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Reining in this offense will be a tough chore for the Patriots

INDIANAPOLIS -- If Patriots defensive backs were munching chips and dip while lounging on the sofa watching Peyton Manning dismantle the Denver Broncos yesterday, they likely uttered the favorite phrase of grumpy old Frank on "Everybody Loves Raymond" -- "Holy crap!' "

The Indianapolis Colts, who come to Gillette Stadium Sunday, looked pretty scary.

Manning overmatched a Denver secondary featuring Pro Bowlers Champ Bailey and John Lynch and decent players Kelly Herndon and Kenoy Kennedy in the 49-24 playoff win. The game, for all intents and purposes, was over at the half with the Colts leading, 35-3.

Manning, who threw four touchdown passes, had accumulated 259 of his 457 passing yards before throwing his first offering to future Hall of Fame receiver Marvin Harrison for a 5-yard gain with 5:19 remaining in the second quarter. That's because the Colts acknowledged that Bailey could neutralize Harrison, and Herndon would blanket Brandon Stokley.

With an arsenal second to none, Manning looked often to Reggie Wayne (10 catches, 221 yards, 2 touchdowns), who was being covered by rookie nickel back Roc Alexander, who played like he had rocks in his pockets. Tight end Dallas Clark (six catches, 112 yards) also was wide open over the middle.

Having mastered the Broncos (49 of 59 for 834 yards and nine touchdowns in the last two playoff games), it's on to the Ty Law-less Patriots secondary, trying again to exploit the mismatches and trying to find Wayne, Harrison, Stokley, Clark, Marcus Pollard, and Edgerrin James against guys such as Asante Samuel, Randall Gay, Earthwind Moreland, and Troy Brown.

There's nobody of Bailey's caliber, let alone Law's. The question is: Who will shut down Harrison?

There will and should be mismatches galore, but as we've found out over the past few seasons, Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel seem to have ways to turn those mismatches in their favor. If that should happen to Manning Sunday in Foxborough, confiscate the game plan before Belichick does a Doug Mientkiewicz with it, because it's going right to Canton, Ohio.

"It's been no Ty Law since the Pittsburgh game, and they win every game," said Manning, who threw four interceptions (three courtesy of Law) last Jan. 18 in a 24-14 AFC Championship Game loss at Foxborough. "Ty is one of the top players in the NFL and of course he's missed, but as we all say, `Everybody else has to step up,' and they've been stepping up."

Manning, who ended up with a rather sick 145.7 quarterback rating, threw slants, bombs, dumps, quick outs, play-action, drop-back, roll-out, you name it. He threw a ball toward the sideline after a pump fake and Wayne hadn't even turned yet, but when he did the ball was right on his numbers.

With all due respect to Our Tom, who is the best money quarterback in the game today, there isn't a more fundamentally sound quarterback than Mr. Manning.

Manning, and everyone else from Indianapolis to New England, knows that to get to the next level, he must lead the Colts past the Patriots in Brady's backyard. It's Manning's albatross. If he can do it, he'll reach legendary status, whether or not you, me, or the grocery clerk at Shaw's is in the New England secondary.

"It's an opportunity," Manning said of next Sunday's game. "I played like an absolute dog [last season in the playoffs], no ifs, ands, or buts about it. All I ever hear is about Bill Belichick, but as far as I can see Romeo Crennel is the defensive coordinator. If he wants to take a head job next week, that's fine with me."

Colts president Bill Polian said if Indianapolis doesn't beat the Patriots it'll have nothing to do with weather, playing outdoors, or the natural grass slowing the offense. Polian believes it would be because the Colts didn't play well, turned the ball over, and didn't execute.

"This team plays fine in the weather. We've gone to Chicago and played well. It has nothing to do with that," said Polian. "When you play New England, you have to play a great game. Simple as that. You've got to play all three phases. It's not just Peyton. We've got to run the ball, catch it, and defend, and if you don't, we'll go home like we did last year."

"We've played better outdoors in my time here than we have indoors," added Colts coach Tony Dungy.

Polian has no illusions that this is all about Manning. He's seen the mistakes his team has made at critical times against the Patriots. Even Manning acknowledges, "You can't just play average up there, you have to play well."

Dungy felt his team had earned the right to enjoy a day of bliss. That'd be blasphemy in New England. If this were the Patriots, they'd be looking toward the next opponent about an hour after the game.

"We haven't thought about New England yet," Dungy said. "I told our guys it isn't time for that yet. We will come in and have a good game plan for New England. Playoff games are special and I told our guys they need to enjoy this one. Obviously we know what's ahead of us."

Manning said getting to the Super Bowl is "extremely important to me. That's what I want to do." He knows the road is fraught with peril. The prevailing feeling by the many local and national scribes on hand yesterday (a portion of whom were awed by Indianapolis's performance) was the playoffs would follow a similar path to last season when the Colts looked like world-beaters until they came to Gillette Stadium.

"We haven't been [to the Super Bowl] since I've been the quarterback here," said Manning. "There's so much talk about the missed opportunity we had last year. I don't do that. If you dwell on that, you won't get back to this place again. We're back and we have a shot at New England and that's all you can ask for. I'd love to go up there and play a great game and win it." While the Broncos were never a challenge, they did throw the kitchen sink, the old tires, and the dishwater at Manning. It was to no avail. There were stunts, blitzes, line shifts, and various zone coverages. Manning, however, seemed to always know what was coming and he'd adjust accordingly.

"Like I've told people before," Denver coach Mike Shanahan said, "it's not two guys, it's 11 guys. And the only way you're going to slow them down is to have all 11 guys playing together. Also, offensively, keeping the ball away from them."

That's where the Patriots might have their edge. Handing it off to Corey Dillon for sustained, big gains would keep Manning on the sideline, but don't disparage the Colts' defense. While it's not the strongest unit on this team, it might also be somewhat underrated. After all, when the game meant something in the first half, they had held running backs Reuben Droughns and Tatum Bell to a combined 32 yards. They held quarterback Jake Plummer to a 31.8 rating before the break.

No, yesterday looked ominous for the Patriots secondary, but as the week unfolds, it'll hope to receive a game plan from Mssrs. Belichick and Crennel that will make Manning look human again.

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