It was James Sanders, the most experienced member of New England's secondary, who did what Belichick was afraid to let his defense do a year ago in Indianapolis. Sanders picked off what Manning called a "sickening'' pass headed for Pierre Garcon by dropping out of double coverage. It cemented a 31-28 win for the Patriots over Manning and the Colts in what has become an annual contest between non-division opponents -- one the NFL tries to make an instant classic each season by scheduling it during November network sweeps, almost as a separate entity in itself.
The annual Quarterback Bowl. Brady vs. Manning. Available to most of the nation and available for discussion at water coolers everywhere. (Do they have water coolers anymore?)
Last year's game, of course, is still discussed -- that contest was a topic for the Monday night chatterers as recently as last week. That was the game in Indianapolis when Belichick, his team leading 34-28 with two minutes left, went for a fourth-and-2 from his own 28 and failed, Brady's pass coming up just short of the 30 after it was spotted. The New England coach's explanation: He didn't think it made any difference if Manning had to go 70 yards or 30 yards, he was going to put the ball in the end zone.
He went 30 yards that night and, of course, drove the Colts for the winning score in a 35-34 victory.
For the first three-and-a-half quarters Sunday, this game looked like it would never get to that point.
In a showdown that basically was a contest of quarterbacks holding serve, Brady did it much better than Manning. Danny Woodhead's 36-yard run gave New England a 28-14 lead with just over a minute left in the third quarter, and then Shayne Graham hit a 25-yard field goal with 10:23 left to make it 31-14.
With a lot of teams, that would have been game over. Not in Colts-Patriots. Not with Brady and Manning. "I knew we should have finished that drive where we had to kick a field goal,'' Brady said later.
Yup -- 5:47 and two drives later, it was 31-28 as New England's offense got conservative and flattened out, while Indy's sped up, even with all those backups in there. Even the running game got going -- Donald Brown, whose first six carries netted zero yards, ran for 36 on the first drive, on a play that completely fooled the New England defense and was followed by a 5-yard TD pass to Blair White, a practice-squad refugee. A little more than three minutes later, Manning hit White again, this time from 18 yards, to pull within three.
And then Manning drove one more time, to the Patriots 24.
One of three things could have happened: the Colts could have scored a touchdown and won, which is what it looked like would happen; if they stalled, Adam Vinatieri was well within range of a field goal that could sent the game to overtime.
And option three ... well, you really didn't expect a turnover, even though Manning had thrown two interceptions in the first half.
But Manning dropped back and looked to his right, Jermaine Cunningham came charging at him and missed, Manning released the ball toward Pierre Garcon at about the 8-yard-line on the right sideline and Sanders jumped up and intercepted the ball.
"We were going for the win,'' Manning said. "It was a bad throw.
"It was really sickening.''
Sanders, a rare veteran in a young New England secondary, was supposed to be helping linebacker Gary Guyton double-team Jacob Tamme, the Colts' replacement for the injured Dallas Clark at tight end. As he looked into the backfield, he saw Manning look over his head, dropped back, and leaped to corral what Manning acknowledged was a bad throw.
"It happens,'' Sanders said. "It just usually doesn't happen with him.''
This was the 11th game in the last nine seasons between the Colts and Patriots since realignment took both teams out of the AFC East. The Pats won the first four but the Colts had won five of six prior to Sunday, many of them by margins as close as this one and under circumstances that were similar, such as the "go for it'' game last season.
"I really kind of expected another one like this. You always do when you play this team,'' said Belichick, who now must turn the Patriots around for a Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit.
"It wasn't just us. That fellow over on the other side is a pretty good quarterback. You know he's going to make plays on you at some point in the game. You never sit back and think you've got it.''
Watch highlights of the Saints' victory over the Panthers: