FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — A little guy who came out of nowhere overshadowed the NFL's biggest stars.
Sure, Tom Brady outdueled Peyton Manning in their annual meeting, a 31-28 New England victory over Indianapolis on Sunday. Yet it was Danny Woodhead, a 5-foot-8 running back from Division II Chadron State, who got most of the attention — if you could find him. The Colts couldn't.
Woodhead, picked up when the Jets cut him in September, scored on a weaving 36-yard burst, showing power, speed and agility. Seconds after his brilliant third-quarter run, Woodhead made a sensational tackle on the ensuing kick return, drawing as many cheers as he did while scooting into the end zone.
"I do everything to make the play, whether I'm a runner, a receiver or on a kickoff," said Woodhead, who kiddingly asked if he could have a step-stool the next time he was required to speak at a podium. "Maybe (I carry) a little chip, but I'm not too worried what everybody thinks about my size, weight or height. My worry is about doing my job, whatever that might be."
His job is being versatile, something his teammates appreciate.
"He can kind of hide behind the guys, but on the special teams that just shows you what type of football player he is," said Deion Branch, who caught seven passes for 70 yards. "He scores a touchdown, comes back in and makes a play on special teams and we needed it at the time."
New England also needed Brady's pinpoint passing. He was brilliant for the second straight week, coming off a 350-yard, three-touchdown performance against Pittsburgh. Brady had only six incompletions in 25 passes and threw for two TDs as the Patriots built a 17-point lead and held on.
The win kept the Patriots (8-2) tied with the Jets atop the AFC East; they meet in two weeks.
Brady not only beat four-time MVP Manning, the only other quarterback of the last decade in his class, but tied another QB icon for an NFL mark. Brady has won 25 straight regular-season home starts, equaling Brett Favre's record when he was with Green Bay.
Perfectionist that he is, Brady felt the Patriots let it get too close before James Sanders' interception at the New England 6 with 31 seconds remaining clinched the win.
"Any time you play these guys, you've got to play to the end," Brady said. "Certainly in the fourth quarter we had some opportunities to go up three touchdowns on them, a couple of other third downs which we could've converted."
When they didn't, four-time MVP Manning pounced.
"We were in an uptempo mode the last seven minutes," Manning said. "We almost scored three touchdowns. But you're playing against the clock."
Manning blamed himself for the throw that didn't come close to reaching Pierre Garcon before Sanders grabbed it.
"I feel sick about it," he said. "About not extending the game, not executing to give (placekicker Adam) Vinatieri a chance for a field goal. It was a bad throw."
Indy (6-4 and atop the AFC South) had beaten the Patriots in five of the last six matchups. The Colts, who won their first 14 games a year ago en route to the AFC title, are so banged-up — they were without five key players Sunday — that considering them a Super Bowl contender right now might be a reach, even with Manning's magic.
Manning finished 38 of 52 for 396 yards, four TDs and three interceptions.
He got the Colts within 31-28 with 4:46 left on an 18-yard pass to Blair White, who earlier in the fourth period caught a 5-yard TD toss. And Manning brought them within range of a stunning win before Sanders' pick.
"I haven't beaten those guys in a while," Sanders said, "and it seems like we always get ahead, get a nice lead and they always come back at the end."
Manning's inaccuracies early on were costly. He misfired high several times, including a throw to White that sailed directly to safety Brandon Meriweather. A 39-yard runback set up the Patriots at the Indy 32 and, four players later, Brady hooked up with Wes Welker over the middle for a 22-yard score.
Unable to apply any pressure on Brady, the Colts' defense then was torn apart on a 15-play, 82-yard drive capped by rookie Aaron Hernandez's 8-yard TD catch.
Then Manning found his touch, despite consecutive brutal drops by Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie. Indy converted three third downs, including some nimbleness by Manning to avoid the pass rush and float a completion to Donald Brown for 25 yards. The TD came to third-string tight end Gijon Robinson — hardly surprising considering all of the Colts' injuries — from the 1. Robinson's second catch of the season got him his first career touchdown.
But the Colts' defense again was no match for the precise Brady, who guided a 65-yard drive to BenJarvus Green-Ellis' 5-yard scoring run. New England scored on all three possessions in the first half.
Not that Manning flinched. He took Indianapolis 85 yards, 77 on passes to Wayne, including a perfect spiral over cornerback Kyle Arrington for an 11-yard touchdown with 4 seconds left in the half, and Indy trailed only 21-14 at the half.
Woodhead's TD and Shayne Graham's 25-yard field goal were just enough in the second half.
Notes: Green-Ellis rushed for 96 yards and Woodhead had 69 in support of Brady. ... The win lifted Bill Belichick into a tie for 11th place in coaching victories with 171, moving ahead of Hall of Famer Paul Brown and equaling Joe Gibbs. ... Manning's 38 completions were his second most in a game, behind only the season-opening loss to Houston when he completed 40 passes.