Whatever the case, a Dave Thomas personal foul, worthy of a 15-yard penalty, turned a potential winning drive for the New England Patriots into a fruitless ending in an 18-15 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
"I thought overall we played a good football game but came up a couple plays short," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "I thought we played very well in all areas and just came up a few plays short."
It's unfortunate to put the blame on Thomas, whose three catches for 29 yards often helped keep drives alive. And it's hard to say Thomas cost the Patriots more statistically than, say, a wide-open Jabar Gaffney, who let a go-ahead touchdown pass from Matt Cassel slip through his hands.
But the NFL is a hard, unfortunate league, and watching the game, there's no doubt that Thomas's penalty took more wind out of the Patriots sails than any play during it.
To set the scene, the Patriots were driving down the field, trailing by three in the final minutes, but in excellent position to at least tie the game with a field goal, especially after a BenJarvis Green-Ellis run made it 3rd-and-1 at the Indianapolis 31.
But a yellow flag flew. Thomas was caught making a late hit after the whistles had blown, pushing the ball back to a 3rd-and-16 from the Colt 46. The drive stalled, Indy wore down the clock, game over.
Thomas gave a mea culpa after the game, albeit saying he thought the play was still going on, but the damage had been done. Scoring position had never melted into fourth-down desperation so fast.
Thomas made a mistake, but it wasn't the only mistake of the game. Gaffney dropped the touchdown pass. Cassel, a solid 25-of-34 for 204 yards with a last-chance interception, missed an opportunity for another touchdown when he didn't see Randy Moss streaking down the sideline, arm raised, in single coverage.
Then there was the coach. Some of Belichick's decisions backfired, the biggest of which was a lost challenge where he thought Indianapolis had too many men on the field. Even a win wouldn't have helped the Patriots out too much. As it was, the loss deprived New England of a timeout, a timeout the Pats could have used in the last minute trying desperately to get into field goal range.
Plenty of positives emerged from the game. The often-criticized defense kept the vaunted Colts offense limited with the exception of two major drives, even while continuing to work with a revolving door at the cornerback position (This week's victim was rookie Terrence Wheatley, who appeared to hurt his wrist making a lunging pass deflection). The offense was in position to tie, or even win the game in the final minutes. And it's important to remember that even now, New England is tied for first in the AFC East.
But the facts are the facts. The Patriots had a chance to KO their biggest rival, knocking it out of the game and, possibly, season as well. The chance slipped right through their hands.
At 4-4, the Colts are still alive. That's a scary thought for the rest of the AFC.