FOXBORO, Mass. (AP) _ As usual, Tom Brady was uncannily accurate as the New England Patriots moved within three wins of setting the NFL record for consecutive victories. Still, New England's 27-24 win over Indianapolis on Thursday night wouldn't have happened if its defense hadn't awakened in the second half after being shredded for 255 yards by Peyton Manning and Edgerrin James before intermission.
The win was the 16th straight for New England, including the last 12 regular-season games plus two playoff games and the Super Bowl last season. That puts the Patriots two short of the NFL record of 18 set by five teams, most recently Denver in 1997-98 with games at Arizona, at Buffalo after a bye and Miami at home coming up.
Brady threw for 335 yards and three touchdowns _ one each to Deion Branch, David Patten and Daniel Graham. Corey Dillon, obtained from Cincinnati to revive the Super Bowl champions' running game, carried 16 times for 86 yards.
But the Patriots' defense bailed them out after a horrible first half, although the 446 yards they allowed were more than they gave up in any game last year.
Three times they stopped the Colts after turnovers, the second time after Branch fumbled a punt and Asante Samuel was called for pass interference to put the ball at the 1. But Eugene Wilson knocked the ball loose from James and rookie Vince Wilfork recovered with 3 minutes, 43 seconds left, avoiding what looked like a sure touchdown.
Then Willie McGinest sacked Manning with the Colts at the Patriots 18, forcing Mike Vanderjagt to try a 48-yard field goal instead of a chip shot. Vanderjagt, who had made 42 in a row, kicked it wide right with 24 seconds left.
``It seems all of our games with them come down to a late play, but our defense made just enough plays to win,'' Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
This game was a repeat of last season's AFC championship, a toughly played 24-14 New England win that spurred the NFL to tighten up on holding and bumping by defensive backs.
But the first flag on a defensive back didn't come until four minutes into the third quarter, when the Colts' David Thornton was called for holding one play before Brady hit Patten for a 25-yard TD to give New England a 20-17 lead.
The Colts led 17-13 at halftime and it could have been more if not for another big play by the New England defense, Tedy Bruschi's interception of Manning's pass with the Colts at the New England 6 on their first possession.
That was eerily like last season's title game, when Rodney Harrison did that to Manning from the 1 on the first series.
The Patriots, who had only two running backs dressed, came out with four wide receivers and drove 48 yards in nine plays to set up a 32-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri. All nine plays were passes from a no-huddle offense as Dillon sat out his first series as a Patriot.
Vanderjagt's 32-yard field goal made it 3-3 1:20 into the second quarter.
The next Indy drive was a stunner _ 66 yards in nine plays, all of them runs and most of them up the middle. The score came on a 3-yard run by Dominic Rhodes.
Back came the Patriots, scoring on Brady's 16-yard pass to Branch.
But Manning hit Dallas Clark for 64 yards on the Colts' first play from scrimmage and Manning's 3-yard TD pass to Marvin Harrison with 42 seconds left gave Indy a 17-10 lead. Vinatieri's 43-yard field goal on the final play of the half cut it to 17-13.
The New England defense finally stopped the Colts, who went three and out on the first possession of the second half. The Colts' defense couldn't reciprocate, Brady connecting with Patten to give them the lead.
Brady's 8-yarder to Graham late in the period stretched it to 27-17.
Manning came back with an 8-yarder to Brandon Stokley to cut it to three points 3:55 into the final period.
Then Branch fumbled a punt, giving the Colts the ball at the New England 33. But Wilson came up with one big play, the forced fumble. When the Colts got the ball back again, Manning found Stokley for 45 yards, putting Indy within chip-shot range for Vanderjagt.
But McGinest blitzed unblocked on Manning and Vanderjagt, perfect all of last season, missed this one. A 19 mph breeze didn't help for a kicker who plays half his games indoors.
``It seems that Willie always seems to be there when we need him,'' Belichick said.
James finished with 132 yards rushing on 30 carries and Manning was 16-for-29 for 256 yards. Manning went over 25,000 yards passing for his career in his 95th game, the second fastest to that mark. The only one quicker was Dan Marino, who got there in 92 games.