Patriots stay perfect but they aren't happy
The Patriots are 9-0 and have just won the NFL's biggest regular-season game. So why aren't they happy?
INDIANAPOLIS -- The New England Patriots' record remains perfect.
That's not good enough.
Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the rest of the Patriots have won three Super Bowl rings. They've been to the top of the mountain -- and on Sunday, they rallied from 10 points down in the final nine minutes to beat the Colts 24-20 in the battle of unbeatens.
Yet in listening to the Patriots after the game, you would've thought they were in the valley of despair. Maybe their feelings were justified. After all, Brady threw two interceptions. The team was penalized 10 times for 146 yards. The secondary let Colts halfback Joseph Addai slip through for a 73-yard touchdown on a simple checkdown play before halftime. The Patriots did not crush the Colts the way they had their previous eight opponents, which they beat by an average margin of more than 25 points.
"I think I could pick about 20 plays of our weaknesses coming out of this game," Brady said in the aftermath of Sunday's victory. "The thing is, we are 9-0 and it doesn't really matter. It just doesn't matter. None of this matters until January. I think it was a great step in our preparation. We've got seven games to get better."
Then Brady made the strangest statement of all.
"Our goal is to win the AFC East," Brady said. "Being 9-0, hey, I'm as happy as anybody. But it doesn't mean anything. Our goal isn't to be 9-0, I promise you."
Talk about a team that reflects the personality of its coach. Belichick is a perfectionist in an imperfect sport. If he were a baseball manager, he wouldn't be happy with the pitch count on a perfect no-hitter.
It's that type of coaching and that type of player accountability that might prevent the 1972 Dolphins from ever popping champagne corks again. The Patriots are 9-0 and not feeling good about themselves.
In other words, they're still not satisfied.
They certainly weren't satisfied with 9:42 left in Sunday's game when they trailed 20-10. All week in practice, Belichick kept stressing that you can't beat the Colts unless you play 60 minutes of football. At that point in the fourth quarter, the Pats probably had played 30 good minutes. They needed a rally, and Brady -- as always -- was the perfect person to lead them.
In January, the Patriots blew a 21-3 first-half lead in the AFC title game because Brady didn't have enough weapons. Other than Troy Brown, Brady lacked a receiver he could count on.
Now, he has Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth. More to the point, Moss is now his go-to guy. Down 10 points and in a desperate situation, Brady featured Moss and got the offense going, throwing to Moss on six consecutive plays and on just about every route possible.
The Colts were in their patented Tony Dungy Cover 2 defense. Two of the first three short attempts didn't work. Brady misfired on first down, and Moss came up short reaching across the middle of the field on a crossing pattern. Between those plays, Moss had a 15-yard reception.
On second-and-10 from the New England 42, Brady sent Moss down the seam on a long pass on the left side of the field. Daunte Culpepper made a living of doing the same thing with Moss years ago in Minnesota, sending the 6-4 receiver downfield against shorter defensive backs and letting him either outrun or outjump them.
The play still works, as Moss came up with a 55-yard completion at the Colts' 3-yard line. Three plays later, Brady hit Welker with a 3-yard touchdown pass to cut the Colts' lead to 20-17.
"The stress of their defense was in the middle of the field and on the deep outside," Stallworth said. "Randy is a great player. He's going to make those catches all the time."
Moss is the perfect receiver for the quarterback who feels imperfect. He turns bad throws into good ones and good throws into great ones. The Colts' defense played well, but Moss burned Indy for nine catches for 145 yards and a touchdown. For the season, he has 56 catches for 924 yards and 12 touchdowns.
"He's a great player," Brady said of Moss. "I think everything that's been written about him is the complete opposite. He's a great teammate. He's a great player. He's very coachable. He's very selfless. He's a great worker. He leads by example."
Earlier in the game, Moss made an incredible one-handed catch no other player in the league could've made. Had Moss been a member of the Patriots last season instead of a bored and losing member of the Raiders, Brady might have four Super Bowl rings and be angling for a fifth.
The Patriots' defense stopped Peyton Manning on the next possession after Welker's TD. A 23-yard Welker punt return gave Brady the ball at the 49. Brady then hit Moss for a 5-yard completion. He found Stallworth down the left sideline for 33 yards. Then he hit Kevin Faulk in the middle of the field for a 13-yard touchdown pass for the lead with 3:15 remaining in the fourth quarter.
"It was crunch time, and it was a time we needed to do something to get ahead," Patriots tight end Kyle Brady said. "Obviously, having a guy like Randy out there to throw it up there helps. Randy is a very gifted player. It's pretty obvious how quickly [Tom Brady and Moss] have developed chemistry together. Randy is such a big, rangy guy. Their defensive backs aren't tall guys. I think Tom felt confident enough to make a play, particularly the longer ball."
Kyle Brady said that Tom Brady and a few other offensive players were going up and down the sideline when the Patriots were down 10, saying, "It's a 60-minute game, it's a 60-minute game." That was the mantra. Although the Patriots were down by 10 points, they had time to atone for their mistakes.
"You have to play 60 minutes against the Colts," Belichick said. "They are tough and make you work for everything, but I thought our guys stepped up and made some plays, especially in the second half when we needed to score."
Still, Belichick wasn't happy. He'll break down the game tape and point out the mistakes Monday morning, and his players know the bye week ahead won't be completely pleasant. They made mental blunders. They can improve.
"I know Bill is going be up tonight cooking up a lot of humble pie," Stallworth said. "There's a lot of pie that's going to go around tomorrow."
Humble pie is what Belichick serves for the mistakes.
"I thought overall that we played competitively on defense," Belichick said. "We had some bad plays, obviously, out there, a couple of long pass interferences, a 73-yard touchdown on a checkdown. So I think that we can do a better job of coaching to get some things straightened out."
Belichick used a four-man defensive line and a nickel pass defense to counter Manning, limiting him to 210 passing yards and only one touchdown pass. Safety Rodney Harrison played nickel linebacker, intercepted a pass and limited Dallas Clark to 15 yards on two catches. Most coaches would rejoice.
This coach looks at the 112 rushing and 114 passing yards given up to Addai. He'll be perfectly miserable watching the tape. But the Patriots are perfectly set heading into the bye week.
They have the NFL's best -- and only perfect -- record whether they like it or not.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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