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Wilson, Samuel will get schooled if they don't have the answers

FOXBOROUGH -- Ty Law's lonely Saturday night here in the Patriots' secondary amounted to one measly Steve McNair pass. The Tennessee mountain of a quarterback threw Law's way once, and only once, then spent the rest of the night firing to just about every other nook and cranny in New England's frozen landscape.

"Yeah, we've been kind of talking about that," mused rookie corner-turned-safety Eugene Wilson, just prior to New England's workout here yesterday at the Lighthouse in the Forest. "They may have [gone] away from him, but I mean Ty's an All-Pro cornerback, and sometimes the game plan is to go away from him -- because it's Ty."

If Indianapolis has scripted a similar game plan, that no doubt means Wilson and fellow freshman Asante Samuel will be busier than a pair of Town Taxi dispatchers Sunday afternoon when the Patriots take on the Colts here for the AFC Championship.

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has a way of going after everybody, and staying after them, as he did Nov. 30 in Indianapolis when he picked apart the Patriots for four of his 29 TD passes this season. New England allowed only seven other TD passes in their 15 other games. Manning has become expert at finding a club's vulnerabilities, and then exploiting them, often accelerating the process with a hurry-up offense that doesn't allow defenses time to shift in personnel to neutralize unfavorable matchups.

Only logical then, given a choice between being on the right side of the Law or trying to run roughshod over a couple of rookies such as Wilson and Samuel, Manning is most likely to play the law of averages and test the kids.

"That was a little different," said Law, reviewing his one-play work day vs. the Titans. "I thought I was going to get a little bit more, especially since they threw at me first. I guess I can look at it as a compliment, a sign of respect. But at the same time, I always have to be prepared, and I know that it won't happen like that this week."

Law is assured that Manning won't be a one-trick Colt.

"Uh, Peyton Manning and, uh, Marvin Harrison and the receiving crew they've got," Law figured, "I think I'll be seeing a lot more action."

Harrison finished with 1,272 yards via the air and 10 TD receptions, accounting for nearly one-third of Manning's total yards (4,267) and TDs (29). Reggie Wayne was Manning's next favorite target, the third-year wideout snaring 68 passes for 838 yards and seven TDs. Marcus Pollard, Troy Walters, and Brandon Stokley all cashed in three TD passes apiece.

All those options, all those able pass-catching hands, can make even the game's steadiest defensive game-planner alter his scope of expectations.

"He's been spectacular," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, marveling over Manning's success. "It's almost like if it's a 20-yard completion, you've held him." The New England defense will be challenged, added Belichick, "across the board."

Shifted into that safety slot, it will be Wilson's job to keep his corners cued and alert when Manning sets his sights downfield. Wilson was strictly a corner in his days at Illinois, and his change in job classification came after the secondary stumbled badly against the Bills in the season opener. The shuffling of the cards back there, in part, soon helped launch the Patriots on their way to their franchise-high 13-game winning streak.

Along the way, it was Manning's four-TD day that proved to be the most arduous for the New England secondary. Pollard, Wayne, Harrison, and Walters all caught Manning aerials for TDs, the strikes ranging from 6 to 26 yards.

"I don't know, it's tough to say," said Wilson, asked if the long day against the Colts was his toughest game of the season. "There were a couple of plays made on me, but . . . I felt as a defense we made a lot of good plays, but at the same time, we made a couple of mistakes -- and those are mistakes we learned from."

There comes a time, said Belichick, when rookies have to stop being perceived as rookies.

"I don't know exactly what point that happens, be it the 16th game or the 18th game," he said, "but I don't think they are rookies anymore. By this time they've had all the game situations, all the calls. What more can they see? Hopefully, they've got it by now."

Veteran safety Rodney Harrison, who toiled for nine seasons in the San Diego secondary before signing here as a free agent last March, figures no one wants to see the Patriots win Sunday.

"Because," said Harrison, "Peyton Manning is everyone's favorite."

Nonetheless, said the veteran, past perfomance should have no bearing. You can take that four-TD day Manning posted the last time they met and file it under fuggedaboutit. The key now, he said, will be to prevent AirIndy's skilled receivers from running free downfield, and for the secondary to play with patience and intelligence.

"I've been preaching to Eugene that we have to be patient," said Harrison. "We can't try to do everything ourselves out there. We can't let Stokley run free right up the middle of the field, and that's what's been going on -- you can't let 'em run free, or they're going to kill you, especially with the Colts and especially with Manning. He's going to find 'em."

Question is, will Manning first look for Law, and then set his sights on multiple receivers heading in the directions of Wilson and Samuel?

"Have to wait and see," said Wilson, asked whether he'd be made one of Manning's targets, "I don't know. I like it when people throw at me, myself, because it gives me more opportunities to make plays."

There is little doubt he'll have his chance, and little doubt it will be more than one.

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