EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 24, 2007

By the end, Patriots were running on empty

Bill Burt

I've been taking notes the last few days since returning from the Hartford of mid-America, Indianapolis.

From what I'm hearing, there were a few plays that probably turned the game in the Indianapolis Colts' favor.

1) The offensive interference on Troy Brown, who shoved a Colts defensive back, nullifying a first down by Ben Watson at the Colts' 19. The play negated a possible touchdown for an insurmountable 28-3 lead, or at worst a field goal for a 24-3 advantage. The penalty was followed by an illegal formation penalty and then a sack, forcing the Patriots to punt.

2) The interference call on Ellis Hobbs (more on this later), who was covering Reggie Wayne in the end zone. Instead of being incomplete and third-and-7 from the Pats' 19, the ball was placed on the 1-yard line. The Colts immediately scored on a pass to Dan Klecko, tying the score at 21-21 after the two-point conversion.

3) The fact that Tom Brady saw wide receiver Reche Caldwell too late while he was all alone on the right AND Caldwell dropped what could have been an easy touchdown pass. Instead, the Patriots got only a field goal to go ahead, 31-28.

4) The third-and-4 pass Brady threw to Brown on the Pats' second-to-last possession, which was knocked away by Colts safety Bob Sanders. A completion there and the Patriots would have been able to run out the clock.

You could add in as potential game-turners the injuries before the game - like to Rodney Harrison - the guys who suffered from the flu late last week and those injuries during the game to Richard Seymour and Rosevelt Colvin.

If any of the above went in the Patriots' favor, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana would be next on New England's hit list in the record books.

But they didn't, so the Steel Curtain and those guys are safe, for now.

But wasn't the bigger issue - the one nobody is talking about - that the Patriots couldn't run the ball?

For most of this season, especially in San Diego, the Patriots were able to abandon their game plan, which often included rushing the football more than they passed it. That's because of Brady. He could handle it. So could his offensive linemen, who really were the underrated aspect of this team (they earned A's for their protection of Brady the entire season).



Brady is great, but great players need help, too. And the running attack never came through as expected.

You could argue they got the most out of Corey Dillon, who rushed for 13 regular-season touchdowns. Unfortunately, he is on his last legs.

Laurence Maroney, though, is another story. In three playoff games, he tallied only 87 yards on 31 carries. On Sunday, five of his eight rushes were for losses.

And worse, Dillon and Maroney combined for three running plays in the second half. The week before against San Diego, it was the same thing, three running plays in the second half.

Do you remember the Super Bowl seasons in 2001, 2003 and 2004? It was the one thing Antowain Smith and a younger Corey Dillon were able to do. That's pound the ball in the second half, especially with a lead.

But not against the worst run defense "ever" in pro football. The Colts allowed an NFL worst 173 yards per game in the regular season with a 5.3-yard average that was the worst in the NFL since 1961.

Rumors are circulating that Maroney's injury against Detroit in early December was to his ribs, and they still may be hurting.

It all came to a head on the Patriots' second-to-last drive, when they needed only a first down with 3:22 remaining. Usually, that's done on the ground, to run the clock out and win the game.

Brady threw three passes, two shorties and one that was knocked away on third down by Sanders.

It would have been remarkable, a team with no running attack to speak of, especially when it counted most, making it to the Super Bowl.

...

If anyone was wondering about the interference penalty called in the end zone on Hobbs while covering Wayne, eventually giving the Colts an easy game-tying touchdown from the 1-yard line a play later, it was not "face guarding."

That is no longer a rule in the NFL. The call had to be that Hobbs made contact with Wayne in the end zone.

A defender can guard the ball without looking at it. He just can't make contact.

Interestingly, here's what Hobbs said after the game.

"I didn't touch him. ... I didn't touch him," said Hobbs. "That's all I'm going to say because I don't want to get fined."

...

You pretty much can count on Asante Samuel returning to the Patriots next season.



Despite his pleas to "Get Paid" (it is tattooed on his arm), a source close to the Patriots has intimated the team will not let him walk away as a free agent, thus putting the "franchise tag" on him.

The team was not thrilled with a story in a Boston newspaper before its playoff game with the Jets in which Samuel was basically demanding a big contract.

By franchising Samuel, that means the Patriots would probably have to pay him about $7 million in 2007, which will be the average of the top five cornerbacks. If that were to happen, Samuel would be an unrestricted free agent in 2008.

...

An interesting note regarding yesterday's announcement that the Oakland Raiders hired Lane Kiffin, a University of Southern California assistant coach, to be the team's head coach.

Kiffin was born on May 5, 1975, which makes him 31.

Belichick just finished his 31st year in the NFL, getting his start in May 1975 with the Detroit Lions.

You think Kiffin has some catching up to do?

Bill Burt is executive sports editor of Eagle-Tribune Publishing. E-mail him at bburt@eagletribune.com.