PHOTO: New England Patriots linebacker Teddy Bruschi (54) celebrates with teammates after recovering a second half fumble against the Indianapolis Colts in a AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2005, in Foxboro, Mass. The Patriots beat the Colts, 20-3. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Bill Belichick has coached some of the more memorable defensive performances in recent NFL history. His Super Bowl XXV game plan from the Giants' win over Jim Kelly's Bills is on display in the Hall of Fame. He is credited with slowing the Greatest Show on Turf when his Patriots beat the high-flying St. Louis Rams to win Super Bowl XXXVI. And then there was last year when the Colts came to Foxborough for the AFC Championship Game after not having punted in their first two postseason games only to lose 24-14 to New England. Those all pale in comparison to what Belichick's Patriots did Sunday.
The 2004 Colts were allegedly at a different level. They led the league with 522 points or almost 33 per game. Peyton Manning tossed an NFL record 49 touchdown passes and had three wide receivers that each eclipsed 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, an NFL first. They were coming off a 49-point effort in their playoff opener in a game they led Denver 35-3 at halftime. But Sunday at Gillette Stadium, that Colts offense produced one trip inside the Patriots 20-yard line, 49 rushing yards and only three points. Put this plan in Canton next to the other because this was the most impressive yet.
It didn't come in the Super Bowl mind you, but it was pure mastery and the execution of it was near perfect.
"I know we had a great plan, an unbelievable plan," linebacker Mike Vrabel confirmed. "Our coaches got together and came up with some good stuff. We were able to execute it. We just gave them different looks, stuff they hadn't seen from us before."
The Patriots constantly changed looks in the front seven to stress the pass protection and what Belichick referred to as the "leverage points." By doing that, they not only made things mentally taxing for Manning, who is known to audible to a play that's perfect for the defense he sees, but also for the offensive front trying to open holes for befuddled running back Edgerrin James, who couldn't explain what happened after his team's latest loss to the Patriots, this one by a 20-3 count.
James finished with 14 carries for an inconsequential 39 yards. But the work the Patriots did against the Colts receivers was unpredictably dominant. As expected, the Patriots jammed the receivers on every snap to disrupt the Colts offensive rhythm while defending the run with seven and using two deep safeties to take away the deep part of the field. But in doing so, the linebackers had some deep drop responsibilities and had to carry the back or slot receiver down the field to make sure they weren't hit deep down the middle against split safeties. For some unexplainable reason, the Colts never attacked vertically on that inside matchup and instead tried to attack that strategy with some dump downs and screens to James. The defensive line and linebacker Tedy Bruschi foiled that plan.
"The last thing you want to do is let them run free down the middle of the field," Vrabel said. "With Tedy doing a great job with the screens, he gave us an opportunity to run a little deeper in our coverage drops."
"If the defensive line doesn't read it, the screen can be a big play if you're not careful," linebacker Ted Johnson added. "Our defensive line is pretty good at recognizing the screen. They hurt us on a couple, but a couple went our way."
One of the latter came when Bruschi slipped behind the blockers and ripped the ball free from Dominic Rhodes for one of three Patriots takeaways. "That was a screen that Bruschi got the fumble on," Johnson acknowledged. "If you can read it right away and get by the blockers before they see you, that's the best thing. That's what he did. That was a great play."
One of New England's wrinkles was to stay in a base defense against Indy's three-wide receiver package and use a linebacker to chuck both the slot receiver, Brandon Stokley, and tight end Dallas Clark. By staying in their base set, the Patriots were better able to defend the run, and their physical style helped re-route receivers while giving the rush some time to get to Manning, who was flustered in the pocket at times by the pass rush.
"We were thinking they expected us to play a lot of nickel when they went to three receivers," linebacker Roman Phifer said. "We had both our nickel and base defenses ready and it was up to Romeo (Crennel) and Bill as to what they wanted to do. We were able to match up with both schemes."
Belichick downplayed the effect of the game plan. "We didn't do anything spectacular," he said. "We were just trying to change up, keep them off balance, get some different combinations in there and utilize different rush schemes. We came in at halftime and everybody realized we needed our best 30 minutes of football of the season. I really thought we got it."
They also got a third trip to the AFC Championship Game in four seasons and a rematch with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who ended New England's 21-game winning streak with a 34-20 beating back on Oct. 31.
The Patriots had four scoring drives Sunday against the Colts and the numbers on those are astounding. The four combined to consume 51 plays, 307 yards and 26:13. Their other five possessions accounted for 11:30. But it was New England's second half offensive execution that proved too difficult for Indy to overcome.
The Patriots drove 87 yards and 94 yards for touchdowns in the second half while converting all five third down tries on those two possessions. That third down conversion success rate was critical to the Patriots success because it left league MVP Peyton Manning watching from the sideline helpless to rally his team from behind.
"Finish. Finish the game," is how Kevin Faulk explained the mentality inside the Patriots huddle throughout the second half. "The last couple of games against them, we had them and they came back and scored points and made the game closer than it really was. We wanted to finish the game and not let them back in."
They did that with a pounding running game that totaled 210 yards led by Corey Dillon's 144 and Faulk's 56. Faulk also made a crucial 11-yard reception to convert a third-and-10 play from the Patriots' own 6-yard line that jumpstarted the 94-yard touchdown march.
Trying to deny the cold and wind chill that made it feel like 16 degrees, three Colts came out for pregame warm-ups in shorts. Josh Williams, Jason Stewart and Josh Scott were the "brave" Indy players and their bare legs brought to a mind a quote from former Patriot Otis Smith about playing sleeveless in New England's bone-chilling temperatures. "They can pretend they're not cold," Smith once said. "But they're cold. Because it's cold out there."
- New England is now 21-2 since 1993 in games when the temperature falls below
35 degrees and they are 8-0 in Foxborough when it snows. Inclement weather
hit New England all week and much was made of the Gillette Stadium Field remaining
uncovered, but the field appeared to hold up well. "I didn't think the
footing was too bad," linebacker Mike Vrabel said.
- Linebacker Tedy Bruschi let out some pent up emotion after the game, laying
into the Colts for what he has deemed disrespectful comments after previous
meetings between the two teams, including last year when the Patriots physical
tactics led Colts GM Bill Polian to engineer a point of emphasis against contact
in the secondary.
"I'm just trying to think of what excuses they'll be saying in the locker room right now," Bruschi said. "I wonder what rules they want to change now. Maybe it will be we can't play a game in the snow. I don't know, but they will think of something. I was just tired of it. I was tired of hearing this and that, them talking about the last game and how we didn't win the game, that they lost the game by giving the ball away. (Sunday), we just took it away from them."
Polian, incidentally, sits in the press box to watch the game. During last year's AFC Championship Game, he pounded his fists in disgust as blatant penalties went uncalled late in that game. This year, he let a loud moan after a holding call against the Colts nullified a Peyton Manning completion.
- The Colts were happy to have a rematch against the Patriots, and now the
Patriots are happy for the same opportunity against the Steelers. "We've
been looking forward to this opportunity ever since they beat us," safety
Eugene Wilson said. Several Patriots called Pittsburgh "the best team
in football." Coach Bill Belichick was included in that group.
- QB Tom Brady is now 7-0 as a playoff starter and 6-0 against Manning the
Colts. Brady scored his second career postseason rushing touchdown Sunday
when he dived in from the 1-yard line. His first career postseason rushing
touchdown also came in the snow against the Raiders in the 2001 postseason
when he scored on a 6-yard scramble.
- DL Richard Seymour's status for this Sunday remains questionable. The Patriots
will once again prepare to play without Seymour and hope he can make it back
from the knee injury he suffered against the Jets back on Dec. 26.
- CB Troy Brown broke up a third-and-nine pass to Brandon Stokley in the first
quarter, but then was victimized by Stokley for five completions on the Colts
last two possessions of the first half. He was used less frequently in the
second half with New England staying in its base defense and hitting Stokley
with a linebacker instead of covering him with a nickel defender.
- LT Matt Light had some tough moments Sunday evening. Light committed a heinous
false start penalty on a fourth-and-one from the 1-yard line situation that
nullified Corey Dillon's touchdown plunge. He also struggled handling NFL
sack leader Dwight Freeney while in pass protection. "Oh, that was terrible,"
Light said of his penalty. "Obviously, you can't ever do that. I've been
around too long to make mistakes like that. And that's disappointing to me,
but it was one of those things it was early enough in the game, you've got
to brush it off and get back out there and work even harder. I lost my concentration
and made a bonehead mistake."
Light surrendered one sack to Freeney, but also allowed some pressures. "He's a tough guy to face. No doubt," Light added. "He did his patented spin move, but that was just a tough game from start to finish."
- RB Patrick Pass was the only Patriots player who suffered a reported injury during the game. He was helped off the field in the first quarter but returned in the second half. One published report indicated that Roman Phifer underwent a postgame X-ray, but that was not confirmed by the team.
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