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Pats' defense laments one that got away

A stunned New England Patriots team could do little but give Peyton Manning his due after losing Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

"I told him congratulations and good luck after the game," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said of Manning. "He's a great competitor. He's always fought out there. I'm out there playing against him every time we play, and he's got his heart and soul out there on the field. So I just wanted to wish him congratulations and good luck in the Super Bowl."

"In the second half they came out and played some great football," Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. "They ran the ball. They threw the ball. They play-actioned us and they moved it up and down the field. Manning played great. We played our hearts out. That's all you can ask."

The Patriots (14-5) failed in their bid to win a fourth Super Bowl in six seasons -- a feat accomplished by only the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s.

"You've got to give the Colts credit," Pats coach Bill Belichick said. "They made more plays than we did and they deserved to win. It was about as competitive a game as you can get. They just made a couple more plays than we did. They're a hard team to stop."

New England's proud defense ranked second in the NFL in points allowed and sixth in the league in yards allowed.

But the Pats gave up 455 yards. The Colts' 32 first downs set a league record for a conference championship game. The previous record for an AFC title game was 30 by the Buffalo Bills in a 51-3 win over the Raiders in 1991.

The Pats gave up 125 rushing yards, while Manning threw for 349.

New England had only given up 23 points all season in the final two minutes of the first half and the second half. But the Colts managed 10 -- a field goal at the end of the first half and the winning touchdown with 1:00 left in the game.

"You don't want to get in a shootout with this type of team," said defensive end Tully Banta-Cain. "They can play from ahead and behind. They can put points on the board before you know it. We had a comfortable lead but it really wasn't comfortable because they came right back."

"In the first half we just beat their heads in," cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "Then we came out flat and just basically let them in the game again. It's kind of like a boxing match. You keep punching, keep punching at them and we didn't punch hard enough."

The Patriots did a good job taking away Colts receiver Marvin Harrison. With Asante Samuel providing tight coverage on Harrison and getting help from a safety behind him, Harrison was held to four catches for 41 yards.

The rest of the Colts' receivers, however, did plenty of damage. Tight end Dallas Clark had six catches for 137 yards. Receiver Reggie Wayne had five for 68.

Hobbs lamented an 18-yard pass interference penalty in the end zone on Wayne in the third quarter that gave the Colts the ball on the Pats' 1. He jumped straight up with his back to the ball, and the throw hit him in the back. He never looked for the ball in the air. The Colts scored on the next play then got a two-point conversion to tie the game, 21-21.

"I went straight up and the ball hit me in the back of the arm," Hobbs said. "I didn't look back but I didn't even touch him. You make the call."

"It was a tale of two halves, really," Bruschi said. "We had some key defensive stops and a key defensive score by Asante. We had a little bit of momentum going into halftime. Give credit to them. They made some great adjustments and were able to do a lot of things on us in the second half."

"We just let too many opportunities get away," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "We had field position at certain times, and we needed to get the ball in the end zone more. They're a good team that plays well at home."

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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