Throw Out the Stats for Patriots-Colts

AFC Championship Game: Paralysis-by-analysis sets in as New England gets ready to take on the Indianapolis Colts. Did you know that over the last three seasons, the Patriots are 35-0 when leading after four quarters?

While it's not a very good joke, this statistic illustrates just how silly many of the mathematical breakdowns are when trying to preview an upcoming game.

But statistics have dominated pre-game analysis heading into the AFC Championship game this weekend between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts.

Let's take a look at some of the evidence:

* Against teams that had more than 10 wins this season, the Patriots are 8-0.

* The Patriots have not trailed in its last 7 home games and gave up the fewest points at home in the history of the league this season.

* The Patriots defense has recorded at least 1 interception in each home game this season.

Any of that make you feel better about the Patriots' chances? What about some numbers for the other side?

* The Patriots will be facing their second league-MVP in two weeks. Tennessee's Steve McNair (last week's opponent) shared the MVP this year with Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

* In the Colts' two playoff wins over the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs, quarterback Peyton Manning has completed 44-of-56 passes for 681 yards with eight touchdowns and zero interceptions for an offense that has yet to punt. Manning put up a perfect 158.3 passer rating against the Broncos and has a combined 156.9 rating in the two games.

* The Colts have scored on 75% of their postseason possessions.

Then again:

* The Patriots played, and beat, both the Titans and Colts in the regular season.

And for those who like eerie coincidences, there is this little nugget:

* Both the Patriots and Eagles have already played, and beaten, their upcoming opponents, and they did it on the road on the same day: the Patriots beat the Colts in Indianapolis, and the Eagles beat the Panthers in Carolina, both on November 30th, 2003.

Speaking of #1 seeds:

* The top teams from each conference have not met in a title game since Buffalo and Dallas in Super Bowl XXVIII (1993). The Colts and the Panthers are both the #3 seed in their respective conferences and no number three seed from the AFC has ever advanced to a Super Bowl. * Peyton Manning is 2-7 against Patriots head coach Bill Belichick including 0-4 when the games are in Foxboro. Manning's quarterback rating in the four games at Foxboro is 61.3. The Patriots have won the last 6 home games against the Colts.

* Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is 4-0 in the playoffs for his career.

* In 2001, when the Patriots made their Super Bowl run despite an 0-2 start to the season, the first team they beat that year was the Colts. To get to the Super Bowl this year, Indianapolis is the last team they will have to beat.

* The New England Patriots are 3-0 in AFC Championship games (over Miami to cap 1985 season; over Jacksonville in 1996; and over Pittsburgh in 2001).

* Patriots running back Antowain Smith has three 100-yard rushing games against the Colts and 10 career touchdowns.

* However, Smith did not play in the November 30th game at Indianapolis. Patriots receiver Troy Brown also was not active for the last game against the Colts.

Having Antowain Smith pound away at the Indianapolis defense is a very vogue suggestion among pre-game prognosticators. This idea is based on the fact that the Colts' defense gave up 408 total offensive yards in their game last weekend at Kansas City, including 176 rushing to Chiefs' running back Priest Holmes.

Smith is certainly not as good as Holmes, but he could have success against a Colts defense that gave up 123.8 yards per game on the ground this season, ranking 20th against the run. In the playoffs, the Colts are giving up an average of 365 total offensive yards and a staggering 6.1 yards a carry. With a light defensive front that relies more on speed than strength, the Colts are susceptible to the run, which puts the pressure on the Patriots' running backs to take control of the game. (It should be noted that while the Colts have not punted once in the playoffs so far, the Chiefs also did not punt once in their game against the Colts.)

Just as Smith may be the key for the Patriots' offense, Colts running back Edgerrin James is also the secret to the Colts' offense. Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy said earlier this week that he believes it is James, not Manning, who "has been the most essential element of the team's offensive production thus far in the playoffs." Dungy said that James has "gotten our running game going early in the games and made people have to defend the run." James ran for 125 yards on 26 carries last week against Kansas City and has combined for 203 yards and two touchdowns in the playoffs so far. The Colts are 27-5 when James scores a rushing touchdown.

The Patriots seem to agree with Coach Dungy's analysis, in that they plan to focus their defense on James. In his press conference on Thursday, Patriots defensive tackle Richard Seymour all but revealed his team's defensive game plan: "You have to do a good job of making [the Colts] one-dimensional. I think we've been doing a good job all year of stopping the run and I think we have to continue to do that if we want to be successful because I don't believe that we can allow Edgerrin James to get going." If he does, it allows Manning to attack downfield with play-action passes. Seymour continued, "We have to take one element away from them and just try to beat them on the pass."

The other key will be fundamental football: the Patriots' defense has to be physical with the Colts' offensive skill position players. Patriots All-Pro safety Rodney Harrison, who will be responsible for stopping the run and for covering the pass, said that the Colts receivers have been allowed to run free so far this postseason without having to pay a physical price for it, and (quoting the Boston Herald) he vowed that will change Sunday

"We can't just let them run up and down the field without being touched," Harrison said. "You just can't let these guys run free and get big plays. You've got to hit. You've got to be physical."

But I digress. How could you possibly have yet had your fill of statistics?

* The Colts are 8-1 on the road this season.

* The Patriots have scored 38 or more points against Indianapolis in each of the last three times the teams have played. New England has also scored 20 or more points against the Colts in 12 of its last 13 meetings with Indianapolis.

* As noted above, this game is a re-match of a regular season contest, and over the last three years, the Patriots are 11-1 in re-match games. In the 2001 Super Bowl season, New England was 5-0 when playing a team for a second time (including St. Louis in the Super Bowl itself). In the 2002 season, the Patriots were 2-1 in rematch games (with the one loss coming against the Jets; the Patriots destroyed the Jets in Week 2 but then lost a key match-up in December). In 2003, the Patriots are 4-0 so far.

* Coach Belichick is 4-1 lifetime in the playoffs.

* Much has been made of the incredible output of the Indianapolis offense. But have the Patriots been overlooked? Since the Patriots beat the Colts on November 30th and including the playoff games, the Colts have outscored opponents by 88 points (an average of 14.6 points per game). But the Patriots have outscored opponents by 65 points over that same time span (13 points per game), and they played one fewer game than the Colts (because the Patriots had a first-round playoff bye while the Colts hosted the Broncos). The Colts are great on offense but the Patriots have had some success there, too.

How about one more numbers crunch:

* The best statistical comparison of the week is probably the fact that it is literally warmer on Mars than it is in the Northeast (it's 12 degrees on the Martian surface, although to be fair it dips to a cool 130-below on the Fourth Planet at night).

What does that number have to do with this game? After all, game time temperatures are expected to be in the high 20s with a 40% chance of snow. (Another interesting fact: the Colts have not played a game in temperatures below 50 degrees this season, catching a freak warm spell of about 70 degrees when they visited Buffalo in late November.)

The point is that there is no point at all to these numbers. As New England head coach Bill Belichick said throughout this week, throw out the numbers. When asked about his prior success in defending against Manning, Coach Belichick said "I don't think any of those games matter. Some of them were so long ago, it is hard to find too many common denominators in any of them. This game is about what happens this week. I don't think what happened in 1998 or 1999, I don't think that matters."

So forget the statistics. Just line up and play.

The difference in this game will probably be the Patriots' preparation. New England comes up with a different game plan for every opponent and Coach Belichick and his staff are as good as they come at putting their players in the best position to win.

The team's mental approach is also a critical advantage. For the Colts, the AFC Championship is the biggest game of the year. Manning has now proven that he can win in the playoffs (he was 0-3 before this season) but he and his teammates just might be thinking about being one game away from the Super Bowl.

For the Patriots, though, it's just another game. They keep a very even keel and consistency is a watch-word in New England. As Richard Seymour said earlier this year, the Patriots don't see a 16-game regular season, they see a set of 16 seasons, where each week is utterly different than the last and each exists in its own time and space. That ability to focus on one game at a time will be crucial to successfully surviving the pressure of the conference championship.

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