By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 15, 2007

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This won't be quite the same as 2003 and 2004.

For starters, Indianapolis finally has the Patriots in their crib, instead of vice versa. Second, the Colts have won the last two meetings between these two teams, both wins coming in Foxborough. Third, the Colts arrive at this AFC Championship Game with a bit of luck, surviving against teams which brought miserable offensive game plans to the table.

After two weeks of Kansas City and Baltimore, now Peyton Manning gets to take his final step towards his first Super Bowl against the one team which has tormented him throughout his entire career. Manning may come off as whiny, slow-thinking, commercial, and you also might not think he's all that smart. But inside, this guy is chomping at the bit. If Tom Brady can't wait for this game, how must Manning feel?

In the previous two playoff matchups, even though Indianapolis got so many props, you just knew the Patriots would win. And win they did, in dominating fashion. The 24-14 AFC title game win in 2003 sent the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXVIII and the Colts off to Mike Pereira's office to complain about the interpretations of illegal defensive holding. A year later, the Patriots took one of the best offenses ever and held it to one field goal, winning 20-3 in a Divisional round matchup. Both games were played amidst freezing cold and snow flurries. In both games, Manning was befuddled and had simply no chance to win.

But things will be different now. Despite the fact that Indianapolis has opened as a three-point favorite, which for all intents and purposes makes this one a toss-up given the fact that the home team is good for at least a field goal, Indianapolis will enter this game with more confidence they have ever had against the Patriots. They have the two regular season wins. They have been able to shut down Larry Johnson and Jamal Lewis in successive weeks. And they have Adam Vinatieri.

What do the Patriots have? Lots of fatigue from jet lag and an unbelievable win over a San Diego team they should have lost to. A reputation for being bad winners and poor sports. Cornerbacks who no longer seem to know how to shut down Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne anymore. A veteran strong safety who is perhaps still too hurt to play in this game.

And their championship pedigree. If the Patriots win on Sunday, this is what will get the job done.

Sure, the Colts are 2-0 in the postseason this year. They haven't folded like they did last year at home against Pittsburgh. But they still could.

Manning hasn't played all that well in the two wins. Chances are the Patriots will find a way to continue that poor play.

Bob Sanders may be the best run defender in the NFL. The Patriots will be ready for him this time, and if they can deal adequately with Shawne Merriman, certainly they can deal with Sanders.

What will it be like to defend Harrison and Wayne indoors instead of outdoors? Well, the Patriots knew how to defend Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt indoors once upon a time. And the last time the Patriots played these guys indoors, they won.

Joseph Addai is no Edgerrin James. The Patriots will be fully aware of that fact. He won't do anything to fool them. He will command attention, and Belichick will find out exactly what to do.

All this comes under that championship pedigree. You could list about a hundred more little things like these, and Belichick can probably account for all one hundred. But the bottom line is if the Patriots can whip out their "C" game like they did on Sunday and still come up with a road win against the one seed, the Patriots should not have their hands completely full on Sunday.

That does not mean that the Patriots won't have a ridiculously hard time beating the Colts. It's just to say that they can do it, but it will be more like the 34-31 win in the 2003 regular season, or the 27-24 nailbiter at home in the 2004 season opener, not like the two playoff blowouts. The Colts are too good a team to allow themselves to be blown out at home this close to the Super Bowl.

If the coaching matchup was crucial in San Diego, it will be even more crucial here. Tony Dungy is a far better coach than Marty Schottenheimer, and coordinators Tom Moore (offense) and Ron Meeks (defense) rank among the league's best. But Moore can sometimes be bamboozled, and Belichick will need to win this battle even more urgently than he had to do last week.

More specifically, Belichick has to get back to what used to work against the Colt offense, something he has gotten away from in the two losses. Patriot defensive backs have been playing off the line of scrimmage on Harrison and Wayne instead of physically beating the two up, and the two of them have been eating the Patriots alive. One reason why Belichick changed the way he does things in the secondary is that, in the two losses, Ty Law has been elsewhere and Rodney Harrison has been injured (and likely will be out this weekend also). Law is perhaps Manning's toughest opposing cornerback to deal with (witness his two picks against Manning two weeks ago in the Chiefs' loss). Without the smarts of Law and Harrison out there, as well as their physical presence, the Patriots have been forced to alter their approach to the Colt wideouts, and the results have been adverse for the Patriots.

What has to happen is that Belichick may have to place his trust in Asante Samuel. He could very well play Harrison tight and shut him down, as his break-to-the-ball technique has gotten a lot better over the course of this year. Then Belichick may need to have Ellis Hobbs hit Wayne a few times within the five-yard zone. Hobbs doesn't have Samuel's cover skills and is mistake prone, but if Hobbs can establish a physical presence, it could pay off in the long run.

If Samuel can deal with Harrison by himself, and this is a big if, then Artrell Hawkins could provide Hobbs with some help. James Sanders may have to be preoccupied with Dallas Clark or Ben Utecht. Addai might not need more than seven men in the box (as opposed to LaDainian Tomlinson). The key here is the matchup with Samuel on Harrison. This probably will turn out to be the key non-coaching matchup of the game.

Offensively, you really don't have to worry. As long as Brady is calm and doesn't make hurried decisions, he should be okay. The Patriots won't expect 375 yards rushing and will gameplan around Sanders. They will account for Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. All Brady has to do is what he does when the spotlight is brightest, and if the natural order of things follows, he will make more plays than Manning will.

In Belichick We Trust. That's how things will go. In fact, if any coach can gameplan against being within three points of the Colts with under two minutes to play, Belichick will be just the man to deal with it. The last man who will ignore Vinatieri will be Belichick.


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