But now it appears that left guard Damien Woody, arguably the front's best lineman, will miss this weekend's AFC Championship Game with what is reportedly a torn medical collateral ligament in his right knee.
Woody is listed as doubtful on the team's injury report and Bill Belichick called him day-to-day, which differed from a Boston Globe report that said he would miss the rest of the season. The Patriots have not placed Woody on injured reserve, which means they probably are hoping he would be available for the Super Bowl if the Patriots advance. But Belichick all but admitted that Woody would miss Sunday's game when he spoke about Woody's replacement, Russ Hochstein, who stepped in for Woody last week against the Titans.
"It was OK," Belichick said of Hochstein's performance. "It was a challenge because Tennessee has such a good front four. We didn't give up any sacks and we threw the ball 41 times, which is always a credit to the offensive line. Russ held up OK like everybody else."
But the Patriots will surely miss Woody, who is arguably their best offensive lineman. "He's a solid player," Belichick said. "He's versatile, strong and he makes calls and adjustments at the line."
With Woody out, backup offensive lineman Wilbert Brown, who has been inactive for the last 10 weeks after signing with the team on Sept. 22, will be activated on game day as the team's backup guard.
Brown played in 14 games with nine starts for the Redskins in 2002. Hochstein was signed to New England's practice squad in October of 2002 and played in one game last season. He started at left guard in one game this season, at Washington on Sept. 28, which was the Patriots last loss.
CB Ty Law has four of his 35 career interceptions against Peyton Manning and has returned two of those for touchdowns. In 13 games against the Colts, Law has 71 tackles in addition to those four picks.
RB Antowain Smith has recorded three 100-yard games against the Colts and has rushed for 611 yards on 133 carries (4.6 yards per carry) against the Colts. That's half a yard per carry better than his career rushing average (3.9).
QB Tom Brady made his first career start against the Colts back on Sept. 30, 2001 in a 44-13 Patriots win. Brady completed 13-of-23 passes for 168 yards without a touchdown or interception in that game. Manning threw three interceptions in that game, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Brady also has not thrown an interception at home this season, a span of 282 passing attempts, which is the most home attempts without a pick since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. He hasn't thrown an interception in his last 10 home games, all Patriots victories.
Patriots quarterbacks coach John Hufnagel coached the Colts quarterbacks in 2001 and may be able to provide an inkling of information about what makes Manning uncomfortable, although it didn't help much in the first meeting.
CB Tyrone Poole spent three seasons with the Colts from 1998-2000, starting 41-of-45 games while notching 150 tackles and four interceptions. He had 66 tackles and six interceptions this season for the Patriots.
Defensively, the Patriots have to get physical and make any defensive adjustments as late as possible. It's difficult to challenge the Colts speedy receivers because of the constant threat that they can run past you for a quick, easy score. But if New England wants to get some hits on Peyton Manning, who was sacked just 18 times this year, they have to make him hold the ball longer than he wants.
Manning adjusts protections and play calls so often at the line of scrimmage that he often puts his team in the best possible position to take advantage of what a defense appears to be doing. The Patriots must work this week to disguise their looks as long as possible and make Manning either make a mistake or pull the ball down. They also must punish the Colts receivers at the line of scrimmage and after every catch.
If they can disrupt Manning's rhythm and get to him in the pocket early, they may be able to force a fumble or make him throw early and errantly. New England will blitz Manning, but the pressure will be on the defense to time and disguise those blitzes well so that Manning is unable to adjust his protection to account for them.
The Colts are 12-for-13 converting third downs through the air in the postseason, and the Patriots can't let Manning have free looks at his receivers. He will unload it quickly on those downs if the Patriots aren't being physical with the receivers. If the Patriots let Indy's receivers run free, it could be a long day on defense.
Offensively, the Patriots have to run the ball and control the clock, which may not be so easy with a hobbled Antowain Smith and the possibility of no Damien Woody at left guard. The Patriots like to run to the left and will try to hammer away at Dwight Freeney to slow his rush. But the Patriots ultimately move the ball throwing it and their offensive front will have to have a strong day protecting Tom Brady against an aggressive blitzing unit.
Brady typically does a decent job reading the blitz and getting the ball out of his hands, but he threw a pair of interceptions in Indy and if he does that this week, it will cost his team dearly. Look for New England to use some of the spread formation looks that have become its staple over the past few weeks, but it will run the ball out of some of those sets. Third down will be the key to this game for the Patriots offense. They converted 54.5 percent of third downs in the first meeting and will need to be even better this time around to control the clock and make Manning impatient.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Patriots CB Ty Law vs. Colts WR Marvin Harrison. Law has had some big games against the Colts and has four interceptions and two touchdowns in 13 games against Indy. Harrison had seven receptions for 88 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting, giving him 1,141 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 meetings. This matchup would actually include all the Colts receivers against the Patriots defensive backs, especially since Manning is likely to pick on Tyrone Poole, Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson. But Law vs. Harrison is the marquis matchup.
Patriots LB Tedy Bruschi vs. Colts RB Edgerrin James. Bruschi makes a lot of plays against the run, using his speed and elusiveness to avoid blocks, but he also will be responsible for covering James out of the backfield at times and must make the quick tackle rather than get caught chasing James across the field from behind. He had 16 passes defensed and three interceptions this season. James rushed for 1,259 yards while catching 51 passes for 292 yards.
Patriots RB Antowain Smith vs. Colts LB David Thornton. Smith finished the season with 642 rushing yards, but had 195 in the last two weeks of the season before adding 69 yards on 16 carries last week and has averaged 5.4 yards per carry over the last three weeks. He often runs left and that's where Thornton, the Colts leading tackler (158) will be waiting. Smith, however, is hobbled with a sore ankle.
Patriots LT Matt Light vs. Colts DE Dwight Freeney. The Colts speed-rushing end can ruin a game and his explosiveness off the ball gave Light some trouble in the first meeting this season. Freeney is likely to see a tight end in his face as well so that he can't dislodge the ball from Tom Brady's blind side. Brady fumbled 13 times this season, losing five.
Only one Patriot, starting left guard Damien Woody appears on the injury report. The inexperienced Russ Hochstein, who has one career start to his credit, will start in his place. There remains a slight possibility that Hochstein could play right guard with Joe Andruzzi moving to the left side where New England likes to run the ball. But that would leave two young, inexperienced players on the right side in Hochstein and Tom Ashworth.
Wilbert Brown will back up at the guard spot and he has nine career starts, all coming with Washington last season. Look for the Patriots to give pass protection help on that side of the line, especially if they get in situations where they have to throw the ball. Look for Mike Cloud to replace Dedric Ward on the active roster. Running back Antowain Smith practiced Wednesday and is obviously expected to play since he isn't listed on the team's injury report. But his ankle is sore and the Patriots will likely need Cloud as insurance if Smith is unable to finish the game.