By: Bob George/
January 16, 2005

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FOXBOROUGH -- Whom will Peyton Manning blame now?

What will the rest of the league make of this?

And most of all, how arrogant does Steeler Nation feel now?

You can't blame the officials. There was only one illegal contact called during the entire game against the Patriots. You can't blame Ty Law and all his interceptions, because he didn't play. You can't blame the weather, because had Indianapolis been able to win here in Week 1, this game would have been at the RCA Dome.

You can't even blame Manning himself. He really didn't play that bad a game. His one interception came during garbage time in the end, and he really didn't make any of the stupid plays he made last year.

Still, what are the Colts to make of this? In a year where Manning re-wrote part of the NFL record book, in a game where he was finally supposed to take his next step as a professional against the bane of his existence, severely depleted with key injuries on defense, how do you explain only three points? Once again, the Patriots walk off the field laughing and smiling, leaving a frustrated and exasperated Manning in his wake. The Patriots ride into the AFC Championship Game next weekend with a 20-3 win at Gillette Stadium over the Colts on a snowy late Sunday afternoon at Foxborough, and are now ready to avenge one of their two losses this season.

And are they ready. What was supposed to be a Colt win against a pitiful Patriot secondary now ranks right up there as one of Bill Belichick's finest coaching jobs ever. Together, he and Romeo Crennel outdid their efforts last year, only this time there were no starting cornerbacks, no Richard Seymour, and an officiating crew looking out for illegal contact five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The Patriots didn't just put the clamps on Manning, they put on manacles, shackles and chains the likes of which Jacob Marley's ghost perhaps has not been forced to wear for eternity.

This is simply fascinating. What in the world was it that made Manning so ineffective and non-factorial? How is it that he can bludgeon the rest of the league, yet he comes to Foxborough and cannot do a thing with Belichick defenses? How come Reggie Wayne can make Roc Alexander look like a little boy one week but Randall Gay looks better than Champ Bailey the next?

Before we extol more praise on Belichick and his staff, let's exhaust all possibilities as to why this stifling of Manning continues. Archie Bunker perhaps wishes Edith would stifle as well as the Patriot defense is capable of.

Maybe it's offensive coordinator Tom Moore. Once again, this guy got his bell rung by the Patriot staff, and he comes off as looking like the game has passed him by. This is nonsense, of course, because you are talking about the skipper of the finest offensive vessel in the fleet. But why did Moore not go after Troy Brown and Gay like he seemingly should have? Why did Moore not throw the deep ball to Marvin Harrison a couple of times to at least gauge the reaction of the Patriot secondary? Why not pound inside with Edgerrin James like he did in September and the first drive of the second half last January? James had only 14 carries rushing (but did lead the team with seven pass receptions), and was at times making good yardage inside as Patriot defenders were missing some tackles.

It could be execution. The snowy conditions made for several drops by the receivers. Twice the Colts lost fumbles, but those turnovers led to no Patriot points. The sloppy field perhaps slowed the receivers down just enough for the substandard Patriot defensive backs to play better than they should have on paper. Again, the Colts are resigned in the knowledge that had they beaten the Patriots in September, this game is played in the Hoosier State. Home field definitely played in favor of the Patriots.

Back to Moore for a second. Charlie Weis showed Moore how to control clock and seal a victory in the fourth quarter (when he wasn't doing idiotic things like five wideout packages). Just look at two things: the Patriots' ball possession and drive chart, and Corey Dillon's final stats. Three of the four Patriot scoring drives went for 78 yards or longer, one of them going for 94 yards. Those three drives consumed 9:07, 8:16 and 7:24 of the game clock. That's 24:47 total, or just over forty percent of the entire game. Dillon celebrated his first playoff experience with 144 yards on 23 carries. Dillon and Kevin Faulk combined for 200 rushing yards. One again has to wonder why, if throwing the ball was problematic, James was not pounded like Dillon was.

The Patriot front seven, whomever they may have been at any given time, took a lot of the pressure off of the secondary. Willie McGinest had his usual big game, pressuring Manning all game long. Mike Vrabel recorded the only sack of Manning. Tedy Bruschi recovered both Colt fumbles, one of them being a wrestling of the ball away from Dominic Rhodes after he caught a pass in the left flat from Manning. This single play demonstrated graphically the physical advantage the Patriot defense had over the Colt offense, which makes the assertion by the Colts that their receivers aren't soft ring hollow.

In the end, maybe it all did come down to coaching. Manning probably didn't throw deep because the Patriot defense was designed to keep everything, but everything, in front of them. The zone scheme used by the Patriots was so crisp that on one incompletion to Stokley, defensive backs passed the Colt wideout off from one back to the other almost as if Stokley was a rugby ball. Manning was pressured, rolled right, and finally had to lead Stokley too far in his pass. The Patriots gave up a bit underneath, but never put Manning in a position where he could hurt the Patriots with long strikes and quick scores.

And when the game was ripe to be put away late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots once again went with exotic schemes like the Miami game. They had Bruschi at nose tackle, three or four linebackers on the line, and everyone else back in coverage. This time, with a 17-point lead (the lead against Miami was 11), Manning didn't try and beat it with James runs and could find literally no one open at all. With three rushing and eight dropping back in coverage for much of the game, it was just the right formula for the Patriots to best Manning in a situation where he should have been torching the ailing Patriot secondary.

In the end, it was same old same old. Patriots outhit, outcoach and outscore the Colts, Colts go home, Patriots move on. Manning can stand outside of Heinz Field and cheer on all the insurance adjusters and butchers all he wants, but until the Colts get someone other than Dwight Freeney who is an impact player on defense (make it "several players” instead of "someone”) and a fresh new perspective on how to defeat tough opposing defenses, Manning will be cheering in games like next week instead of playing in them.

Great defenses stop great offenses any day. But great coaching is what makes it all work. Manning can beat a lot of teams, but he can't beat genius. Belichick is too much for him and his franchise right now. Even in a hallmark season like 2004, in the end Manning can only look back and wince. He will continue his career for at least one more year of big numbers and unfulfilled promise.

Mr. Miyagi of Karate Kid fame had it right. Is not who's stronger. Is who's smarter. It's nice that the Patriots happen to be both.