The first reflex for Indianapolis Colts fans is going to be a belief in ghosts.

For example, when the mind’s eye turns to Aaron Moorehead’s drop of a crucial fourth-quarter pass with the Colts down by four, you can’t help but conjure a spectral-like vision of a blue-clad No. 88 jersey floating through the middle of the field, his sure hands ready to make his umpteenth clutch catch.

If Marvin Harrison had been able to play, he might have caught the ball, or at least the Colts’ intended receiver would have been higher on the pecking order than Moorehead. Anthony Gonzalez’s first-quarter hand injury didn’t help. He was a ghost too.

There were other ghosts. No Freddy Keiaho and no Tyjuan Hagler at outside linebacker. The Colts played in a nickel and dime defense 90 percent of the time by Colts coach Tony Dungy’s reckoning.

All of these things haunted the Colts against the now 9-0 Patriots, but you can’t believe in ghosts to explain away why the Indianapolis Colts can no longer stake a claim as the NFL’s best team.

Distasteful as it is for Colts fans to admit, you have to believe in the Patriots.

The bottom line is the Colts let a 10-point lead slip at home in the matter of just over six fourth-quarter minutes, including a demoralizing 43-second drive by the Patriots for their go-ahead touchdown. That lack of execution can’t be put only on missing players.

“It would have been great to have Marvin out there, but they were missing some guys too. We had our chances. We scored enough to get up 10 points and you got to be able to clamp down and win,” Dungy said.

The Patriots’ execution was sharpest when it mattered most. The 10-point deficit and hostile crowd just added to the degree of difficulty.

Tom Brady? He had a ho-hum 97 passing yards at the end of the third quarter. Then he embodied why he gets the hype as he threw for 155 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

Randy Moss? Brady threw to Moss on six straight plays when the Patriots were down by 10, the fourth throw being a 55-yard reception that set up a Wes Welker touchdown to get the Patriots back in it.

The Patriots’ defense? For the most part, their defense played well all day. But holding the Colts to drives of 16 and 25 yards, with one first down per drive and a turnover, in the Colts’ final two possessions was the cherry on the sundae. The Colts didn’t help themselves as they had as many holding and false-start penalties as first downs in their final two series.

“This was the first time we were really in a ballgame late, and I’m real proud of the way the guys responded when we were down. There was never really any loss of confidence or determination,” Brady said.

Unlike last season’s AFC Championship Game, there were no similar performances from the Colts.

Culpability for the Colts is weighted toward the offense. The die was cast early when the Colts could manage only six points out of two trips inside the New England 10-yard line. Dungy also didn’t challenge Gonzalez’s first-quarter drop in the end zone. Dungy said after the game he didn’t think it was a catch, but in retrospect, it might have been worth a challenge to make sure.

“Anytime you’re in the red zone you want to score touchdowns. Field goals don’t do it, especially against championship-caliber teams,” Colts center Jeff Saturday said. “We have to go back and see why we didn’t put it in. Most of it, we probably did ourselves.”

The only offensive player who could be said to compensate for Harrison’s absence was Joseph Addai. He had the first 100-yard rushing and receiving game in Colts history. He reached the end zone on a 73-yard touchdown catch just before halftime almost solely due to his field vision and intuition.

But precious few other Colts picked up the slack, and even Addai wasn’t much of a factor late. The Patriots kept Dallas Clark completely under wraps. Reggie Wayne had 62 receiving yards, but few of them were game-changing, though a second-half drop he had which would have put the Colts in scoring position was. Whether Manning suffered because of these off-days can be debated, but the offense did seem conservative.

None of this means the Colts can’t beat the Patriots if they play again. The problem for the Colts now is if they do meet again, it’s likely to be in the cold of Foxborough in an AFC playoff game that will be every bit the cauldron the RCA Dome was.

That scenario is scarier than any perceived ghost that haunted the Colts on Sunday.



Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at todd.golden@tribstar.com or (812) 231-4272.

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