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COMMENTARY

Patriots hope to fly high in title game

Rivalry with Indianapolis brings out the best in New England

INDIANAPOLIS -- In many ways, this feels bigger than the Super Bowl, which will be played two weeks from tonight in Miami.

Super Bowl? We expect that little event will feature the favored Patriots against a representative from the decidedly weaker NFC. America's annual showcase of television commercials might wind up being a coronation for Messrs. Brady and Belichick, a fourth Lombardi Trophy to solidify Kraft's men as a modern NFL dynasty on a par with the Steelers of the 1970s.

Tonight's game? Patriots-Colts for the AFC Championship? This is better. This one has all the layers of tradition, pathos, and drama -- a storybook joust with all the trimmings of mystique and mythology.

Patriots-Colts is Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. It's Bill Belichick vs. the team of his youth. It's the Kraft family vs. Colts president Bill Polian. It's New England's rookie kicker vs. ex-Patriot kicking legend Adam Vinatieri. It's the horseshoes in the Patriots' pockets vs. the horseshoes on the Colts' helmets. It's the Patriots' mystique vs. the Colts' mistakes in past playoff games.

This is right up there with Red Sox-Yankees, Celtics-Lakers, Larry-Magic, and Russell-Chamberlain. Manning is Alex Rodriguez, Vinatieri is Johnny Damon, Tom Brady is Bill Russell, and Belichick, of course, is Red Auerbach.

Patriots-Colts in the AFC Championship game is the Kennedy-Nixon debate. We get to see Brady looking cool like JFK. We get to see Manning sweating like Tricky Dick. On national television.

There's plenty of pregame respect to go around, and it almost sounds sincere.

"It should be one of those classic games," said Brady, who in the last half-decade has produced some tournament moments that were instantly canonized.

There are no golden games frozen in time for poor Peyton. Remember the last time these teams met for the AFC Championship? It was three years ago at Gillette and Manning was intercepted four times in a 24-14 loss. Ty Law caught as many Manning passes as Marvin Harrison. Polian and the Colts cried foul and had the league address the rules regarding jamming receivers down field (the NFL's "Patriot Act").

The Colts came back for a playoff game one year later and Manning couldn't even get his team in the end zone, losing, 20-3. Cut that meat.

Pity the poor Colts. Indianapolis has pro football's best overall regular-season record since 1999 (89-39), but the ponies have no rings on their hooves. Manning is a two-time MVP and has won a couple of impressive games against the Patriots since the playoff stinkers . . . but those weren't postseason games. It's like A-Rod hitting three-run homers in 10-1 games in June. We all know Belichick saves special stuff for Manning in January.

We also know that Brady is 12-1 in postseason play and has never lost (10-0) in a dome. The Patriots are not going to come out and tell you they think they are the better team, but they think they are the better team. And if we could inject the Colts with sodium pentothal, I believe the majority would rather have gone on the road against the Chargers than be required to win at home against the Patriots.

Winning tonight would make the Patriots the first NFL team to get to the Super Bowl by defeating two teams on the road that were unbeaten at home during the regular season. This is just another challenge for a team that thrives on walking into your homeroom and stealing your lunch money.

The manner in which the Patriots beat the Chargers suggests they are primed for another one of these magical rides to City Hall Plaza. Marlon McCree's interception of Brady's fourth-down pass last Sunday stands as this year's "tuck" play. Truly. In this instance, the San Diego defender merely had to bat the ball down or catch it and fall down -- do his job, in other words -- and the game likely would have been over.

Instead, he attempted to make himself a "SportsCenter" highlight. Taking advantage of McCree's exuberance, Troy Brown stripped him of the football, Reche Caldwell recovered, and Brady had a chance to start a new drive. It was Walt Coleman all over again. Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. The Patriots are the guys that win, even after they appear to have lost.

Bill Russell tells a story of the mentality that served him so well when he was winning 11 championships in 13 seasons. It was late in a game against the Lakers, the Celtics were down by a couple, and all LA had to do was dribble out the clock. Archie Clark had the ball and Russell put his mind to work.

"I knew I didn't have to foul him," Russell recalled. "Archie Clark is a scorer. I knew if I just cleared a path to the basket, he'd try to score, even though they didn't need any more points. So I cleared a path and sure enough, he tried to score and I came up from behind and blocked his shot and we got the ball back and won the game."

It's thinking like a winner. It's what Russell did. It's what Belichick does. It's what Bruschi and Vrabel and Brady do.

And that is why even though the Colts are at home . . . even though Vinatieri hasn't ever missed a kick in this building . . . even though Indianapolis's defense has been ferocious in two playoff games . . . even though the Colts have beaten New England the last two times they played . . .

That's why it feels like the Patriots will win tonight.

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