Home > NFL > Aftermath: Was Pats-Colts the Greatest NFL Game Ever Played?

Aftermath: Was Pats-Colts the Greatest NFL Game Ever Played?

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Hyperbole warning:  Yes.  Yes, it was.

Peyton Manning has done some pretty amazing things in his illustrious career, but the way that the Colts beat the Patriots to remain undefeated at 9-0 and all but end any chance of having to go to New England in January is the greatest single-game accomplishment of his career, bar-none.

Consider: according to the win probability model created by Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats, the Patriots had a 98% probability of victory after Stephen Gostkowski’s FG put them up by 13 points with 4 minutes and 22 seconds remaining in the 4th quarter.

Manning’s most impressive feat of the day was the drive that ensued from that point of near certain doom.  Keep in mind: the Pats didn’t have to keep Manning out of the end zone, they just had to keep everything he threw inside of ten yards and make the tackles in bounds.  In the NFL, an 80 yard TD drive in three minutes or fewer is an astounding feat of precision and accuracy, if the defense doesn’t make a critical breakdown in coverage.  Had Manning taken three minutes to score, the balance of this game would have come down to a completely expected onside kick.  Manning had less than two minutes to get the Colts 80 yards down the field against a defense that had won the battles most of the day, and the Patriots’ biggest mistake was drawing a flag for pass interference on a 15-20 yard pass over the middle.

And yet, Manning’s incomprehensible precision left the Colts with roughly a 14% chance of actually coming away with the win.  It allowed the Colts to kick the ball deep, but even one Patriots first down would have ended the game, and the Pats put up 34 points on the Colts D without a whole lot of effort.

And after 3 Patriots plays gained only 8 yards, leaving Bill Belichick with an obvious punting situation by conservative NFL standards, his ballsy (and correct) move to go for the first down on fourth and two from his own 28 yard line turned a great showdown between the two teams of the decade into an instant classic.

Here’s why Belichick’s decision was so excellent.  With the failed fourth down conversion, the Patriots lost roughly 11% of WP.  Burke’s model suggests that an average team with a 4th and 2 punting situation up by 6 with 2 minutes to go has a 77% chance of victory, by virtue of the Colts preventing a first down.  By choosing to punt, that probability of victory stays at 77%.

If the Patriots had converted for TWO YARDS, which is (conservatively) a two-thirds if not three-quarters chance for the Pats offense, the Patriots win better than 98% of the time.  But by risking a turnover on downs, the Patriots win percentage probability dropped all the way…to 66%.

Momentum aside, the Patriots are still a heavy favorite to win the game, even after giving the Manning the football with thirty yards to go to win the game.  Manning’s greatness was obviously apparent from that point forward: he not only made the Pats D a complete non-factor for the rest of the drive, but he did it while leaving Tom Brady with all of :13 seconds to respond.  In the final 0:30 of this game, Peyton Manning matched his unmatched clock management abilities with his trademark precision accuracy with his game-clinching pass to Reggie Wayne.

The greatest quarterback to ever play the game beat Tom Brady on his home field after every Colts fan in the building had resigned themselves to a possible playoff re-match.  In those final four minutes, only one thing needed to go wrong for the Colts for me to call it a game and change the channel, but Manning simply never missed a single opportunity.

Brady, Belichick, and the rest of the Patriots organization have nothing to be ashamed of in this loss.  They were simply beaten by a more powerful force.  When it came down to a final, last gasp chance for the Colts, Peyton Manning out-quarterbacked Brady, out-managed Belichick, and got an outstanding stand from a defense made up nearly entirely of Bill Polian-picked undrafted free agents.  While it’s often brought up that Manning was the first overall pick, and Tom Brady was a sixth rounder, it’s rarely mentioned that the Patriots are a team of first round picks, while the Colts had to match-up with players who weren’t standouts on their own college teams.

The Colts are a team full of Tom Brady-types, but there’s only one Peyton Manning in this universe, and he wore Colts-blue on Sunday night, delivering a performance that may never be duplicated again in professional football.

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  1. January 2, 2010 at 9:37 pm

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