It's that time of year again. Despite not getting first-round byes in the playoffs, both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning led their teams to the AFC Championship Game. The Colts have taken the last two regular-season meetings but have yet to beat the Patriots in the post-season.
After getting blasted during the regular season, the Colts defense has done a complete turnaround in the playoffs. Against the Chiefs and Ravens, Indianapolis only allowed 370 total yards and 14 points. It has been a remarkable change for a defense that took a lot of heat throughout the year.
However, conservative game plans by Kansas City and Baltimore helped Indianapolis' defense gain the confidence it was lacking all season. Peyton Manning's postseason struggles are well documented, and he hasn't done anything in the Colts' first two playoff games this year to change that perception. He's thrown five interceptions and only one touchdown, but the good news for Manning is the Colts won both games despite his poor play, something they couldn't do in the past.
While Manning hasn't played well in the post-season, he did put up another MVP-caliber year. Manning threw for 4,397 yards and 31 touchdowns while leading the Colts to a 12-4 record. He has the luxury of throwing to two Pro Bowl receivers, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. The dynamic duo combined for 181 receptions, 2,676 yards and 21 touchdowns on the year.
Manning, Harrison and Wayne have torched the Patriots defense the last two times the teams faced each other, and it's hard to believe the explosive Colts offense will remain dormant for much longer. New England's defensive front needs to apply pressure and hope cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs play better against the Colts receivers than they did in the November matchup.
"We didn't do very well against them last time we played them, so hopefully we can do better this time," coach Bill Belichick said. "I think we all know what kind of offensive team they have. They're tough at home, they have great players, they're well-coached. It will be a big challenge for us to go into Indy and be competitive with them."
As Indianapolis' passing attack looks to regain its form, the Colts running game really showed something against the Ravens. Protecting a lead late in the fourth quarter, Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai kept the chains moving, allowing Adam Vinatieri to put the game away with a field goal.
The Colts have a plethora of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, but on defense, Bob Sanders is easily Indianapolis' MVP. Sanders missed most of the year with a knee injury, although he did play against the Patriots in November.
With the physical safety in the lineup, the Colts rush defense is much better thanks to Sanders' ability to come up and make tackles. After the Colts defeated New England 27-20 earlier this year, Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy said Sanders saved at least two touchdowns by making tackles on running back Laurence Maroney after he got past the defensive line. Sanders is making a similar impact for the Colts defense in the postseason by making plays all over the field.
"Sanders is a good player, there is no question about it, but that's no one-man band over there by any stretch of the imagination," Belichick said. "They have a lot of good players on the defensive side of the football."
After a subpar regular season that saw him register only 5.5 sacks, Dwight Freeney has stepped up his game in the playoffs as well. Freeney has three sacks in two postseason games. The Colts pass rush in general has caused problems for both Trent Green and Steve McNair.
The Indianapolis defensive line will need another good performance this Sunday when Tom Brady comes to town. Brady has had big games against the Colts in the past. Indianapolis' defense is built for speed, and it plays much better at home than it does on the road. If this reformed defense can hold the Patriots to 20 points as they did two months ago, the Colts have a great chance of playing in the Super Bowl.
The Colts and Patriots have turned into the NFL's best rivalry. A lot of that has to do with the marquee quarterbacks and the playoff battles won by New England in the past. Manning is still chasing that elusive Super Bowl ring, while Brady is looking for his fourth in six years.
This game is intriguing on many levels. Will Brady and Belichick block Manning's quest for a championship yet again, or will Manning finally get his team to the Super Bowl? Of course, with the way Indianapolis' defense is playing right now, Manning may finally have the help he needs to get over the hump. But as he knows all too well, beating the Patriots in the playoffs is a tall order.