Pats look to derail Colts in opener

Tonight's game to test `chuck rule' enforcement in AFC title-game rematch

Pro Football

September 09, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

As if a matchup of quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady wasn't enough of a hook, tonight's season-opening extravaganza between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots draws another line in the sand.

Will the Patriots' combative defensive backs get away with knocking Colts' receivers off their pass routes, as they did in January's 24-14 victory in the AFC championship game?

Not if the NFL's promise to eliminate illegal contact and holding downfield rings true. The league decided to enforce a strict interpretation of the chuck rule after the Patriots bounced the Colts with a series of questionable plays late in that game.

Colts coach Tony Dungy said he was told by the league a penalty should have been called against the Patriots on all four plays of a Colts' possession in the final two minutes when they were down, 21-14.

Tonight's game in Foxboro, Mass., will be the first real test of the more strict interpretation. Even though the Patriots were flagged several times in preseason for illegal contact and holding, at least one player, cornerback Ty Law, told reporters he won't change his style of play.

Said Patriots coach Bill Belichick: "I don't have the stats on it, but we have had both of them called, and we have had them both called against us. ... I think there's a consistency to the way they're doing it. It's just being called tighter than it was before."

Manning needs only 115 passing yards at Gillette Stadium to hit 25,000 for his career, spanning 97 games. He would reach that milestone in the second-fewest games in league history behind Dan Marino, who did it in 92 games.

But Manning had the worst game of his season in January against the Patriots, throwing four interceptions. In two games against New England last season - both losses - he completed 54.7 percent of his passes, well off his league-high 67 percent.

Neither Manning nor the Patriots' Brady is looking for a windfall in penalty flags this time around.

"The completion and the touchdown is so much better than a 5-yard or 10-yard penalty," Manning said this week. "So we try to throw to the open guy and hit the guy in stride. That hasn't changed our philosophy."

Said Brady: "I think our [receivers] expect it to be physical. If the refs want to throw flags, then they are going to throw flags. I don't think counting on those flags is going to help us."

What would help the Colts most is not falling so far behind early in the game. They trailed the Patriots 15-0 at halftime of the AFC championship game, and were down 31-10 in the third quarter of a 38-34 regular-season loss in November in Indianapolis.

Deficits like those eliminate Manning's play-action fakes, which are key to his passing success.

What may help the Patriots' passing game is the presence of running back Corey Dillon, acquired in the offseason in a trade after seven years in Cincinnati. Dillon failed to reach 1,000 rushing yards last year for the first time in his NFL career and missed three games.

Brady hedged when asked about the personality of this year's offense.

"There is not much of an identity right now because the first unit has hardly been in there," he said. "I don't think it really shows itself until late in the year, when you are really starting to click on all cylinders."

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