FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The winless Indianapolis Colts were reeling toward their 12th loss. Suddenly, they were rolling.
Could they actually beat the New England Patriots, a three-touchdown favorite leading by 28 points going into the fourth quarter? Could they finally erase the stigma of a possible 0-16 season? And against the highest scoring team in the AFC?
They couldn't, but they sure came close.
The Patriots (9-3) held on for a 31-24 win on Sunday, their fourth in a row but one that left them disappointed.
"This was too close for me," linebacker Rob Ninkovich said.
The Colts weren't satisfied either.
"Guys played well and did some things well," coach Jim Caldwell said, "but, still, we're measured by wins."
The Patriots scored touchdowns on four straight possessions and took a 31-3 lead on Rob Gronkowski's third score, a 2-yard run with a lateral from Tom Brady with 4:13 left in the third quarter.
But then the Colts rallied on a 5-yard touchdown run by Donald Brown with 10:24 left and scoring passes from Dan Orlovsky to Pierre Garcon of 33 yards with 2:12 to go and 12 yards with 36 seconds remaining. The outcome wasn't determined until Deion Branch recovered the onside kick.
""We've obviously got to do a better job of finishing the game," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "That was disappointing, but we'll work on that."
The poor finish took some of the focus off another outstanding game by Gronkowski. He has nine touchdowns in the last five games and 14 for the season. Thirteen of them have come on passes, tying the NFL single-season record for tight ends set by San Diego's Antonio Gates in 2004 and tied by San Francisco's Vernon Davis in 2009.
He originally was credited with a 14th but it was changed to a lateral.
"I thought it was a forward pass," Brady said. "I threw it."
Gronkowski didn't seem to care.
"I wasn't thinking about whether it was a pass or a lateral," he said. "I'll take the rushing touchdown. It's the first of my whole career."
The Patriots' offense struggled after that, gaining just 11 yards on four possessions. The Colts had five series after that and gained 348 yards on those, including three scoring drives of 90 yards or more. Orlovsky, a member of the winless Detroit Lions in 2008, completed 30 of 37 for 353 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
"We felt confident going into the game that if we stayed patient we could move the ball," Orlovsky said. "We fell short. I wish we had more time on the clock."
He got his first start of the year, replacing an ineffective Curtis Painter. Peyton Manning, out all season following neck surgery, watched from the sideline.
"I thought Dan was patient," Manning said. "I really thought he did a good job. He gave us a chance there at the end."
The reality, though, is that the Colts will become the second team to finish 0-16 if they lose their remaining games in a tough schedule against Baltimore, Tennessee, Houston and Jacksonville.
The Patriots had beaten their three previous opponents, the New York Jets (37-16), Kansas City Chiefs (34-3) and Philadelphia Eagles (38-20). Through three quarters, they were headed to another blowout.
"We played good for 45 minutes and then didn't do anything offensively," Brady said. "So we'll hear about that."
With two touchdowns passing, both to Gronkowski, Brady overtook Johnny Unitas and tied Warren Moon for sixth place in NFL history with 291 during the regular season. Brady was 29 of 38 for 293 yards.
Stephen Gostkowski gave the Patriots a 3-0 lead on their first series with a 39-yard field goal. Adam Vinatieri's 31-yard field goal in the opening minute of the second quarter tied it. The Patriots led 17-3 at intermission on two touchdowns in the final three minutes, an 11-yard pass to Gronkowski and a 1-yard run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
The onslaught continued with a Gronkowski's 21-yard scoring catch and 2-yard touchdown run on the Patriots' first two series of the second half. Then the offense took the rest of the game off. And the defense couldn't stop the Colts.
"We were able to get a good lead," said Wes Welker, who had 11 catches for 114 yards and leads the NFL with 93 receptions, but "if we don't play four quarters we're not going to end up in the situation we want to be in."
The Colts may be getting closer to the situation they'd love to be in — winning a game.
"People can say what they want to say about not playing hard, but I think that (comeback) pretty much shut that up right there," Colts tight end Jacob Tamme said. "We want to win."
Notes: Brady has thrown for 30 touchdowns, becoming the sixth player in NFL history to do that at least three times. ... The Colts outgained the Patriots 437 yards to 366. ... The Patriots clinched a winning record for the 11th straight season. ... The Patriots are 38-5 in December since 2001, best in the NFL.