By: Bob George/
January 16, 2004

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The Patriots have numbers, history, home cooking, cold weather, and the best coach on the planet in their corner.

And the Colts have…Peyton Manning.

What: AFC Championship Game
Where: Gillette Stadium
Foxborough, Mass.
When: Sunday 1/18/04
3:00 PM EST
Television: CBS
WBZ Channel 4 in Boston
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 930
2003 Team Records: Patriots 15-2
Colts 14-4
Latest Line: Patriots by 3
That's one heck of an ace of spades. When the emperor of China in the cartoon Mulan says "A single grain of rice can tip the scale!", Manning is more like an entire case of Uncle Ben's. When you are so hot that your punter has taken the last two weeks off, Manning alone can melt all the ice and snow in New England, and by his mere presence can raise the game time temperature at Gillette Stadium about ten degrees.

All metaphors aside, Manning may be more like a Michael Vick than he is a Terry Bradshaw or a Joe Montana. What, pray tell, would people be saying about the chances of the Indianapolis Colts advancing to the Super Bowl if Manning were a scratch for Sunday? Manning represents the one and only, as opposed to "the best" or "the greatest", chance the Colts have to make it to Houston as the AFC representative at the NFL's Big Show in two weeks.

Because when all things are examined up close, this game is all Patriots. For the Colts to win, Manning must play ten times better than he has in the previous two contests. Rating-wise, you cannot top the Denver game as he got a perfect 158.3 rating. His rating against Kansas City was less, but he was more impressive simply because he was playing on the road against a better team than Denver. Manning will have to have the game of his life if he wants to become a Super Bowl quarterback.

Can this happen? Sure, it can. Will it? Read on and find out why it likely won't.

A great matchup in a forum where they've never failed before

This column has mentioned on a few occasions how well the Patriots have done against the Colts. But, if you need more convincing, especially those of you from the Hoosier State whose true loves are race cars and basketball (and don't you dare scream "Notre Dame football"; that's a national thing, not an Indiana thing) and who would never be paying the Colts any heed if they were cellar dwellers, we submit the following for your approval.

The Patriots hold a 40-24 edge in the entire series, going back to when the Colts had Johnny Unitas calling signals.

Since the Colts moved to Indianapolis, the Patriots hold a 28-9 advantage.

Since 1989, the Patriots are 20-7 against the Colts.

Since 1996, 11-2 Patriots.

Manning versus Bill Belichick in current venues: 4-1, Belichick.

The Colts have not won in Foxborough since 1995.

In the last three meetings between the two clubs, the Patriots have scored 44, 38 and 38 points, all wins. The two wins in 2001 were total and complete blowouts.

And, best of all: The Patriots are 3-0 in AFC Championship Games in club history.

Sure, the Patriots broke through in Miami in 1985 in this same forum, ending a 19-year losing streak at the Orange Bowl. You think the Colts can do the same? Perhaps, but now you need to move on to the next section.

Does James scare you? If so, pray tell, why?

Edgerrin James has come to Foxborough three previous times in his career. In those three games he has rushed for 248 total yards, for an average of just under 83 per game. His average per carry is just under 3.5 yards. The Patriots won all three of those games.

This powerful, multi-dimensional running back has simply never hurt the Patriots outside of the RCA Dome. Each time he has had to come to the natural grass surface of Foxborough Stadium (James has yet to play in the new crib), he has been slowed down enough so that the Patriot defense has been able to contain him just fine. Add to the mix the dazzling defensive schemes of Belichick and Romeo Crennel, and the Patriots simply don't worry about James doing any damage. It isn't like how they brutalize Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis, but it's similar in style and its effect on the Colts.

The reasoning here is that the Patriots will indeed neutralize James to the point that he will be a non-factor, and make Manning's offense totally one-dimensional. This makes it even more incumbent upon Manning to have a great game. With Ted Washington in the middle, someone James had problems with in the regular season meeting this year at Indianapolis, James is a long shot to have an effective enough day so as to allow Manning the freedom to run his total offense without fear of awful things happening.

And if the Colts try and run James outside, with the predicted cold weather and possible light snow for Sunday, this doesn't figure to be sound strategy. He won't have the speed burst like he would have back home in Indiana. Either of the Patriot outside linebackers should keep containment without much trouble. Tedy Bruschi, Roman Phifer and Ted Johnson can help keep James from gashing the Patriots between the tackles.

What is Manning doing differently now that the Patriots haven't been able to deal with before?

The good people of Indiana stand up and take notice with these four words: Gentlemen, start your engines!

Now here are four more words for all of you Hoosiers: Here come the Patriots!

If anyone out there who loves both Larry Bird and Jimmy Chitwood, who come from big cities like Jasper or small hamlets like Oolitic, and who strongly believe that IRC is the real deal in auto racing and that NASCAR is only for the Jeff Foxworthy crowd, if they think that Manning will riddle the Patriot defense like he did against Denver and Kansas City, then let them stick to all things Hoosier and leave all things Colts to Tony Dungy and the real Colt fans in Baltimore. Because if they do, it would take some demonic force to reduce the vaunted and intelligent Patriot defense to the level of what Manning has seen in the past two weeks.

First of all, Manning has never yet been able to outsmart Belichick, or even Pete Carroll and Steve Sidwell, especially in Foxborough. The last time Manning came to Foxborough, both Ty Law and Otis Smith ran back interceptions for touchdowns. Manning's rating for the game, a 44-13 Patriot win in 2001, was 48.2. In 2000, he threw three picks in a 24-16 loss to the Patriots, and had a rating of 58.7. In 1999, a 31-28 win by the Patriots, Manning had an 88.6 rating but still threw two interceptions. And in his rookie season of 1998, Law ran back one of three Manning picks. He finished with a 51.1 rating in that game, a 29-6 Patriot win.

The truth is that it didn't matter which coach he was going up against. At Foxborough, Manning has yet to succeed at all. Manning did manage a 95.7 rating in the previous 2003 matchup, but things change greatly outdoors in freezing weather on natural grass and on hostile turf.

Belichick and Crennel will come up with something that will baffle Manning. They always seem to do so, and with a Super Bowl bid on the line, this game should be no different. Blitz packages and confusing schemes should induce at least a pair of interceptions. For Manning to prevail, he will have to outsmart the Patriots with his hurry-up offense and his ability to audible, but he as yet has been unable to show that he can do this in Foxborough.

But that may not be enough. Marcus Pollard disrespected the Patriots this week. An Indianapolis reporter disrespected Rodney Harrison the other day. Manning will feel Harrison's wrath. Let's all say "ouch" in advance, shall we?

Manning will get his numbers, but Brady will get his Vinces

Manning will soon learn why Brady, and not he himself, keeps being compared to Montana.

Brady doesn't have to throw five touchdown passes and accrue 486 yards passing. All Brady has to do is manage the game, don't make mistakes, and play just well enough to win. And that is exactly what he will do, just like he did against Tennessee Saturday night, and against all the other 13 consecutive opponents the Patriots have beaten up until now.

What Brady cannot do is to have the kind of rare lapse he suffered in the RCA Dome in November. The two picks he threw opened the doors for three quick Colt touchdowns. That's how great Manning is. The smart thinking is that Brady got his one bad stretch out of the way, and his team still managed to win on the road against an eventual division champ in the process. Brady will not repeat that funk on Sunday at home with a Super Bowl bid on the line.

What Brady will do, with help from Charlie Weis, is to take advantage of the weak Colt defense accordingly. Weis will likely call for lots of runs by Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk, to control the clock and keep Manning off the field. When called upon to throw, Brady will only throw high percentage passes. If the Colts play cover-two, Brady will find David Givens, Troy Brown and Deion Branch in zone seams over the middle. Colt cornerback David Macklin is the Dexter McCleon of the AFC, and if Brady has any memory of the 2001 clash at Indianapolis (where David Patten got his touchdown hat trick), Macklin makes for a great fish out there.

What Brady will not do are things which will lose this game. He won't force bad throws, he won't call wrong plays in wrong situations, and he won't lose his cool at any time. And Manning will likely discover what he really needs to aspire to in order to be a top quarterback in the NFL.

The greatest ace in the hole of them all

"For me, it all comes back to Bill Belichick!" -- Fox's Cris Collinsworth, during the Super Bowl XXXVI post game show

Whatever Manning brings to the Colts, Belichick brings a hundred times that to the Patriots.

Jeff Fisher and Dungy are anything but coaching dummies. These are two men who are hard to outcoach. Belichick can and will do it.

His squad will be totally prepared and focused on beating the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. There won't be stupid penalties, no mistakes in coverage, and no sense at all of not knowing what is at hand out there. Belichick has game-planned well against Manning in the past, and will simply do it again. As great as Manning is, he has yet to show that he can deal with a Belichick defense in Foxborough.

But what really sets Belichick apart from the rest is his ability to adjust during the game. If Belichick sees something that needs tweaked, he is the best at tweaking. Derrick Mason stopped burning the Patriots in the second half last week because Wilson was no longer matched up in man coverage on him. Steve McNair was not as effective in the second half because the right blitz packages were called. Manning will see all this thrown at him during the game, and all the advance film study he will do cannot deal with or stop Belichick's ability to adjust.

In the end, it really is Manning against the world. The Colt offense is nothing without Manning, and the Colt defense is nothing, period. Stop Manning and the Patriots win big. Slow Manning down and the Patriots win close. The Patriots won't have a problem scoring points. Keep Manning off the field and befuddled at the same time, and the Patriots can then pack their bags for Houston.

Let's put it this way. If Manning finally does break through and win, it won't take a Larry Bird or an Al Unser wannabe to understand the magnitude of such an accomplishment. Then and only then will Manning be truly worthy and deserving of all the accolades paid him this week.

Because as of right this minute, the only quarterback in this game who is worthy of these high accolades is Brady. And if things go as planned, that should not change going into Sunday evening.