By: Bob George/BosSports.net
September 09, 2004

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FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots played the Colts in December of 1977, but lost to the Zebras, 30-24.

Patriots/Colts
Close-Up
Where: Gillette Stadium
Foxborough, Mass.
When: Thursday 9/9/04
9:00 PM EDT
TV National:
TV Local:
ABC
WCVB-TV 5
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 931
2004 Team
Records:
Patriots 0-0
Colts 0-0
Latest Line: Patriots by 3 1/2
But that game featured a blown fumble call by referee Fred Silva. It had nothing to do with checking Mike Haynes' coverage of Roger Carr. Or Steve Nelson possibly impeding Ray Chester in his pass routes. It was simply the second year in a row where the Patriot playoff hopes were cut down by lousy officiating (to be fair, the 1977 Patriots were actually ruined by the tiebreaker system back then, as a Colt loss the previous week actually helped them, it's just easier to blame Silva and his lousy call).

Now here we are in 2004, with the Zebras wanting to mix it up with the Colts and possibly affect the outcome of the game. In an otherwise winnable game situation for the Patriots against an opponent they have done incredibly well against in the last ten years, the Patriots might have some concern as they kick off the 2004 regular season on national television. They begin their title defense against the team they beat to make it to Super Bowl XXXVIII, but the Patriots may have more to worry about other than some team trying for the umpteenth time to exact revenge.

This game will be a huge litmus test for the promised greater enforcement of illegal contact by the NFL officials. If the league truly believes that the Patriots' defensive strategy against the Colts in the 2003 AFC Championship Game was either illegal but tolerated or not in the best interests of football, you will see a game Thursday night that may differ greatly from past Patriots-Colts battles. The Patriots may still find a way to win, as they have been very apt to do against the Colts, but it might have to be accomplished with a little creativity.

Two plays from the January clash between these two teams seem to be at the crux of this whole revelation. Late in the fourth quarter, with 1:51 remaining and perched at his own 20 with third and ten, Peyton Manning tried to hit Marcus Pollard over the middle. Pollard bumped into Roman Phifer along the way and could not make the catch. Manning cried that Pollard was held, but Phifer did not hold Pollard. On the next play (fourth and ten), Manning tried to hit Pollard in the right flat and was covered by Willie McGinest. WillMac stayed with Pollard and chipped his pattern but did not push him or hold him. The pass fell incomplete, and Manning erupted in a fit of anger. Holding, he was screaming, but nary a yellow flag was thrown.

To their credit, nobody in the Colt organization blames the loss on these two plays or the defensive tactics of the Patriots. Manning threw four interceptions and the center snapped the ball over punter Hunter Smith's head for a safety, and the eleven points which resulted from these plays proved decisive. Yet everyone who follows football looks at this game as the impetus for the new scrutiny over contact beyond five yards from the line of scrimmage, and you can find plenty of people who do believe that the Patriots won that game because they got away with illegal defensive tactics.

That is why everyone will be watching closely to see what will be tolerated and what won't be. It may define the Patriot season, or it may signal a new era in Patriot football. There's always the chance that this scrutiny may be much ado about nothing, and that the Patriots can simply go about their business without any change in their approach to the game.

If, say, Ty Law is flagged three or four times for either holding or illegal contact, and is forced to play seven yards off the receiver, this can greatly change the complexion of the game and the season. Law is one of the best cover corners in the league, as well as one of the best at man coverage. When Law is asked to play zone, he is very susceptible to quick slants run underneath that seven-yard cushion. If the receiver is not bumped off his route even when it is completely legal, receivers can make hay against Law. He may still get his licks in, but in this case the opposing offense is nicking the Patriots for seven to ten yards a clip.

Rodney Harrison, like Lawyer Milloy, is known for his hard hits more than he is his pass coverage. Eugene Wilson covers better than Harrison, though was prone to some rookie mistakes last year, and hits hard like Harrison. These two guys usually don't contact receivers inside the five-yard zone. If officials had been letting these guys chip receivers before getting blasted, you might be in for lots of 20-30 yard gains against the Patriots if they cannot play their 2003 brand of football.

It might be wise to take a step back and clarify the term "chip". This was done frequently in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams, where Ram receivers were knocked off their routes with regularity. Marshall Faulk was a prime target of this strategy, but all of it was done either within the five-yard zone or in his own backfield. This sort of chipping was what happened to Pollard, and had not really been discerned as illegal contact because there was no holding or hard bumping. If chipping like this is allowed to continue anywhere on the field, the Patriots have little to worry about.

If this is all cause for concern, there is a silver lining to this cloud. What goes for the Patriots also must go for the Colts, or anyone else the Patriots have to face.

Let's say that Manning starts to make hay against the shackled Patriots. If you stop for a second and think about the other side of the ball, and Tom Brady against a shackled Colt defense which is mediocre even if no restraints were placed upon them, Brady could enjoy a career night especially if he gets into a shootout with Manning. Brady showed that he can do the shootout routine after he matched Jake Delhomme bullet for bullet in the most recent Super Bowl. Against a defense that has only Dwight Freeney to worry about, Brady should be able to find receivers with ease all night long. With Corey Dillon literally all by himself (Kevin Faulk is a scratch for the game) at running back, look for Brady to push for a huge night, maybe his best ever.

Don't be surprised if these teams engage in a 45-42 deal. And if so, NFL bigwigs will sit back and slap each other on the back. Looks like the new rule did what it had to do, that's what they'll say. Manning will challenge Dan Marino's season passing yardage record. The funny thing is that Brady may turn around and challenge Manning for the same record.

Some of this conjecture may be a bit fanciful, but it bears close watching Thursday night. If you can take your minds off of Jessica Simpson or Mary J. Blige for a second, watch closely and see how much contact the officials let go, on both sides of the ball. You have to figure that Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel will deal with whatever is put on their plates, but how they approach this possible problem might just go a long way towards a second straight Vince in February.

You might also consider the long term ramifications if the officials do clamp down. The demise of the 1977 Patriots was what caused the league to add a second Wild Card team in 1978 (along with extending the regular season to 16 games). Who could have figured that the demise of the 2003 Colts would change the course of NFL defenses for years to come?

Maybe this is worry over nothing. It's Belichick against Manning. If number 18 in white starts flapping his arms in the air and whining, things will be going okay for the Patriots.


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