News flash: Peyton Manning and the white hot weapon-filled Indianapolis Colts offense return to Foxborough this Sunday for a playoff rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game. On paper, there is no reason to think that Manning should not continue his touchdown-pass-happy ways against the Patriots' patchwork secondary that is without its two starting cornerbacks and is relying on the likes of an undrafted rookie free agent, a couple of street free agents and a 12-year veteran wide receiver to slow Indy's stable of star receivers.
But history charts a different path. As terrific a season as Manning and the Colts had, they are no hotter than they were when they came to Foxborough last January after winning two playoff games without punting, yet they still managed to stumble through the conference title game and limp home losers. The reason they did that? Big mistakes.
Manning tossed four interceptions in that playoff game, Marvin Harrison lost a fumble and the Colts also took a safety when a long snap sailed over the head of punter Hunter Smith. The on-fire Colts were cooled off quickly in the Foxborough snow.
While Manning should have an easier time throwing at Randall Gay and Asante Samuel than he would at Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, he still must avoid the kinds of mistakes he has made in the past against the Patriots, but doesn't seem to make against anyone else. In fact, if he doesn't seize control of the game with an early assault that overwhelms New England the way he did against Denver last week, then the game will come to down to turnovers, third down and the red area.
In his last five games against New England, all losses, Manning has thrown nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. In those same games, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has thrown nine touchdowns and four interceptions. The five-interception difference, as much as any other reason, is why Brady is 5-0 in those games.
So Patriots coach Bill Belichick has to hope his team can not only slow the Manning Touchdown Express, but also buck the statistical evidence that favors Indy on the turnover front. The Colts led the NFL with a plus-19 turnover ratio in 2004, giving the ball away just 17 times as opposed to the uncharacteristic 27 New England coughed it up. Three of those Colts turnovers came in Week 1 when the Patriots also lost a fumble and an interception in a 27-24 win.
Belichick, who does his best to point out every opponent's strengths, was not lost for words this week and even praised a suspect Colts defense. "They lead the league in turnovers," he said of Indy's 36 takeaways, which actually ranked third behind Buffalo (39) and Carolina (38). He also failed to mention that his own defense also forced 36 turnovers this season. "They're a very explosive defense. They're fast. They can rush the passer. They have a lot of fast guys in pursuit at the linebacker and safety level and they close on the ball quickly. They cause a lot of turnovers and a lot of that is from the pass rush.
"As many sacks as they have, most of the fumbles have come in the passing game where the quarterback gets stripped. So the combination of sacks and fumbles and turnovers, that's been a big part of their defense and some of that pass rush has also been a factor in the interceptions."
And because the Colts offense is so explosive and can score points at an alarming rate, it is imperative that New England doesn't allow the Colts defense to make the big plays it lives off. New England must play efficient football and control the clock, which makes the Patriots third down offense a huge part of this game. If the Patriots hope to keep Manning and the Indy offense on the sideline, it must convert third downs upwards of 60 percent of the time to retain possession and keep the clock running.
But the most important part of retaining possession, obviously, is not turning the ball over, which puts pressure on the Patriots offense to play a near-perfect game.
"You'd hate to think that if you turn the ball over one time, two times, you'll lose the game because of that," Brady said. "Obviously you don't want to get in the habit of turning the ball over vs. this team. They led the league in turnover differential this year, and their offense, the more you give it the ball the more it seems to score. So they're very tough in that sense and you know, offensively, what they're capable of. It's not like you're going to hold them to no first downs all game. They gain yards. But at the same time, offensively we're going to have to play very, very well. And that's the way it is. It's the playoffs, so the teams that are here are the best in the league. When you play the best teams in the league you better play your best or else you're not giving yourself much of a chance to win."
If the Patriots do avoid turnovers and control the clock, they should be able to score their fair share of points against a defensive unit that is hardly considered stout. When that unit is not making a big play, it's usually allowing points. The Patriots have scored 27, 24, 38, 38 and 44 points in the last five meetings.
"They took the ball away from us a few times in that first game and (we had 27 points), so some games they've looked very good. Some games they would have liked to look better," Brady said.
The Patriots won last year's AFC Championship Game despite performing miserably offensively in the red zone. Adam Vinatieri kicked five field goals to account for 15 of the team's 24 points and all five came on possessions that were halted inside the Colts 20. Those red zone failures are more likely to be fatal this time around while the Patriots defense, which is sure to give up chunks of yards, must come up huge inside its own 20. Holding the Colts offense to field goals rather than touchdowns is the formula New England must use to advance.
Indy's passing attack has such a huge matchup advantage that New England's defensive red zone execution will be critical. New England finished third in the league in red zone defense this season, allowing touchdowns only 40.8 percent of the time, but the Colts weren't much worse, finishing seventh (47.8 touchdown rate).
Offensively, both teams ranked in the top 10 as well with Indy's 62.7 percent touchdown rate ranking fourth while the Patriots 58.7 percentage sat just three spots back at seventh.
So this week's game should come down to three specific areas for the Patriots. Turnovers, as always, are No. 1. As strong as Indy's offense is and has been, it has not been good enough to overcome multiple turnovers against New England.
Third down offense is No. 2. If punter Josh Miller is busy, the lights may burn out on Indy's side of the scoreboard. The Patriots need to keep the ball, and control the clock to frustrate Indy's offense.
Red zone defense is No. 3. As long as Mike Vanderjagt is kicking field goals instead of extra points, the Patriots should be in position to win.
SERIES HISTORY: 67th meeting. Patriots lead series 42-24 and have won the last five meetings and 13 of the last 15, including a 27-24 decision in the 2004 season opener at Gillette Stadium. The teams have met only once in the postseason, with New England winning the 2003 AFC Championship Game over the Colts, 24-14, last January.
Tom Brady is the other quarterback this week. The two-time Super Bowl MVP who tied a career high with 28 touchdown passes in 2004 is hiding in the shadows while Peyton Manning and his record 49 touchdown passes bathe in the sun.
The Manning vs. the Ty Law-less Patriots secondary is the big matchup this week, but the Patriots offense has been strong this year as well even while not approaching the stratosphere the Colts and their 522 points live in. All New England did was score 437 point this season, the second most in franchise history.
While Corey Dillon had a huge year, Brady had arguably his most productive season to date, including his two Super Bowl championship seasons. But he has no problem with Manning getting the attention this week, especially after the record-setting quarterback just copped his second straight league MVP trophy.
"I have had way too much attention over the last three years to ever think (I'm overlooked)" Brady said.
Vocal teammate Rodney Harrison is tired of talking about Manning, but knows any amount of publicity doesn't affect Brady.
"We don't worry about getting publicity from you guys," Harrison stressed. "Whenever you play against Peyton, the whole topic is Peyton. The focus of the attention is Peyton Manning, not Tom Brady. And that is OK. Tom is a laid back guy. He doesn't really care about that. He is a two-time Super Bowl MVP. He just gets the job done time and time again. We respect Tom, and the people that really truly matter respect him. It is not about getting all the attention like it is for some other people.
Brady is 5-0 against the Colts in his career with a 99.0 passer rating while Manning is 2-9 against the Patriots with a 77.1 rating. Manning did post a perfect 158.3 passer rating in one of those two wins, a 30-23 decision over Bill Belichick's Patriots back in 2000 when he completed 16-of-20 passes for 268 yards with three touchdowns and no picks.
The Gillette Stadium field was left uncovered during a wet Wednesday in Foxborough. Asked about the condition of the field, coach Bill Belichick offered little. "I'm sure the field will be the same for both teams. I've told you that my job is not to go out and pull the weeds."
Last year, the league forced the Patriots to re-sod the field before the playoffs. This season New England re-sodded the middle strip of field several weeks earlier.
Since the Colts play their home games indoors in ideal conditions, the Patriots have been asked this week about weather preferences. The early forecast calls for clear skies with a high temperature of 36 degrees and a low of 18.
"I think the thing that you find is that the weather is the same for both teams and we enjoy playing at our stadium," Brady said. "We enjoy playing on our field and I guess we're a little bit used to the weather conditions. Every quarterback would like to play in a great environment where there's no wind. I love playing in a dome because there's no wind, the balls feel great, you're on great turf and everything happens fast. You can plant well. You deliver the ball well. Your accuracy seems to be the best it could be, but ultimately playing out on this field probably affects the kickers more than it affects the quarterbacks just because the wind can affect the ball when it's not spiraling as much. We like playing at home though. I would say that."
Belichick was highly critical of his team's defensive performance in the first meeting between the teams this year back in Week 1, a game New England won 27-24. "We didn't do very well in the opener," he said. "I don't think I did a good job. I don't think we had a very good game plan. They chewed us up. Hopefully we can compete better than we did in that game."
Belichick was particularly irritated with the fact that his defense allowed pass plays of 42, 45 and 64 yards in that game.
The Patriots have played and won through a rash of injuries the last two seasons. They kicked off their long winning streak last October with several key players sidelined by injuries and went 8-1 this year without their starting cornerbacks. But the big difference between 2001, 2003 and this year is that most of the injured players returned in time for a postseason run during the two championship seasons while this year, key contributors like Law and Tyrone Poole remain out of action.
"That's the nature of this team," veteran linebacker Roman Phifer said. "We always have guys step in when guys go down and we expect them to play well. That's what has happened."
BY THE NUMBERS: 0 - the amount of Patriots receivers who have 1,000 yards or 10 receiving touchdowns compared with Indy, which has three 1,000-yard receivers who also have at least 10 touchdown catches - Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Peyton is the MVP. He's the best in the league. That's it. Now let's play football." - Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, after being peppered with questions regarding Manning's record-setting season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Bill Belichick's personnel utilization will be interesting this week. Ted Johnson has played most of the snaps beside Tedy Bruschi at inside linebacker this season, but Roman Phifer could take away a majority of Johnson's snaps this week since Phifer is quicker and a better pass defender than Johnson, who would have more trouble staying with the Colts tight ends if assigned to cover one of them.
Phifer, 34, is a more experienced coverage linebacker and while he may have lost a step in his advanced age, he could be called upon this week against a Colts team that can create plenty of mismatches in the passing game.
"That's all up to the coaches," Phifer said. "I don't want to give away any game plan information."
The utilization of the defensive backs is something Belichick will also play with throughout the game to keep Manning searching for the mismatch in coverage. Eugene Wilson, Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland will all likely see some time at safety and cornerback while Don Davis works in at safety as well. The Patriots will move around before the snap rather than simply line up and let Manning pick his matchup. Look for the Patriots' outside linebackers to line up on slot receivers to make the initial bump.
The Patriots signed cornerback Hank Poteat this week, but it's unclear what kind of defensive role he might play. He could be utilized as the punt returner with New England using Troy Brown as a short man to catch any punts that are either mis-hit or are affected by the conditions. Brown's deployment in that role prevents the primary returner from having to race up to make a catch or make a decision on whether to catch a short punt that could end up deflecting off a Patriot and possible resulting in a turnover.
If Richard Seymour is unable to play because of the knee injury he suffered against the Jets back on Dec. 26, the Patriots will use a combination of Jarvis Green and rookie Vince Wilfork at his defensive end spot.
- LB Matt Chatham is expected to play this week after missing the last four
games and six of the last eight with a hamstring injury that has hampered
him since training camp. He missed a portion of Wednesday's practice and is
listed as questionable.
- S Eugene Wilson, who missed the season finale with a thigh injury, practiced
Wednesday and is expected to play Sunday. He is not listed on the injury report,
which included 15 players for the season finale, but just four this week.
- TE Daniel Graham, who missed two of the last four games with a rib injury,
practiced Wednesday and will play this weekend. He is not listed on the injury
- S Dexter Reid missed the last three games with a shoulder injury, but has
been cleared to practice and play. He practiced Wednesday and should give
the coverage teams a boost. The Patriots have been shuffling gunners around
with Reid out, but he should return to that role opposite Je'Rod Cherry on
the punt coverage team.
- DL Richard Seymour is listed as questionable and missed at least a portion
of team practice Wednesday. He has not been in the locker room this week while
it has been open to the media.
- RB Kevin Faulk is questionable with a knee injury and missed a portion of
practice Wednesday. He said that he is working to get back on the field, but
was vague about when that might happen.
- LB Eric Alexander missed a portion of practice Wednesday with an ankle injury.
- QBs Tom Brady and Jim Miller did not appear on the injury report for the first time all season.
GAME PLAN: The defensive game plan will revolve around two areas. First will be New England's ability to play physical against the Colts receivers. The only way to stop speed is with strength, and the Patriots' defensive strength is its ability to outmuscle teams. The Patriots will use very little if any, man-to-man coverage because of inexperience on the corners, but that will not prevent the corners from pressing and preventing a free release off the line of scrimmage before dropping into the zone with deep help over the top. Look for New England to use a similar strategy against the tight ends that can exploit the middle of the field deep down the seam if the safeties are splitting into the deep halves of the field. The Patriots may simply bump the tight ends with outside linebackers while the inside linebackers drop into deep zone coverage. If the Patriots allow the Colts receivers to run free off the line, they will be torched all evening.
The other critical area for New England is to move around and disguise its defenses as much as possible. Indy will be expected to combat that with some quick counts out of their no huddle offense. But Belichick knows simply lining up and declaring the defense is not the way to go.
"It is bad enough trying to stop whatever they have called," he said. "It is worse when they have the very best play they can have on against the coverage that you are in, so you want to try to avoid that situation as much as you can. If he hits the right one and dials it up right, there is nothing you can do about that. But, if you show him 'this is what we are in. What do you want to do about it?,' he will probably have a pretty good attack against it. So, that is not where you want to be.
"It is a cat and mouse game. Sometimes they go quicker and you try to get too cute and wait too long to get into your defense and then end up not being where you need to be when the ball is snapped. They are very efficient. They are a very good offensive team. They change the cadence. They change the tempo. They can maneuver easily to the plays they are looking for - run, pass or play action - whether they are on the goal line or their own 1-yard line. Again, they don't make very many mistakes. You don't see a lot of blown assignments. You don't see a lot of penalties. You don't see a lot of dropped balls. Sometimes if you just stand there on defense the offense will have a bad play. But, that is very rarely the case with the Colts."
Offensively, the Patriots will simply do what they do, which is feature Corey Dillon and look to make plays down the field off of play action against what is expected to be mostly eight-man fronts. But look for Tom Brady to also utilize the short, high percentage passes that he's had so much success with against Indy. It is widely thought that New England will try to employ a ball control attack centered around Dillon, and while that may be the case, Belichick said that scoring, regardless of how long or how many plays it takes, is more important that controlling the ball for extended lengths of time.
"I think the bottom line is to score," Belichick said. "It doesn't really make any difference if both teams have eight possessions, nine possessions or 14 possessions. It will be what the production is with those numbers of possessions. In other words, going out there running quarterback sneaks and keeping the clock running and all of that, if you're not producing any points or creating any field position, then in the end I don't think you're going to be happy with those results even though you might eat up some time."
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots CBs vs. Colts WRs: Can the trio of Asante Samuel, Randall Gay and Troy Brown slow the Colts enough to even make them punt? Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley certainly have the edge in this matchup. That trio combined to catch 231 passes for 3,400 yards and 37 touchdowns. The Patriots trio of corners has played in only 53 combined NFL games as defensive players (Brown is a 12-year veteran with only nine games of experience on defense).
Patriots coach Bill Belichick vs. Colts QB Peyton Manning: The Colts are 1-6 under Manning against the Belichick-coached Patriots while going 42-21 against the rest of the league during that time. Belichick has been able to devise good schemes and get his players to execute those plans well against the Colts. New England has hung on at times, which has caused the so-called Belichick dominance of Manning to become overblown, but the Patriots have almost always come up with the play they've needed to beat Manning and the Colts.
Patriots LT Matt Light vs. Colts DE Dwight Freeney: Light has struggled against the Colts speedy pass rusher who brings an array of pass rushing moves to the table, but has fared better against him in games played at Gillette Stadium where the grass can somewhat neutralize Freeney's speed advantage and where he is a split second slower off the ball without crowd noise to impact the offensive line. But Freeney will also move after the snap and put pressure on guard Joe Andruzzi as well. Light will get some help from a tight end or a back at times.
RB Corey Dillon vs. the Colts LBs: Dillon is a power runner who gained more than 1,600 yards this season. He has added a new element to the Patriots offense and one the Colts haven't had to face against the Patriots. He had only 15 carries in the first meeting this season and is sure to get more this time. How the smaller, but fast Indy linebackers get Dillon down will be a big part of the Colts defensive success or failure.
INJURY IMPACT: If Seymour doesn't play, Green will start in his place while Vince Wilfork works in as well at both Seymour's end spot and nose tackle where he already rotates with Keith Traylor. Because the Colts throw the ball so efficiently, Green would figure to get more snaps on the end than the stouter Wilfork. If Chatham and Alexander are unable to go, the special teams onus will fall to guys like Tedy Bruschi, Roman Phifer, Mike Vrabel and maybe even Ted Johnson this week. Both of the injured linebackers see action exclusively on special teams. If Kevin Faulk is out, Patrick Pass will continue to fill in as the third down back.
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