We all know better than to fear a Goliath
FOXBOROUGH -- Blinded by the light. We have seen this before.
Peyton Manning just posted the gaudiest quarterback numbers of all-time. Forty-seven of 48 voters agreed he was the Most Valuable Player in the NFL this year. His surgical Sunday against the Denver Broncos made jaws drop and had commentators gushing like teenage girls at a Justin Timberlake concert.
So the Colts are the bomb. Peyton Manning throws the bomb, and every other pass. He is a worthy successor to that other Colts QB who wore black high-tops. His quick-strike capability is beyond compare. Given the Patriots' Law-lessness and other holes in the defensive backfield, it looks as though Manning and the Colts might be on their way to the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh next weekend.
But wait . . . we have seen this before.
A couple of lifetimes ago, the defending champion Boston Celtics faced a threat from the greatest offensive force the game ever had known. His name was Wilt Chamberlain and he would average 50 points per game. He also was a rebounding machine. He never fouled out. He was bigger and stronger than everyone. He was Goliath. There was no way to beat him.
But the Celtics did beat him. The Celtics had the best coach. Red Auerbach could get into Wilt's head. Red could psyche out the big fella. The Celtics also had Bill Russell, who didn't have the physical skills of Chamberlain but somehow always won. Russell would let Wilt get his points and rebounds, but the Celtics annually beat Chamberlain's team in the playoffs.
Forty years later, a Chamberlainlike threat again comes to Greater Boston. Manning looks simply unstoppable. This year he threw 49 touchdown passes and amassed 6,475 yards of total offense. He threw for 360 yards and put five touchdowns on the board in the first half of last Sunday's playoff game. That's like an NBA player scoring 50 points a game.
And so 40 years later, New England sports fans are counting on Bill Belichick to be like Auerbach. And they need Tom Brady to be like Russell. And Gillette Stadium has to be the same haunted house that Boston Garden was when Chamberlain came to town with the Warriors, 76ers, or Lakers.
So far, so good. Belichick has dominated Manning the way Auerbach owned Chamberlain. Manning is 1-5 in six starts against Belichick. Manning is 0-5 at Foxborough. Against the Patriots, Manning has 19 interceptions to go along with his 21 touchdown passes. He is 2-9 against New England overall, including five straight losses. The Colts have not won a game in Foxborough in 10 years.
Meanwhile, Brady is a Russellesque 5-0 against the Colts. He has completed 67 percent of his passes against Indianapolis. He can't match Manning when the stats are passed around, but he's always on the winning side of these matchups.
There won't be any Vanderjagtlike quotes coming from the Patriots this week. New England players never give the enemy material for the Sunday bulletin board.
Linebacker Tedy Bruschi watched every down of Sunday's rout and acknowledged, "I am impressed," then added, "But as a competitor and a football player, I say, `Put us out there.' Our confidence is high in this room. When we see something like that, we don't say, `Oh, we can't stop that.' "
They know they can stop it. They stopped it last year in Indianapolis on the goal line. They stopped it in Foxborough in January when they intercepted Manning four times in the AFC Championship game. And they stopped it again in the 2004 season opener on national TV when they watched the Colts' loose-talking kicker miss a field goal at the buzzer.
They also know enough not to depend on recent history.
"We don't want to reflect on the past," said linebacker Willie McGinest. "None of that matters. None of the Super Bowls matter and the last postseason doesn't matter. We're underdogs and we like that. The Colts have a right to be confident and we have all the respect for them in the world."
The Patriots are not underdogs. New England is favored by 2 points, but a lot of early money has been wagered on the Colts. Once again, they are the NFL flavor of the month.
But until they win in New England -- until Manning can produce his magic on the cold Foxborough lawn -- there will be doubts about the Colts.
It should be mentioned that in 1967 Chamberlain finally did beat Russell and the Celtics. Auerbach had retired and the Celtics were aging and Wilt the Stilt was surrounded by talented team players named Hal Greer, Luke Jackson, Billy Cunningham, and Chet Walker. The Sixers beat the Celtics easily in the playoffs that spring, breaking Boston's string of eight consecutive championships.
It will happen that way for the Colts someday. Sooner or later, Manning is going to come to Foxborough and play the way he plays everywhere else.
But not yet. Not this weekend. Some combination of Rodney Harrison, Dick Albert, Walt Coleman, Bill Belichick, Mish Michaels, Tom Brady, and Mark Henderson will conspire to deny Indianapolis once again.
Let's just hope USAir is still in business to take us all to Pittsburgh next weekend.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.