The New England Patriots defense came alive just in time. It may have to make an even bigger contribution with Rob Gronkowski likely out for a while with an arm injury.
The touchdown catches and powerful blocks the tight end is known for will be missing after he was hurt late in the fourth quarter of Sunday' 59-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
Gronkowski scored on completions of 4 and 24 yards from Tom Brady, giving him 10 touchdowns and making him the first tight end in NFL history with at least 10 touchdowns in three straight seasons. He finished the game with seven catches for 137 yards and is second on the team with 53 receptions.
"Rob does a great job for us," coach Bill Belichick said after the game, "blocking, receiving, third down, red area. He's a good player."
Belichick didn't mention the injury, which the Patriots identified as affecting his arm without saying which one. Comcast SportsNet New England said Gronkowski broke his forearm while blocking on the extra point after the final touchdown.
The Patriots gave no timetable for his return. They have six games left, starting Thursday night at the New York Jets.
They didn't need Gronkowski's touchdowns on Sunday, not when one of the NFL's worst pass defenses scored on interception returns of 59 yards by newcomer Aqib Talib and 87 yards by rookie Alfonzo Dennard.
Dennard watched himself on the video board as he raced to the end zone. He wanted to see if Andrew Luck, who threw the pass, might catch him.
"I went to the sideline and (safety Devin McCourty) was like, 'If the quarterback would've caught you, you know we would've given you stuff about it," he said.
The Patriots lead the NFL with 35.8 points a game and tied their single-game scoring record on Sunday.
"The coaches want us to play aggressive," said Dennard, whose touchdown made it 45-17. "So that's what I was doing out there."
The first matchup between three-time Super Bowl winner Brady and star rookie Luck was no match. Brady threw three touchdown passes. Luck threw three interceptions.
"They're good enough," Luck said. "They don't need those gifts, but to their credit, they created those and we didn't."
The loss of Gronkowski could be costly. The Patriots other tight end, Aaron Hernandez, has missed the last three games and six overall, after spraining his ankle. That leaves three healthy tight ends — Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui and Visanthe Shiancoe — and they've totaled just four catches.
The Patriots forced four turnovers. Rob Ninkovich's fifth forced fumble of the season — knocking the ball out of Luck's hand — set up Gronkowski's second scoring grab on the next play.
"We knew we couldn't come here and turn the football over and have a chance to win," Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said. "We've got a lot of rookies out there so every week is a learning experience. It was a bad learning experience."
The Colts (6-4) had their four-game winning streak stopped. The Patriots (7-3) won their fourth straight game and extended their lead in the AFC East to three games.
Even so, Brady doesn't want the Patriots to start patting themselves on the back.
"I don't think we're anywhere (near) where we need to be at this point," he said.
Julian Edelman scored on a 68-yard punt return three plays before Talib's interception put the Patriots ahead to stay, 21-14.
"I don't think guys panicked" after that one-two punch, Luck said. "Playing hard is not enough, as evidenced tonight."
Brady completed 24 of 35 passes for 331 yards and no interceptions. Luck was 27 for 50 for two touchdowns and 334 yards and set an NFL record as the first rookie with five 300-yard games.
The Colts were competitive for one half. The Patriots led 24-17 heading into the third quarter.
Then the Patriots scored on passes of 2 yards to Edelman and 24 yards to Gronkowski and Dennard's interception return.
Luck followed with a 43-yard scoring pass to T.Y. Hilton, the second of the game to the fellow rookie, but the Patriots responded with touchdown runs of 3 yards by Stevan Ridley and 4 yards by Shane Vereen.
The game began with touchdowns on the first three series: a 1-yard run by Delone Carter of the Colts, a 4-yard pass from Brady to Gronkowski, and a 14-yard pass from Luck to Hilton.
"A lot of plays motivated the defense," said Talib, playing his first game since being obtained from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "About that third or fourth (Colts) series, we kind of got into it. It was kind of quiet out there early (then) we started talking."
The Patriots obtained him before last Sunday's 37-31 win over Buffalo. But he sat that one out to complete a four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Notes: The Colts outgained the Patriots 448 yards to 446. ... The 59 points equals the Patriots record set in a 59-0 win over the Tennessee Titans on Oct. 18, 2009. ... The Patriots are 18-0 in the second half of the season starting in 2010. ... Welker stretched his streak to 104 games with at least one reception. ... Reggie Wayne tied Cris Carter's NFL mark with 58 consecutive games with at least three catches.
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