The New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts both had 9-2 records as they faced off on November 30, 2003. The Patriots, after getting off to a 2-2 start, had won seven straight contests. Under the leadership of Head Coach Bill Belichick, they were a deep and cohesive team on both sides of the ball. While the running backs were average and the receiving corps contained no elite performers, QB Tom Brady (pictured above), in his third season as the starting quarterback, had already established himself as one of the league’s best. The tough defense was strongest at linebacker and the backfield.
Indianapolis, coached by Tony Dungy, also had an outstanding talent at quarterback in Peyton Manning, now in his sixth season. In addition, the Colts had RB Edgerrin James and WR Marvin Harrison, who were among the NFL’s best at their positions. Manning and Brady had faced off twice thus far since 2001, with the Patriots coming away as winners in both instances.
There were 57,102 fans in attendance at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. The Patriots had first possession and went 50 yards in 11 plays. Tom Brady completed five passes and Adam Vinatieri capped the drive with a 43-yard field goal. The first series for the Colts ended when Peyton Manning fumbled and DT Dan Klecko recovered at the Indianapolis 36. The Patriots made the most of the break as Brady completed another four throws, the longest to RB Kevin Faulk for 16 yards, and RB Michael Cloud ran the last four yards for a touchdown. With Vinatieri’s extra point, the New England lead was up to 10-0.
The Colts went three-and-out on their next possession and, following the punt, the Patriots put together another scoring drive as the game moved into the second quarter. This time they went 73 yards in nine plays that ended with Brady throwing to WR Dedric Ward for a 31-yard TD.
Down by 17-0, the Colts responded with a 10-play, 53-yard series. Manning completed four passes, including one to WR Marvin Harrison for 20 yards, and Mike Vanderjagt kicked a 40-yard field goal to get the home team on the board.
The Patriots reached the Indianapolis 40 before being forced to punt, and the Colts, taking over at their 14, proceeded to drive 86 yards in 11 plays. Manning converted a third-and-10 situation with a pass to Edgerrin James that gained 17 yards and, following the two minute warning, James carried for 20 yards to the New England 31. Manning had back-to-back completions to Harrison for nine yards and WR Troy Walters for 15 and, three plays later, he connected with TE Marcus Pollard for an eight-yard touchdown.
Vanderjagt’s PAT made it a seven-point game with 12 seconds remaining in the half, but on the ensuing kickoff the Colts chose to kick away rather than squib it, and WR Bethel Johnson (pictured at left) went 92 yards for a TD. New England took a 24-10 lead into halftime.
The Colts had the ball first in the third quarter and punted. The Patriots responded with a long drive that covered 61 yards in 11 plays. Brady completed another four passes, one to Ward for 19 yards while facing third-and-14, and the visitors also recovered two of their own fumbles along the way. Cloud ran one yard for a touchdown and, with Vinatieri converting, New England’s margin was up to a commanding 31-10.
It didn’t get any better for the Colts when a Manning pass was intercepted by CB Tyrone Poole, but two plays later CB Donald Strickland picked off a Brady throw and returned it 24 yards to the Indianapolis 42. It seemed to turn the tide as the Colts advanced 58 yards in nine plays. James ran effectively and, facing fourth-and-nine, Manning connected with WR Reggie Wayne for a 13-yard TD. Vanderjagt added the extra point.
The Colts got the ball back shortly thereafter on another interception, this time by CB Nick Harper in New England territory, and Manning immediately threw to Harrison for a 26-yard touchdown. In stunning fashion, the home team was only down by 31-24 as the game headed into the fourth quarter.
The Patriots punted following their next series, and the Colts proceeded to drive 70 yards in nine plays. Manning completed four passes, the last to Walters for a six-yard TD and, with Vanderjagt’s kick, the game was tied at 31-31.
The Patriots had been quiet on offense during the Indianapolis comeback, but now they benefited from a 67-yard kickoff return by Johnson to get excellent field position at the Colts’ 31. Brady threw twice to WR David Givens for 18 yards and, two plays later, he connected with WR Deion Branch for a 13-yard touchdown. Adding the extra point, New England was back on top by seven points.
The Colts drove just past midfield on their next possession but had to punt. They got the ball back three plays later when Faulk fumbled and DE Raheem Brock recovered at the New England 11. Manning threw three incomplete passes and Vanderjagt kicked a 29-yard field goal to make it a four-point game with 3:27 to go.
The Patriots were only able to run off a little time on their next possession before punting, and the kick by Ken Walter went just 18 yards. The Colts started off at the 50 and Manning tossed passes to James for five yards and Wayne for 13. RB Dominic Rhodes ran for nine yards before the two minute warning. After James ran for three yards, Manning threw to Harrison for nine yards to get inside the 10 and James ran for seven yards to give Indianapolis a first and goal at the two yard line.
The Colts were without TE Dallas Clark, FB Detron Smith, and RB James Mungro, their short-yardage specialist, all lost to injuries, and their absence became more apparent as Indianapolis sought to reach the end zone from down close. James gained a yard but then was stopped for no gain on second down. Manning went to the air on third down to no avail. James carried once more on first down and again came up short as LB Willie McGinest, who had earlier twisted his knee, blew into the backfield to make the stop (pictured below). The Patriots had held on to win by a final score of 38-34.
The Colts led New England in total yards (370 to 282) and first downs (26 to 21). The Patriots turned the ball over three times, to two suffered by Indianapolis. They also benefited from two kickoff returns that generated 159 yards and one direct score while setting up another TD.
Tom Brady completed 26 of 35 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns along with two interceptions. Deion Branch had 6 catches for 64 yards and a TD while Kevin Faulk contributed 5 pass receptions for 36 yards to go along with his 42 rushing yards on 15 carries. Bethel Johnson had the key kickoff returns and overall averaged 38.4 yards on his five runbacks.
For the Colts, Peyton Manning was successful on 29 of 48 throws for 278 yards and four TDs while tossing one interception. Edgerrin James ran for 88 yards on 25 attempts and caught 8 passes for 50 more yards. Marvin Harrison gained 88 yards on his 7 catches that included a touchdown.
The Patriots kept winning the rest of the way, finishing the regular season on top of the AFC East with the NFL’s best record at 14-2. Indianapolis lost once more to end up first in the AFC North with a 12-4 tally. The teams faced off for the AFC Championship and New England again came away the winner before moving on to defeat Carolina in the Super Bowl for a second NFL title in three years.