Colts-Patriots: classic collision

AFC: In a powerhouse confrontation, co-MVP Peyton Manning brings Indianapolis' high-flying offense to New England to face Bill Belichick's high-achieving defense.

Nfl Conference Championships

January 18, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

A classic confrontation will unfold in today's AFC championship game in Foxboro, Mass., where the NFL's most unstoppable offense will clash with the most immovable defense.

On a chilly day at Gillette Stadium, the precision passing of Peyton Manning will collide with the sharp defensive mind of Bill Belichick, headlining the battle between the third-seeded Indianapolis Colts (14-4) and the top-seeded New England Patriots (15-2).

It's the NFL's co-Most Valuable Player vs. the league's Coach of the Year. It's the leader of the highest-scoring team in the playoffs (39.5 points a game) against the architect of the game's stingiest regular-season defense (14.9).

They have gone head-to-head nine times, with Belichick winning five. But never has a title been on the line. And never has Manning been so brilliant.

Manning is just 1.4 points from being perfect in these playoffs, based on the quarterback rating formula, the only concept in the NFL that might be more complicated than Belichick's defense.

"Peyton's aggressive, but at the same time, very disciplined," Belichick said. "I don't think he throws caution to the wind, but you can't go into the game thinking he won't make certain throws.

"If he thinks he can complete it, he'll throw it. He'll challenge you. He'll hit the soft spots in the defense, so you have to be good across the board. There aren't any shortcuts to defending against Manning."

In thrashing the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs, Manning has nearly as many touchdown passes (eight) as incompletions (12) this postseason. He is 44-for-56 for 681 yards with no interceptions.

With Manning at the helm, the Colts have scored on 13 of 17 postseason possessions (10 touchdowns and three field goals) and have converted 14 of 19 third-down attempts. They have yet to punt in the playoffs.

"I don't think I've ever seen a team run through the playoffs like they have," Belichick said. "[Their offense has been] spectacular. It's almost like if they get a 20-yard completion, you held them."

If any team is capable of slowing - or even stopping - the Colts, it would be the Patriots, winners of 13 straight games.

Belichick is famous for innovative game-planning. He always has a new wrinkle, a different approach, a surprising package of blitzes or stunts or both, or a new alignment or disguise.

As a result, New England's defiant defense has surrendered a total of 36 points in its past seven home games, including three shutouts. That's just more than five points a game.

Manning, who is 0-4 lifetime at Foxboro, is quite familiar with the Patriots' home dominance and their coach. In his faceoffs with Belichick, Manning has completed 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,288 yards, with 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

"I've had some pretty good battles against Coach Belichick," Manning said. "It's funny, I've had some wins when the statistics have been ugly. I had some games where I feel I've played well, but we've lost. I have the utmost respect for him as a coach and certainly as a defensive mind."

Breaking down Belichick's defense will rest with Manning, who routinely surveys the defense at the line of scrimmage and calls the play he feels will be most effective.

His stellar run in the playoffs reflects how strong he has been in identifying a defense's weakness and attacking it. Manning has averaged 15.5 yards a completion in the playoffs.

His likely targets today are a couple of New England rookies: free safety Eugene Wilson - who was burned twice by Manning earlier this season - and Asante Samuel, the fifth defensive back.

"If we keep playing like this," Colts tight end Marcus Pollard said, "then you can just go ahead and hand us the rings."

As gaudy as Manning's statistics are, the most impressive may be his sack total. He has been brought down only once in 57 pass plays and pressured just a handful of times.

The Patriots will come with different blitzes in hopes of hurrying Manning into mistakes. New England topped the NFL with 29 interceptions.

"If we let him play the way he's been playing, he's probably going to win in Foxboro," Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "But we'll be prepared. It's going to be our job to break up his rhythm. They go to the no-huddle because they're good at it and they want you to push the panic button. Sometimes it works. But we'll be ready for it."

Like the Patriots' defensive showing against the high-powered St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl two seasons ago, it's a bend-but-don't-break philosophy.

"They are going to make some first downs. They are going to move the ball," Belichick said. "The question is, how many points are they going to score?"

That's how the Patriots prevailed over Indianapolis, 38-34, in their meeting on Nov. 30. The Colts ran 13 plays inside the New England 20-yard line in the last 3:45 and came away with one field goal.

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