FOXBORO, Mass. In a game in which the offenses seemed to move at will, defense saved the New England Patriots.
The Super Bowl champions moved within three wins of setting the NFL record for consecutive victories Thursday night with a 27-24 win over Indianapolis.
Tom Brady was uncannily accurate as usual, throwing for 335 yards and three touchdowns, but that wouldn't have been enough if not for two big plays by a defense that had been pushed around all night.
The biggest was the last a 13-yard sack by Willie McGinest on Peyton Manning that forced Mike Vanderjagt to attempt a potential game-tying field goal from 48 yards. It went wide right, the first miss by Vanderjagt after 42 successes.
''Willie always seems to be there when we need him,'' coach Bill Belichick said of the 32-year-old linebacker, who last year stopped Edgerrin James on fourth-and-1 in Indianapolis to preserve a 38-34 win.
The win was the 16th straight for New England, including the last 12 regular-season games plus two playoff games and the Super Bowl last season. That puts the Patriots two short of the NFL record of 18 set by five teams, most recently Denver in 1997-98, with games at Arizona, at Buffalo after a bye and Miami at home coming up.
Brady was 26-of-38 for 335 yards and three touchdowns one each to Deion Branch, David Patten and Daniel Graham. Corey Dillon, obtained from Cincinnati to revive the Super Bowl champions' running game, carried 16 times for 86 yards.
But the Patriots' defense bailed them out after a horrible first half, although the 446 yards they allowed were more than they gave up in any game last year.
Three times they stopped the Colts after turnovers, the second time after Branch fumbled a punt and Asante Samuel was called for pass interference to put the ball at the 1. But Eugene Wilson knocked the ball loose from James and rookie Vince Wilfork recovered with 3 minutes, 43 seconds left, avoiding what looked like a sure touchdown.
Then came the sack, enough to win but not to satisfy the New England defenders.
''We can do a lot better and we are going to do a lot better,'' McGinest said. ''When the offense get 27 points, it shouldn't be that close.''
That was evident from the yardage, especially on the ground. The Colts rushed for 202 yards, 142 on 30 carries by James. Manning was 16-of-29 for 259 yards.
Brady suggested that Vanderjagt's miss may have been caused by swirling winds.
But that meant nothing to the Colts' kicker.
''When you crash, you crash and burn,'' he said. ''I blame it on no one but myself.''
This game was a repeat of last season's AFC championship, a toughly played 24-14 New England win that spurred the NFL to tighten up on holding and bumping by defensive backs.
But the first flag on a defensive back didn't come until four minutes into the third quarter, when the Colts' David Thornton was called for holding one play before Brady hit Patten for a 25-yard TD to give New England a 20-17 lead.
The Colts led 17-13 at halftime and it could have been more if not for another big play by the New England defense, Tedy Bruschi's interception of Manning's pass with the Colts at the New England 6 on their first possession.
That was eerily like last season's title game, when Rodney Harrison did that to Manning from the 1 on the first series.
Adam Vinatieri's 32-yard field goal gave the Patriots a 3-0 lead on their first possession, but Vangerjagt equalized it with one from the same distance.
The next Indy drive was a stunner 66 yards in nine plays, all of them runs and most of them up the middle. The score came on a 3-yard run by Dominic Rhodes.
Back came the Patriots, scoring on Brady's 16-yard pass to Branch. Manning's 3-yard TD pass to Marvin Harrison made it 17-10 and Vinatieri made it 17-13 at intermission.
New England seemed to take control in the third quarter when the defense stiffened and Brady threw TD passes of 25 yards to David Patten and 8 yards to Daniel Graham.
Manning came back with an 8-yarder to Brandon Stokley to cut it to three points 3:55 into the final period.
Then Branch fumbled a punt, giving the Colts the ball at the New England 33. But Samuel forced the fumble to stop that drive and then came McGinest's play.
''We did a good job in a lot of areas, but when you're not fundamentally sound, it's disappointing,'' coach Tony Dungy said. ''They stopped us a couple of times but basically we were moving up and down the field.'' NOTES: Dungy challenged a call on a fumble by James in the third period, his first challenge since 2002. He lost it. ... Manning went over 25,000 yards passing for his career in his 95th game, the second fastest to that mark. The only one quicker was Dan Marino, who got there in 92 games. ... Dungy's wife was hospitalized in Indianapolis on Thursday but the coach said she was fine. ''She is doing a lot better than we are right now,'' he said. ... Brady, who did not throw an interception in eight regular-season home games last season, was picked off by Nick Harper in the fourth quarter. It was his first interception since 2002.
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