PHOTO: Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning walks off the field during the first half of their AFC divisional playoff game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2005, in Foxboro, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
The Patriots: Simply the Better Team
By Darren Kelly, Site Contributor
Perhaps the New England Patriots are to the Indianapolis Colts what the Denver Broncos were to the Cleveland Browns in the '80s. Or the Road Runner to the Coyote. Or every dictator in history to France. Or the New York Yankees to the Boston Red Sox. Well, the pre-2004 Yanks and Sox anyway.
Or perhaps the Patriots are just the better team. With better players who execute better and play better. And better coaches who devise game plans better and coach better. Or is that too simple?
Whatever the answer, Peyton Manning spent another January Sunday evening in Foxboro trying to learn the secret himself. Another stellar season, another frustrating loss at the hands of the New England Patriots.
Outplaying the Colts in every faze of the game, the Patriots played smashmouth football on both sides of the ball to earn a convincing playoff win over the Colts, 20-3. Now it's on to Pittsburgh for a rematch of their regular season battle and of their 2001 AFC Championship Game.
But just how did the Patriots dismantle the Colts with such precision on both offense and defense? Let's take a look.
One thing that was touted before (and even after) the game as a reason for the Patriots' success was their ball-control offense, keeping the ball away from the Colts. Comparisons were even made to the Parcells (and Belichick)-led New York Giants of Super Bowl XXV.
But there is a subtle difference between these sets of cousins in the Belichick family. The 1990 Giants were designed to run the ball and chew up the clock. Field goals were actually the norm for that team (as they beat the San Francisco 49ers on five FGs in the NFC Championship Game before beating the Bills by one point in the Super Bowl).
However, the goal of this Patriots offense has never been time of possession. It's scoring touchdowns (they finished with the 7th best offense in the league, scoring the 4th most points after all). Charlie Weiss' initial game plan on Sunday did not appear to include a majority of running plays. As a matter of fact, the Patriots ran 18 pass plays and only 12 running plays in the first half. And Brady tried to go deep on two different occasions, tossing out the 10-yards-at-a-time theory. This may have stemmed from their last meeting (the Pats' 27-24 win in Week 1) when the pass/run breakdown was 38/17 and Brady threw for 335 yards and 3 TDs. In addition, the Colts were 29th against the pass this season.
But as these Patriots have shown time and time again over the years, they are willing to adapt to the situation before them. Their best drive of the first half (a 16-play, 78-yard drive that took 8:42 and resulted in a 24-yard Adam Vinatieri FG) featured 8 running plays, including 5 in a row to begin the drive and 3 in a row at the end. And it would have been 4 in a row if not for the false start penalty that nullified the touchdown.
Armed with the knowledge that the running game was humming (with both Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk picking up decent yardage on every down), the Pats changed their game plan beginning with their second drive of the 2nd half. Following Indianapolis' 5th punt of the game the Patriots ran the ball on 25 out of their final 36 plays. This, of course, resulted in long, time-consuming drives. On back-to-back drives the Pats had the ball for a combined 29 plays, marching 182 yards, taking 15:21 off the clock. Another key to keeping these drives going was New England's 3rd down proficiency. The Pats were 5-for-5 on 3rd down on their two long touchdown drives. And Dillon acknowledged what everyone in Patriots Nation already knew, that every win is a team effort. "That's the concept down here. It's a team," Dillon said.
What do Romeo Crennel's charges do every time to confuse the Colts? It's all about game planning and discipline. According to Rodney Harrison, "it was just the best game plan that we've had since I've been here."
Deception appears to be one of the keys to New England's success. Many times the Pats lined up with the exact same formation but ended up doing different things. Three would rush, dropping eight into coverage. On the next play five would rush. Or the safety would blitz. They even ran what appeared to be Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy's "Tampa Two" defense, with the safeties playing deep and a linebacker (usually Tedy Bruschi) in coverage in the middle of the field. This prevented Manning from having the time or the patience to complete long passes (his longest completion of the day went for 18 yards).
The Pats also routinely hit the Colts' receivers as they were coming off the line, almost daring the refs to throw a flag. And the hitting was fierce. Just before halftime, facing 2nd-and-3 at the 5-yard line, Mike Vrabel leveled Dallas Clark as he came across the middle. With his primary target on the ground and 8 men in coverage, Manning had nowhere to go with the ball and fired it among 3 Patriots in the end zone, settling for a field goal. But because the Pats kept hitting within the allowable 5-yard area, they ended up getting flagged just once the entire game for defensive holding.
They also brought the lumber after the receivers caught the ball. Just 2 plays before the Vrabel hit, Brandon Stokley caught a short pass from Manning only to get crushed by a vicious Asante Samuel hit. Stokley would catch just 2 more passes the rest of the game.
Winning the turnover battle is often a big key to victory in the NFL, and in this game the Pats were at their ball-hawking best. Vrabel sacked Manning and knocked the ball loose (the Colts recovered). Bruschi ripped the ball out of Dominic Rhodes' hands for a fumble recovery. Harrison knocked the ball out of Reggie Wayne's hands while he was being tackled and (again) Bruschi recovered the fumble. And on the final drive of the game, with the Colts marching, Harrison intercepted Manning in the end zone for an appropriate exclamation point finish to the game.
We've heard all the stats. The Pats are 7-0 in the playoffs under Belichick. The Pats are 13-0 the 2nd time they face the same quarterback in a season. The Pats are now 32-4 over the last two years. And a big part of that is coaching. Belichick, Crennel, and Weiss have formed the hands-down best coaching staff in the league.
Great coaches adapt their game plan to the personnel they have and the situations that arise during the game. The New England defense was stout when they needed to be. On the Colts' only two long drives of the game, the Pats were able to bend but not break, allowing Manning time, knowing that it would be the Colts making the mistake eventually. At other times, they were the aggressors, forcing the play, ball-hawking and getting the ball back for the offense.
As for the Colts? CBS analyst Phil Simms said early on in the broadcast that the Colts were going to be "more persistent in sticking to the running game." But during their first 5 drives, they ran the ball just 10 times while setting up 16 passing plays. In the second half they ran the ball just 5 times. The Colts' coaching staff couldn't adapt their team to what the Pats were doing. But the Patriots, if nothing else, are an adaptable team. Belichick summed it all up by saying, "it was an awesome performance. The second half was our best 30 minutes of football this season."
Now it's off to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship Game. A team the Patriots played earlier in the season (losing 34-20). The place where the Pats won the 2001 AFC Championship Game. Will the Patriots be the better team again? We'll find out on Sunday.
Darren is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: DestinationSuperBowl. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "Darren Kelly"
If you are reading this article via a news portal, you can find the original
Or you can reach Darren and the rest of the Insider regulars in