Monday, January 13, 2014

New England Patriots on Film: Lady Luck, Andrew Luck (no relation) and the Ghost save Pats' bacon in first half

When the football flew over Ryan Allen's head, time stood still.

Eyes fixated, no exhaling - Long snapper Danny Aiken's play this season has been flawless, solid to the point that Patriots' fans were lamenting the fact that their team couldn't pick up a first down at midfield with a little over two minutes remaining in the first half...
Indy's Pendleton (61) couldn't handle the ball, denying the Colts a TD

...not even pondering that a routine play, a connection that Aiken and Allen had made without issue 76 times in the regular season, would prove to be a pivotal play in the Divisional round playoff game between the Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts.

The ball sailed so far over Allen's head that he hardly made an effort to jump for it, instead turning and running after the ball, which had hit the ground and was now skittering toward the end zone - the Colts' punt return unit in hot pursuit.  Allen fielded the ball cleanly at the Patriots' two yard line and turned his focus upfield, looking for a way to get the ball as far away from the end zone as he could.

Out of the corner of his eye, Allen spotted teammate Tavon Wilson, who was trying to keep a trio of Colts' defenders from reaching the rookie punter, and attempted to lateral the ball to the reserve safety - but the ball never got there, Colts' linebacker Kelvin Sheppard blowing up the attempt by nailing Allen squarely in the chest, defensive tackle Jeris Pendleton reaching for the ball that was suspended in mid-air...

Of course, Pendleton never did get a grip on the ball, his forward momentum causing him to strike the ball instead, slapping it cleanly through the back of the end zone - thus starting a series of plays that ultimately helped the New England Patriots beat the Colts on Saturday night in rainy Foxborough.

What Allen should have done was to kick the ball through the back of the end zone - which is where the ball ended up anyway, fortunately for the Patriots - and the Colts were awarded a safety on a play that could have very well ended up as a touchdown instead.

Leading 21-10 at the time and with 2:28 remaining in the first half, the Patriots had a 4th and 2 at their own 48 and were content to punt the ball and try to pin the Colts deep in their own territory - and why not?  The defense had been playing well and the Patriots had the ball first to open the second half, just stop the Colts on a long field and get into the locker room with an 11 point lead.

But instead it was now 21-12 and, by rule, the Colts would get the ball after Allen's free kick from the 20 yard line - which he boomed nearly 70 yards, but came off the field in pain, grasping his right shoulder, the result of getting steamrolled on the punt that went awry.

Allen was taken immediately to the locker room, missing Colts' quarterback Andrew Luck trying to hit receiver LaVonn Brazill on a deep pass that was nearly picked off by Alfonzo Dennard, and the short pass over the middle that was intercepted by linebacker Donta' Hightower, ending a promising-looking Colts' drive that seemed destined for 3 points at the very least...

"Ghost" scared up a great punt the Patriots decent field position on their own 36 with over a minute left to play in the half - but two straight running plays yielded but four yards, and between the Colts stopping the clock and Shane Vereen dropping a sure first down on a wheel route down the left sideline, the Patriots were forced to have to punt the ball back to the Colts with just under a minute left.

Which was an issue, given that, with Allen in the locker room, the Patriots were fresh out of punters.

In the past, Patriots fans have seen quarterback Tom Brady quick-kick for 30 or so yards, but there was no way that coach Bill Belichick was going to expose his franchise quarterback to what figured to be an all-out Colts' rush, so he instead sent place kicker Stephen Gostkowski out to field the snap from Aiken...

...this one on the money and Gostkowski nailed it for 53 yards, Colt's returner Griff Whalen unable to get much of a return due to the remarkable height on Gostkowski's boot and special team's demon Matt Slater's excellent coverage - forcing the Colts to play it safe and run the clock out, preserving New England's nine-point cushion going into the intermission that could have been much smaller...

Up next: Part 2 - Running to daylight

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