By: Bob George/BosSports.net
October 28, 2007

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FOXBOROUGH -- Scoring 52 against Indianapolis will do no good if you give up 53.

Which is how next weekend's clash of the NFL titans will turn out if the Patriots play defense against Peyton Manning and the Colts next weekend at the RCA Dome. What with all the hype given the Patriots and how everyone is agog over the near invincibility of the home town team, the Colts are still the current champions and will be so until someone knocks them off their lofty perch. And all the hype given the Patriots has to be galling to the Colts, to the point that they will be doubly tougher for the Patriots to be the team to keep their perfect season going.

Both teams maintained their perfect record thanks to the quarterbacks beating the one remaining team in the NFL they had never beaten. Manning finally conquered the Carolina Panthers, winning 31-7 in Charlotte. And Tom Brady registered his first ever win over the Washington Redskins, a 52-7 rout (this should also have been the final score in 2003). It was the first win by the Patriots over Washington since 1972. Both Brady and Manning looked every bit as brilliant as they could ever look, so the matchup next week is set.

New England at Indianapolis. Combined record: 15-0.

Football fans have been salivating over this game literally since the beginning of the season. The top two teams in the NFL, who battled it out in January for the AFC Championship, battle it out once again in the same arena where the Colts gained entry into Super Bowl XLI, winning 38-34.

This game is for more than maintaining the one remaining perfect record in the NFL. It is for the one seed in the playoffs. The winner will get the top seed, the loser will get the two seed. There is no other team in the AFC which figures to crack this top duo. The winner of this game will be the presumptive AFC Championship Game host in January.

You can say it's a big game, of course. But the ramifications run deep, and both teams' psyches will be on the line as well as the glittering talent on both sides.

Here is the long and short of this game: The Patriots will score on Indianapolis. Bob Sanders cannot account for all of the offensive weapons the Patriots have. The problem is that the Patriots have refused to play the tight defense against the Colts in the three straight losses the Patriots have suffered to this franchise they used to handle with ease. If the Patriots lay off the wide receivers and give them soft cushions, the Colts will match the Patriots point for point and the game will come down to whomever has the ball last.

The only two Colt defenders who should scare anyone are Sanders and Dwight Freeney. Most of the time, Matt Light and a tight end (Kyle Brady?) can handle Freeney. The Patriots have not yet come up with an answer for Sanders, but they have more offensive weapons this year so that he cannot spend all game shadowing Laurence Maroney and expect his secondary mates to handle Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth and Wes Welker. The Patriots can and should run up their usual point total against the Colts. And they will try and do so with long, time-consuming drives to run clock and keep Manning on the sideline as much as possible.

When the Patriots used to beat the Colts, they would do so by playing the wide receivers physical, knocking them off their routes and throwing off Manning's timing, forcing him into misfires and interceptions. But in the last three games, all losses, cornerbacks would lay off and play soft zone, and Manning would slice and dice the Patriot secondary to death. This was partly the case in the second half meltdown in January, the other part being sheer exhaustion in the late game, thanks in part to how warm it was in the RCA Dome that day.

Whomever plays cornerback (Randall Gay, Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs) has to play Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne tight. They need to hit them hard within the five-yard limit. Harrison has shown over the years that he can be broken down if he gets clobbered enough. If Manning wants to go to Dallas Clark, Adalius Thomas can cover the speedy tight end.

That leaves Joseph Addai. A better running back than Edgerrin James, Rodney Harrison comes into play here. Addai is the biggest impediment for the Patriots to effectively cover the wideouts; if the Patriot cornerbacks cannot defense Marvin Harrison and Wayne effectively, Rodney Harrison may have to help out, which will open up running lanes for Addai. If the cornerbacks can play well enough to allow Harrison to help out in the box, then and only then can you predict a Patriot win.

This may sound like alarmist analysis, but it is not. In three wins, Manning has finally figured out how to riddle the Patriot offense like he does the rest of the league. Manning has run up 40, 27 and 38 points against the Patriots in the three wins. The one solace is that the Patriots can at least score with the Colts, but Brady will have to be letter perfect at both execution and clock management. Whatever Bill Belichick concocts to try and bamboozle Manning, it does no good if Manning still hits the wideouts on checkdowns or on quick slants and in-cuts because the corners are in a no-touchdown defense.

And of course, if the game comes down to field goals, don't forget who kicks for them now. Yes, Stephen Gostkowski hit a biggie in San Diego last year, but his opposite number is the master of the biggies. Game tied, 12 seconds left, who does Indy call on? Only future Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri. Talk about the one seed being decided on a Vinatieri field goal. How would that wear on the psyche of the Patriot organization, which is still being ridiculed by some for "cheaping out" on Gostkowski and lowballing the best clutch kicker in NFL history on his way out of town.

Face it, until the Patriots show that they can once again dominate the Colts like they used to, you must make the Colts the favorite. Beating the Colts used to be an entitlement for the Patriots. Not any more. Wish all you want for a satisfying Patriot win, but if that is to be, the Patriots have to remember how they used to do it, and then actually go out and do it. And do it for sixty minutes, without crapping out in the fourth quarter because they're too tired.

It will be the newest "Game of the Century", and it will be a great one. The Patriots must be the more physical team. Period.

And if Manning comes out in lots of film reels with his arms up in the air yelling "Waaaaahhh!", you can tell that things went well for the Patriots.


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