INDIANAPOLIS -- The bullies got bloodied.
For much of this heavyweight match that lived up to every inch of its incredible hype, they took many more punches than they delivered. They caught a couple of shots that left them a little dazed and staggered and looking anything like the big, bad monster that had ravaged eight opponents while barely breaking a sweat. Heck, there were even times when they seemed downright vulnerable.
In the end, however, the bullies showed us, once again, who's in charge.
New England 24, Indianapolis 20.
You're inclined to look at the score and wonder if there's something suddenly wrong with the 9-0 Patriots. What, no blowout? No 30-plus, 40-plus, 50-plus points? No accusations of running up the score?
No. For the first time this season, the Patriots actually found themselves in a legitimate game, the kind the best team they have faced all year figured to be able to give them in the ultra-noisy RCA Dome. Joseph Addai trampled them for 112 rushing yards and caught five passes for 114 more yards, including what began as a two-yard play that turned into a 73-yard touchdown after he broke three tackles. And guess what? The Patriots did the same thing they always do. They made spectacular plays on offense and forced a couple of turnovers on defense. They did exactly what they needed to do to win. It might not have been anywhere near as awe-inspiring as their previous outings, but it got the job done.
"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," Tom Brady said of the fact the Patriots trailed by as many as 10 points in the fourth quarter. "There was never really any loss of confidence or determination, and we're going to need that for the next seven games."
Maybe they will. Maybe they won't.
For all we know, the Patriots might not find themselves in another game like this until they meet the Colts again, which likely will be in another AFC Championship Game. That was the last time the clubs had met before today, also in the RCA Dome, and the bitterness of blowing an 18-point lead on the way to a 38-34 loss drove the Patriots to load up with enough talent (especially on offense) to do what they're doing.
Of course, the Patriots would have no part of the discussion about their victory over the Colts making some sort of statement or providing the most tangible evidence to date of just how good they really are. They will leave that to those of us who write and talk about football for a living. They'll just play the game ... and do so better than everyone else.
"They are a good team," coach Bill Belichick said in his typical, monotone, barely-showing-a-pulse manner. "They are a good defensive football team."
You nailed that, Bill. The Colts were good enough to intercept Brady twice, which were two more times than he had been intercepted in his first eight games. They were good enough to prevent the Patriots from scoring on their opening drive for the first time this season. They were good enough to hold New England to a season-low point total.
Peyton Manning, while making an uncharacteristically foolish attempt to throw while in the grasp of Jarvis Green, fumbled on the next series. And on third-and-6 from the Indianapolis 42-yard line, with 2:13 on the clock, Brady delivered the knockout punch. He threw a high-risk, outside pass, to Welker for a 10-yard gain. Welker had the presence of mind to stay in bounds and keep the clock winding down to the two-minute warning.
First down. Game over.
"It certainly wasn't our best game today," Brady said. "There were a bunch of things that didn't go the way we planned it. A lot of that was (because of) great defense, and I've got to give that to the Colts. And some of it was bad play by our offense, and we've got to find ways to improve that."
The Patriots have a bye to ponder whatever they need to fix, which doesn't seem to be nearly as much as Brady suggested. The rest of us will ponder the possibility of the NFL's lone unbeaten team making a serious run at perfection, taking a piece of the history that remains the sole property of the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
Still, a perfect regular season is not what the Patriots are after. Once they wrap up another division title and home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs, they might very well rest their starters for the final two or three games of the schedule.
"We're 9-0, and it really doesn't matter," Brady said. "It matters in January. That's when it matters. Our goal is to win the AFC East and put ourselves in the best position in the playoffs. Hey, I'm as happy about 9-0 as anybody, but it doesn't mean anything.
"Our goal wasn't to be 9-0. We've got a lot of great goals."
If one of them is to go down as the greatest team in NFL history, the Patriots should feel pretty good about their chances of achieving it.