Jon Scott: New England has tried to get too cute with their running game in
the past, and they stopped being dominant with it. They work their base runs
then start moving into passing games and draws, even reverses thinking that will
get to an overaggressive defense. The problem is, it goes away from what they're
good at, a double TE set with power running game.
I think the Patriots will do what they did to Jacksonville, Minnesota and others who had great run defenses. Line up in run formations, then pass in most of those situations early. Once they get the defense to stop keying on the formation, they can mix run/pass at will. The Patriots will probably try to use the run to grind down the defense a bit as that's the obvious Patriots' advantage in terms of size. The TEs are a big part of the Patriots offense. If they are on the field they can pass protect, run block or go out in patterns. All three are versatile enough to pose problems, although Dan Graham is the best blocker of the group.
TT: Tom Brady's receivers have been pointed to as a weakness all season long. Are these guys any good, or does Brady just make them look good?
JS: It's a matter of perception, but Caldwell has turned into a solid
receiver. Whatever his issues were in San Diego, he left them there. Actually it
looks like Eric Parker inherited them. Caldwell has been productive enough in
his first season to top David Givens' regular season production from last year,
and outperform Deion Branch's from this postseason. Is he a true No. 1 wide out?
No, but he makes plays in crucial situations, and that's why Brady has
confidence in him.
Jabar Gaffney is an enigma. He was highly touted when he went to Houston, yet they gave up on him. He went to Philly and he just didn't fit their system, so they released him prior to the season. GMs must have figured the guy couldn't cut it so no one called him until the Patriots asked him in for a tryout. He beat out Charles Rogers and a number of other candidates to win the job. Part of his success is reuniting with his fellow Florida teammates in New England. Brady has confidence in him, and he's making plays.
Troy Brown is everything you could ask for in a role player. He is smart as they get, he knows how to make plays and he helps get the young guys up to speed.
I think Brady can make any receiver look good, but if you don't catch the
ball, then you're not going to last long in the starter's role. Remember, only
Troy Brown caught a pass from Brady before this season started, yet Gaffney,
Caldwell and others have picked up the slack. A lot of that is the system, and a
lot is Tom Brady.
|Rodney Harrison and Ty Law gang up on Colts WR Reggie Wayne in the 2004 AFC Championship Game (Elsa/Getty Images)|
JS: Not really. It's going to hurt the Patriots not to have Rodney on the field. He's been upgraded to doubtful for the game, but it's highly unlikely he'll play. He hasn't been around for interviews since getting his knee banged up and rumors surfaced that he had a slightly torn ACL not just an MCL sprain. But Harrison is around encouraging guys.
A lot of the Patriots "mystique" is still there for the Colts, but
I do believe having the game in Indy will make a big difference. McGinest is a
good player, but the Patriots can still put good players on the field. Its too
bad Junior Seau is gone for the season. With him in there, the Patriots had a
better defense because Vrabel was able to play on the outside. New England
still plays smashmouth football. A quick review of the tape in San Diego shows
you that the offensive line was ready to stand toe-to-toe with the best San
Diego's defense could bring. The same goes for the Chicago game, and the Jets
game - all physical contests. I think that physical presence, along with the
front seven on defense, still bring that attitude to the game.
TT: In the team's last two regular season meetings, Marvin Harrison has had monster games, combining for 17 catches, 273 yards and four touchdowns. How will the Patriots stop him this time?
JS: That's the question. New England has to find a way to protect the secondary against Manning and his highly talented receivers. Jamming the wideouts at the line is effective, but without Eugene Wilson and Rodney Harrison in the deep secondary, the concern is what happens when those receivers beat the jam. New England has been successful knocking the Indianapolis receivers off their timing at the line in the past, but that was when the Patriots had different personnel in the secondary. Manning will likely find a way to use those short drops and quick throws to get the ball to his receivers. If Manning has time to let them try the double move, then he could hit some big plays as the Patriots are susceptible to those types of plays.
Part of the answer depends on the style of coverage the Patriots plan on
running. If New England is forced to blitz to get to Manning, then it means man
coverage on one of the Colts' top pass catchers, possibly Harrison. If the
Patriots player a Cover-2 shell and roll the coverage toward Harrison's side of
the field, then they should be able to stop the deep ball, but will give plenty
of opportunity underneath. You don't stop Marvin Harrison AND Reggie
Wayne, you just try to take one or the other away from Manning so the defensive
line can pressure Manning into a bad decision.
TT: Does it seem that Patriots fans will be content with the team's run, win or lose on Sunday, or are they still hungry for another championship?
JS: This is New England, where anything short of the Super Bowl is a disappointment. When the Patriots were bounced unceremoniously by Denver last year, many felt the Patriots had the better team, but they shot themselves in the foot with mistakes at inopportune times. The interception return for a touchdown was the biggest disappointment, something Tom Brady has referred to as one thing that drives him to improve everyday this season.
Reality for Patriots fans is also part of the picture. Many fans realize the team is struggling in the secondary. Peyton Manning has the talent to shred good defenses, and the Patriots' secondary hasn't even earned that type of label. While the Patriots aren't bad, they have shown that they can be beat by a number of good receivers. Harrison and Wayne are much better than good. So expectations that have the Patriots headed to the Super Bowl are tempered by a nagging doubt that if the Patriots can't stop the passing game, they'll lose for the first time to the Colts in the playoffs under Belichick. That type of loss would be a very bitter pill to swallow.