INDIANAPOLIS -- Few experts predicted the season would come down to a showdown between the Patriots and the Colts, but it seems fitting.
"I think we all felt in our heart of hearts that we'd see New England at some point in the playoffs," Colts coach Tony Dungy said this week. "For us to get where we want to go, we're going to have to beat them. It's probably poetic justice. We're going to need our best game, and we're looking forward to it. I think it's going to play out that whoever plays the best on Sunday night is going to win. I don't think history is going to be much of a factor."
Perhaps not, but the two are longtime rivals, having done battle eight times since Tom Brady took over in New England. The Patriots lead the series in that time, 6-2, including a 2-0 advantage in the playoffs when they dominated the Colts both times at home. Peyton Manning's Colts have won the last two, however, games in which he threw for 647 yards and five touchdowns, but he is 4-10 lifetime against New England and has struggled mightily in their two postseason meetings, throwing only one touchdown pass and five interceptions.
The bulk of Manning's problems have come in Foxborough, Mass., where wind, cold, snow, and a hostile environment have conspired against him, with the help of an aggressive Patriot defense. Manning has thrown nine touchdown passes and 14 interceptions in those six games, but the two times he's gotten New England on his home field, where he'll have them again Sunday, he's had the opposite result, throwing five touchdown passes and only one pick while completing 51 of 82 for 613 yards on the fast turf.
None of that may amount to a hill of beans, however, if the Colts' run defense plays as it did during the regular season, when it was the league's worst. That defense has had a postseason rebirth in large part because of the return to good health of safety Bob Sanders and the insertion of linebacker Rob Morris into the starting lineup, but as the old boxing trainer, Cus D'Amato, used to say, "Guys born round don't die square." The Colts have been abysmal against the run all season, so they'll have to prove to the Patriots that they've really changed. If they haven't, they'll spend the afternoon getting knocked on their back by Laurence Maroney, Corey Dillon, and an offensive line that likes to mix it up in the running game.
New England believes it has the advantage where games are won and lost -- along the line of scrimmage. The Colts feel confident their passing game can blister New England's secondary again, as it did in November, as long as Manning gets the time to set his feet and throw.
One of them won't be right. The other will be in the Super Bowl.
Brady is 10-0 in domes, so there's no home-field advantage for the Colts. Although he has struggled a bit in the postseason this year, that has not been the case when the games have been on the line -- which frankly is the only time it really counts. He threw 51 times under a lot of duress against the Chargers and was near perfect in scoring drives that ended the first half and again in the fourth quarter, so not to worry about the three interceptions last Sunday. He's still thrown no interceptions in eight of the 13 playoff games he's started, games in which he's gone 12-1. In two playoff games indoors, Brady was 48 of 75 for 499 yards, four TDs, one interception, and a quarterback rating of 95.4.
Manning can't win, both literally and figuratively. He has been criticized for putting up gaudy numbers but not winning the big games in the postseason. This year his production is down, but he's 2-0 in the playoffs and just beat the best defense, statistically, in the AFC -- the Baltimore Ravens -- despite a 39.6 quarterback rating. So what are people saying? What's wrong with Manning? Nothing. All the pressure is on his shoulders because the constant drumbeat that he cannot win the Big One has become not only wearying, but also a potential reality if he fails to advance the Colts to the Super Bowl in his seventh time in the playoffs and second AFC title game.
Edge: New England
RB Corey Dillon, RB Laurence Maroney, RB Kevin Faulk, FB Heath Evans
The Patriots made little use of their running game last week, instead employing Faulk in an assortment of ways. Expect them to open the game testing the Colts' revamped run defense inside, with both Dillon and Maroney, then spreading them out with the short passing game before coming back with the kind of play-action runs that allowed New England to rush for 148 yards on 33 carries in a 27-20 loss to the Colts in November. Maroney rushed for 63 yards in that game and Dillon 48, and both will be exploited again. The Colts' run defense was the worst in the NFL in the regular season (173 yards per game) and although it has improved in the playoffs, it still seems suspect.
RB Joseph Addai, RB Dominic Rhodes
When the Colts drafted Addai in April, coach Tony Dungy felt sure he'd be a solid replacement for Edgerrin James, and he was right. Rhodes began the season as the starter, but over time the rookie from Louisiana State got the ball more and more, finishing with 1,081 yards, eighth in the AFC. He and Rhodes combined for 1,722 yards and 13 touchdowns, production that more than replaced James's numbers. Indy has ridden Addai hard near the end of the season and into the postseason, shoveling him the ball an average of 21.5 times in their two playoff victories. He's averaging a pedestrian 3.7 yards per carry, but he's getting big yards when they needed them to maintain ball control. He's also the club's second-leading receiver in the postseason with 10 catches.
WR Reche Caldwell, WR Jabar Gaffney, WR Troy Brown, WR Chad Jackson, WR Bam Childress, WR Kelvin Kight, TE Ben Watson, TE Daniel Graham, TE David Thomas.
Gaffney has emerged from nowhere to catch 18 passes for 207 yards and two scores in the postseason after catching only 11 balls in his 11 regular-season games as a Patriot. Gaffney may find himself more closely covered by the Colts, and if so, Tom Brady will try to make plays downfield with Watson. New England believes it has favorable matchups against the Colts' linebackers and secondary with Watson, who had four catches for 54 yards in their November meeting and has the speed to get deep. Brown has been a factor in so many Colt meetings, especially on third down. As for Caldwell, he doesn't have breakaway speed, but that didn't stop him from running a perfect go route to get open for a crucial 49-yard reception in San Diego.
WR Marvin Harrison, WR Reggie Wayne, WR Aaron Moorehead, WR Ricky Proehl, WR John Standeford, WR Terrence Wilkins, TE Dallas Clark, TE Ben Utecht.
This is a big advantage for the Colts. Harrison has yet to have a big day in the postseason but he has long been a Patriot nemesis, catching eight for 145 yards and two scores in the November meeting. Wayne is now the Colts' No. 1 receiver, although he's averaging only 8.7 yards a catch this postseason. Both can get deep and are always in synch with Peyton Manning, who seldom makes a read they haven't already seen themselves. Manning has willingly gotten the ball to Clark, who though he's listed as a tight end plays more like a traditional slot receiver, during the playoffs. That's a departure from Manning's obsession with finding his wideouts deep.
LT Matt Light, LG Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, RG Stephen Neal, RT Nick Kaczur, RT Ryan O'Callaghan
Light and tight end Daniel Graham did a good job working together to hold off Chargers pass rusher Shawne Merriman last week, but now they have to do it again against another speed rusher, Dwight Freeney. Freeney's game has slipped some this year, but he remains a dangerous pass rusher whose speed and style can cause problems for Light. Light struggles against speed rushers, sometimes to an alarming degree, as he did against Miami's Jason Taylor. The presence of a second rusher on the front line in Robert Mathis adds to the difficulties. This group is a powerful run-blocking unit and would love to be asked to just come off the ball and knock the undersized Colts' front back.
LT Tarik Glenn, LG Ryan Lilja, C Jeff Saturday, RG Jake Scott, RT Ryan Diem
This is an underrated group that allowed Peyton Manning to be sacked only 14 times this season in 557 pass attempts. It also opened enough holes for its running backs to rush for 1,722 yards with a 4-yard-per-carry average. That's the definition of a productive front line. The Colts line has allowed 155 sacks in the last 129 games, fewest in the league despite having an offense primarily built around throwing the ball. There are a lot of reasons Indianapolis has put up more than 5,000 yards of offense for nine consecutive seasons but it starts here, with an unheralded group that has played together for a long time and understands each other's strengths and weaknesses. EDGE: Even
DE Richard Seymour, NT Vince Wilfork, DE Ty Warren, DE Jarvis Green, NT Mike Wright.
Wilfork and Seymour will play important roles today. Wilfork has to hold his ground when Joseph Addai is sent inside and Seymour has to get a push up the middle when he slides inside and New England goes to a four-man front to rush the passer, because that's what makes Peyton Manning the most uncomfortable. Manning likes to step up and into his throws, and Seymour is the guy who has to be pushing the middle of the pocket to complicate that and help flush him out because he does not throw as well on the run. Warren is coming off another solid game against the Chargers and must continue to play at a high level. This is a physical front that will give the Colts' line a lot of problems as well as a street fight if they try to grind it out with the running game.
DE Robert Mathis, DE Dwight Freeney, DT Anthony McFarland, DT Raheem Brock, DT Dan Klecko, DE Josh Thomas.
Mathis and Freeney are exceptional pass rushers. Although Freeney's production is down some this year (5 1/2 sacks), he's still a disruptive force. Mathis had four multiple-sack games this season and finished with a club-high 9 1/2 sacks as teams concentrated more on stopping Freeney. The addition of McFarland midway through the season in a trade with Tampa Bay made a major impact on the inside, giving the Colts more size and athleticism. He'll have to come up big against the Patriots, however, and so will Brock.
EDGE: New England
OLB Tully Banta-Cain, ILB Tedy Bruschi, ILB Mike Vrabel, OLB Rosevelt Colvin.
Banta-Cain and Bruschi were exploited by the Chargers' running game last week and likely will be attacked again. The Colts like to run a stretch play with Joseph Addai in which the Colts zone block up front and look to open a seam for him to hit inside or outside of the outside linebacker. That's why Banta-Cain must be stouter this week or New England could be gashed again for more yardage than normal. Same is true of Bruschi, who made 11 tackles but most of them were too far downfield. Banta-Cain and Colvin will also be crucial factors in getting to Peyton Manning, who must be pressured into making mistakes.
SLB Rob Morris, MLB Gary Brackett, WLB
The Colts inserted Morris, a former middle linebacker, into the starting lineup on the outside in place of Gardner of late and it has made a significant difference in their run defense. Indianapolis finished last in the league against the run, allowing an abysmal 173 yards a game, a nearly historic example of ineptitude. But there has been a complete reversal in the postseason; in two games, the Colts have allowed an average of 63.5 yards a game, and Morris has had much to do with it. New England will very likely challenge this newfound stoutness. If the Colts don't respond as they have the last two games, they could get run out of their own stadium.
EDGE: New England
CB Asante Samuel, CB Ellis Hobbs, SS Artrell Hawkins, FS James Sanders, CB Chad Scott.
In November, Marvin Harrison torched the Patriots' secondary, but not at Samuel's expense. It would seem wise to put Samuel on Harrison in much the same way New England used to put Ty Law on him and then hope for the best, because he's their best corner. Feisty Hobbs is aggressive but sometimes to the point of exploitation. He needs to stay under control and be content with giving up a few yards while avoiding the big gain or the touchdown, especially if he finds himself matched up with Wayne, who has emerged as the Colts' best receiver after a decade in which Harrison was dominant. The safeties will face a significant challenge as well from tight end Dallas Clark.
CB Nick Harper, CB Jason David, SS Antoine Bethea, FS Bob Sanders, CB Marlon Jackson, SS Dexter Reid.
There is one special player here and it's Sanders. He started only four games this season because of serious knee injuries, but one was against the Patriots, when he had 11 tackles and an interception and seemed to be all over the field. He is tough at the line of scrimmage against the run, and in that game made several tackles on Laurence Maroney that if missed would have resulted in long gains. Bethea has played exceptionally well for a rookie, but will have to step up against a dangerous tight end in Ben Watson, who can make big plays downfield if not closely covered.
EDGE: New England
K Stephen Gostkowski, P Todd Sauerbrun, PR Kevin Faulk, PR Troy Brown, KR Laurence Maroney.
Gostkowski nailed his first game-winning kick, a 31-yarder, last week vs. San Diego and is 6 for 6 in the playoffs. He became the first rookie kicker to win a playoff game with a fourth-quarter kick since the Colts' Jim O'Brien won Super Bowl V in 1971. He also hit a 50-yarder vs. the Chargers, the longest playoff kick in Patriots history, but he again sent a kickoff out of bounds, which is the kind of mistake that can kill a team in a tight game. Sauerbrun is booming his punts of late, averaging 42.6 yards a kick in the postseason while netting 38. Maroney is an explosive returner but seems to have slowed a bit in the postseason, averaging nearly 6 fewer yards per return than during the regular season.
K Adam Vinatieri, P Hunter Smith, KR-PR Terrence Wilkins.
Vinatieri is the most clutch kicker in playoff history. Twice he's hit five field goals in a playoff game, including last weekend to score all of the Colts' points in a 15-6 victory over the Ravens. He has won 19 games with a field goal in the final minute of the fourth quarter or in overtime, two in Super Bowls while with the Patriots. He is fourth all time in field goal accuracy at 82.5 percent and is, as coach Tony Dungy said when Vinatieri hit a 51-yard field goal last week, "Money." Smith's leg strength has waned a bit. His net average was only 34.5 yards this season and is down to 33 in the playoffs. Wilkins has speed but is not terribly explosive, although he averaged 24.5 yards per kick return this season.
Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, defensive coordinator Dean Pees, special teams coordinator Brad Seely
Belichick is 13-2 as a playoff coach and added to his reputation last week by making a midgame switch from a two-tight-end set to the polar opposite, three wide receivers in a spread formation. That was a gamble that helped his team beat the Chargers. It is such in-game adjustments, as well as his legendary preparation, that has everyone believing he will have new wrinkles for Peyton Manning, even when there seem to be few left to pull out of his playbook. Seely has to get more out of his coverage teams, which have been getting annihilated lately.
Tony Dungy, offensive coordinator Tom Moore, defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, special teams coordinator Russ Purnell.
Dungy has the highest regular-season winning percentage among active coaches with 50 or more wins (114-62, .648), well ahead of Belichick's 111-81, .578, but coaches, like quarterbacks, are defined by their postseason record, and Dungy has yet to get a team to the Super Bowl despite leading nine of his 11 teams into the postseason. This will be his third appearance in a conference title game. His postseason record stands at 7-8, so until he wins a Super Bowl he will always be underrated by his critics. Moore has put together one of the most potent offenses in league history.