By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 20, 2007

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Many years ago, the Red Sox used to be perceived like this.

When the Red Sox took the field in 1946 to play the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, nobody in Boston made much of it other than the fact that it was the first pennant for the Sox in 28 years. A cartoon ran in a Boston paper which had the caption "Don't worry, boys, we've never lost one!" Up to that point, the Red Sox had won all five of the World Series they had been in. They were solid favorites to win the whole thing again, given that they had a great post-war team and that they had never lost a World Series in their history.

Of course, Harry Brecheen and Enos Slaughter made such speculation look completely foolish, which is why Bill Belichick tries to impress upon everyone that history means nothing going into this AFC Championship game. The Patriots have won all five AFC Championship games in their history, going back to when they snapped the Miami hex in 1985, through the lights going out in 1996 and the three games which begat Super Bowl championships. The harsh reality is that, when all things are said and done, a Patriot win in Sunday's game will have nothing to do with the fact that they do well at this level, but rather because they played a better game than the Colts.

In many ways, it is wise to dismiss any historical sidebars. The Red Sox lost that World Series in seven games to the Redbirds. Despite the Patriots generally having huge success against the Colts since 1990, the Colts have won the last two meetings between the teams, both of them in Foxborough. The Colts are winning games lately in ways they haven't before, more specifically without putting the entire game on Peyton Manning's shoulders.

The Patriots will certainly be up against it on Sunday at the RCA Dome. The Colts finally have the Patriots in their crib. The Colts, emboldened by their two wins over the Patriots and their playoff wins over Kansas City and Baltimore, will be anything but the patsies they turned out to be in the 2003 and 2004 postseasons. All of the Colts in general and Manning in particular are sick and tired of having to deal with the Patriots, much the same way the Patriots feel about the Denver Broncos. All the ingredients are in place for the Colts to finally step over the team that has stepped on them so many times in years past, and claim their first Super Bowl win in 36 years.

(By the way, someone ought to dig up a video of Super Bowl V and show it to Manning, so that he can get a good look at the man who is still the best quarterback in franchise history, a Hall of Famer named Johnny Unitas. The trouble with that thinking is that all the Colt fans who truly believe this are living in Baltimore and not Indianapolis. One thing that the Hoosier Colt fans lack is a good sense of historical perspective, that their recollection of anything Colt goes back only to 1984. To all the good people of Indiana, there is Manning, and no one else.)

If Manning aspires to be really like Unitas, he will have to keep his cool and be patient. He needs to let the game come to him and deal with it as if it were merely a regular season game instead of one step away from the Big Show. Manning has to be eating away inside, grateful of another chance at the Patriots but sick to his stomach over what will happen to his legacy should he lose again.

He does have a great chance this time. But if the Patriots are to win, they need to take care of five basic areas, and take care of them well.

"The Patriots don't need to be this fancy!" -- John Madden

A case could be made that the regular season meeting between these two teams turned on one single play. At the end of the first offensive series for the Patriots, Tom Brady, after having moved the Patriots perfectly through the Colt defense, threw a deep sideline bomb to Doug Gabriel. The overthrown ball was intercepted by Antoine Bethea, and the Colts seized the momentum permanently. This one single play was arguably the worst play call by Josh McDaniels for the entire season. Later in the game, Madden would make the "fancy" comment when he noticed that the Patriots were trying to over-finesse the Colts, instead of simply doing the right things to attack the Colt defense and maybe turning the game in their favor.

Simply stated, the Patriots don't need to hurry things, and they shouldn't against the Colts anyway. Brady should stick with a measured passing attack, spreading the workload around and making only the plays that need be made instead of trying to dazzle the Colts with low percentage passes. He has more confidence in Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney to the point where he can use them as more potent weapons, weapons he really didn't have in November.

Learn from the mistakes of the Chiefs and Ravens

The last thing Kansas City expected was for the Colts to shut down Larry Johnson. When they did, the Chiefs had no other options. Jamal Lewis is a shell of his former self, and Steve McNair couldn't overcome his inability to run the offense. So, do you believe that the Patriots will open up by pounding Corey Dillon up the middle, then trying to sneak Laurence Maroney outside and wind up with a nine-minute scoring drive to open the contest?

The nine-minute thing is nice, but it won't be done like Kansas City wanted to. The Patriots should use the pass to set up the run. Bob Sanders (we'll get back to this guy later on) should not be allowed to overplay the run. If the Patriots can loosen up the front seven with a decent short pass game, it will help open up run lanes later on. And if that happens, look for at least 150 yards combined from the Patriot running duo. Maybe Maroney would get 150 on his own, if the Patriots do this just right.

Gone but still as deadeye as he has ever been

Since the last game here at the RCA Dome, a 38-34 Patriot win in 2003, the Patriots have scored 24, 27, 20, 21 and 20 points on the Colts. That means that if the Patriots do to the Colts what the Ravens did, the Patriots win. By that, we mean keeping Manning out of the end zone, and holding the Colts to five Adam Vinatieri field goals. To beat the Patriots this way, Vinatieri would need to nail at least seven. He probably could make them all, but the Patriots have to put the Colts in a position where punts are deadly to them and all they can rely on is Automatic Adam.

But there is a downside. What if the Colts were in the Red Zone with less than two minutes left, the Patriots out of timeouts, and the Patriots lead by one or two points? You might as well start planning the Colts' trip to Miami right there. Now, chew on this for a second: Should this scenario occur, might the head coach who once made a victory out of an intentional safety once upon a time, let the Colts score so the Patriots could get the ball last instead of Automatic Adam? Vinatieri is who he is, and everyone knows it.

He's just like Polamalu, except his name is easier to pronounce

This guy is a game changer? You bet your sweet bippy he is.

If any coach out there can deal with game changers, it's Belichick. He has done nicely with Manning over the years. Now he has to do the same with Sanders. Sanders is a pint-sized headache ball who has gained a reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the league. He shut down the Patriot run game in November.

The Patriots had a similar problem with Troy Polamalu of the Steelers in 2004. In the October regular season game, he was flying all over the place and clobbering anyone in his path. The Patriots have dealt nicely with him since.

Simply put, the Patriots need to account for him and to keep him out of the box. This supports our earlier claim regarding needing to let the pass set up the run. The Patriots need to force Sanders to spend more time helping in pass coverage, which will then open up more running lanes at the line of scrimmage. If the Patriots can get Daniel Graham or Ben Watson open over the middle, Sanders might be the one who would have to deal with it, since Ron Meeks might want his linebackers to key on pass rush.

Get back to what worked all those years ago

Watching the Patriot cornerbacks playing ten yards off of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne was like trying to imagine Troy Percival trying to throw fastballs by Barry Bonds in the 2002 World Series. Percival threw a straight 98 mph fastball, and Bonds hit it almost 600 feet. You just knew that that was coming. With Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs playing soft on Harrison and Wayne, they were killing the Patriots and everyone could see it all coming right before their eyes.

It began in Super Bowl XXXVI, and was continued in the 2003 and 2004 playoff meetings. The Patriots have to beat Harrison and Wayne up. Harrison does not like this treatment. It is the biggest key to a Patriot win. If these two guys are taken out of the offense, Manning will be ripe for the picking. If the Patriots play off them like they have done in the two losses, the Colts probably win the game. Belichick preaches physical toughness, but Samuel and Hobbs have to answer the call here and be more physical than they have ever been in their careers. If Samuel aspires to the big payday he wants, it's a game like this which will justify (somewhat) the big bucks.

History can play a role in this game, to some degree. The Patriots know they can get the job done. The Colts only know failure at this level. The Colts might reverse that trend this year. But the Patriots have to allow that to happen.

And to this point, in the AFC Championship game, they haven't allowed it yet.


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