situation. Since the Nov. 10 bye week, Belichick has spent extra time in practice working on his goal-line defense. It was a problem earlier in the season, and part of the problem was that the Patriots didn't have defensive tackle Ted Washington and linebacker Ted Johnson, who missed half of the season because of broken bones.
Washington, who's listed at 365 pounds, and Johnson, a smart, hard-hitting linebacker, returned a couple of weeks ago, so the Patriots best goal-line unit was present to match up against the Colts for the critical plays.
"We have all those big guys in there for those plays," McGinest said. "You have Bobby Hamilton, Richard Seymour and Ted Washington. That's two people right there when you talk about Washington, so we had a little bit of an advantage. We stopped them on four straight plays at the goal line. With the skill people they have, it's hard."
With the lead, Belichick tried running out the clock, but that was a disaster. Kevin Faulk was stripped of the ball by Colts linebacker Marcus Washington after back-to-back running plays. The Colts had to settle for a field goal after the Patriots stuffed them on three offensive plays.
With 3:27 left, Belichick tried four passing plays. The only one that worked involved a 5-yard defensive holding penalty, but the next three pass plays netted minus 3-yards. The Patriots killed only 20 seconds, and Belichick looked like a bad strategist. However, he knew he needed first downs.
"The Colts don't need much time," Belichick said. "Time wasn't going to be a factor in the game. What, if we ran the ball and punted it, they might have had a minute and a half. That's enough time for them. We were trying to make first downs offensively and hang onto the ball."
What Belichick didn't plan was an 18-yard punt by Ken Walter, who might be headed to the waiver wire later this week for short punts. Trailing by four points, Manning had the ball at the Patriots 48 with 2:57 left and two time outs.
"It's kinda funny," Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "The first thing Bill did this week was point out the Cleveland game where the Colts made two goal-line stands to win their opener. He brought up a goal-line situation at the end of the Jacksonville game. The Colts are explosive. Ask Tampa. So you just have to hang in there."
Manning completed three passes and James had three runs to move the Colts to the Patriots 2 with 40 seconds left and no timeouts. To further tire out the Patriots defense, which ended up being on the field for 79 plays compared to 60 for the Patriots offense, Manning worked out of a no-huddle offense.
Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said the McGinest injury break gave the defense a chance to regroup and refocus. Others said it didn't mean much.
Vrabel and Bruschi stopped James at the 1 on first down. Manning called the quick play and Bruschi and Harrison stopped James for no gain. Manning called a time out with 18 seconds left. Knowing he had two plays to work in 18 seconds, Manning called a pass to the left side of the end zone to Aaron Moorehead, who was covered. Incomplete.
Finally, it was fourth down.
McGinest stopped James. The Patriots are now 10-2 and could wrap up the AFC East next Sunday with a win over Miami. One play made all the difference.
"If you are a Patriots fan, you should either have a heart attack by now or have high blood pressure watching our games," Brady said.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.