By: Bob George/BosSports.net
November 20, 2010

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Around these parts, it was always fun to watch.

While the rest of the league extolled Peyton Manning as the greatest thing ever to throw a football, Patriot Nation wondered what all the fuss was about. Every time the Patriots would play the Colts, the Patriots would win. And not just win, but dominate. Manning would be completely befuddled with Bill Belichick's defensive schemes, and the rest of the league would look on in amazement that the Patriots could do what they do with supposedly what little they have.

And the numbers bear that out. From Manning's rookie season of 1998 up to the 20-3 playoff loss at Foxborough following the 2004 season, Manning was 2-9 against the Patriots. He was 1-3 against Pete Carroll and 1-6 against Belichick. It was becoming a comedy show, with most of the laughs coming in two playoff losses at Gillette Stadium. Belichick owned Manning, and it seemed to be as sure a thing as death and taxes that Manning would choke against the Patriots.

But things changed for the Colts after that 2004 playoff loss. Since then, Manning is 5-1 against the Patriots, the one loss coming in the 2007 undefeated regular season. Manning suddenly "cracked the Belichick code", and now it is perceived that Manning owns Belichick and that the venerable head coach is now powerless to stop him.

The Colts make their first visit to Foxborough since 2006 this Sunday. Of those five wins, the first two were at Gillette in prime time. The last four games have been in Indianapolis, including the galling 2006 AFC Championship Game loss. Manning is no longer a Patriot Patsy, but instead something of an obstacle as well as a storied opponent.

His rivalry with Tom Brady is noteworthy, as most every football expert thinks that one of them is the best quarterback in the league today. But it is rivalry with Belichick that everyone is talking about. Being able to outsmart the best coach in the league is not taken lightly. All eyes in the NFL will be on Sunday's game, as they always are when these two teams meet. This has become Bobby Fischer versus Boris Spassky. The big question of the week is who will outsmart the other.

The Colts come into Gillette Stadium in Sunday as an incredibly depleted offensive unit due to injuries. Both Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez are on injured reserve. Austin Collie, Joseph Addai and Mike Hart are all hurting. But many people believe Manning will still prevail because he is Manning and can win with most anyone.

Which is probably what Belichick used to think. It's the system, not the players. I can win with anyone. Stick with the Patriot Way. If you want more money, the door is that way.

This is why the rivalry has gone the way of the Colts. The system and approach have changed because the players changed. The Patriots simply don't have the material they used to have when they used to confuse and defeat Manning with regularity. Instead of trying to keep key core defensive players around for a little longer and for a little more money, they were sent packing. In the case of the Colts, it's the Patriot defensive backs which have become the most susceptible to Manning's brain power and arm power. It is therefore incumbent upon the current bunch to play well and therefore hold the key to winning back the edge against the Colts.

Back in the Super Bowl days, the Patriots had guys like Ty Law, Otis Smith, Asante Samuel, Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay playing cornerback, and guys like Lawyer Milloy, Tebucky Jones, Eugene Wilson and Rodney Harrison at safety. These were all men who are better than the ones they have today, who played a very physical style of football, and who combined the brawn with a solid knowledge of the defensive schema. The years have shown that Belichick underrated the cornerback position, and to this day guys like Law, Samuel and even Gay have not been replaced.

The key to beating the Manning Colts is simple. You do not attack Manning, you attack the receivers. If you go after Manning, he will hot read you to death and hit checkdowns better than Randy Moss can ramble at press conferences. The key is to play the receivers tight and very physical, preventing Manning from going through his rotations and thus inducing a key interception instead of a key sack. This style worked perfectly for the Patriots during their Super Bowl years, and it was most effective against the Colts. It was proven again and again over time.

You might recall that following the 2003 AFC Championship Game, a 24-17 Patriot win, Manning and the Colts screamed about too much defensive holding. The Patriots were furious at the accusations, and the videos don't exactly support the Colts' claim. But the rules committee did their due diligence and the officials promised that they would crack down on defensive holding in 2004. The result: the Colts scored 14 fewer points in the 2004 playoff loss at Foxborough. The Patriot players really were that good, and Tedy Bruschi made sure the world knew that, especially his opinion regarding changing the rules to suit the Colts.

But the good would not last for long. Law was injured and lost for the season during the 2004 Halloween loss at Pittsburgh which snapped the 21-game win streak. That turned out to be Law's last game in a Patriot uniform, as he would sign with the Jets as a free agent and lead the league in interceptions in 2005. His replacement was Duane Starks, enough said. Samuel became a full-time starter in 2005, while Gay moved to strong safety to replace the injured Harrison. Manning riddled the Patriots for 321 passing yards and three touchdowns, and parlayed a 28-7 lead into a 40-21 Monday night win during Week 9 of 2005. It was only his third win over the Patriots at the time. This game showed that the loss of Law was more than anyone in the Patriot camp, especially Belichick, ever thought.

Law would play for four more seasons before retiring in 2009.

A year later, these teams would again meet during Week 9, this time a Sunday night tilt at Gillette. For this game, Belichick sent out Chad Scott to start at cornerback opposite Samuel, and Artrell Hawkins started at free safety with Wilson lost to injury. Manning threw for 326 yards and two touchdowns, and the Colts won again, 27-20.

After 2007, Wilson, Gay and Samuel would be gone. Harrison retired largely due to injuries after the 2008 season. Gay got his second Super Bowl win in February with the Saints. The Patriots tried to make hay with guys like Jonathan Wilhite, Terrence Wheatley, Ellis Hobbs, Deltha O'Neal and Leigh Bodden. Letting Samuel leave as a free agent following the Super Bowl loss to the Giants was proof again that Belichick undervalued the cornerback position, as Samuel has continued his great play in Philadelphia with no adequate replacement in New England.

Because of these personnel changes, the Patriots cannot play the Colts tight and physical like they could five years ago and beyond. The secondary has had to sit back and give cushions, and Manning takes every single inch the Patriots give him. Instead of Law, Wilson, Poole and Samuel clobbering Colt receivers and beating them into submission, you have Manning zipping through the Patriot defense, especially in the fourth quarter when the defense is dog-tired. Belichick believed too much in the system, but in this case the system only worked when he had the horses to make it work.

Things seem to be turning a corner for the Patriots nowadays. Devin McCourty is emerging as a shutdown corner like Law was. Patrick Chung is making everyone remember when Wilson was at his physical best. If only Brandon Meriweather will bring his skills from the neck up to match his great ability from the neck down (better coverage and tackling angles, understanding offenses better, more maturity), and if Kyle Arrington is more than just a stopgap until someone better comes back or comes along, the Patriots have a more than decent chance to win on Sunday.

But the Patriots have to do it the old way. Play the receivers tight and be physical, and don't try and blitz Manning. You won't outsmart Manning, but you can goad him into a pick or two if you play his receivers correctly. You don't have to deal with Marvin Harrison (retired in 2008) or Clark or Gonzalez and probably not Collie. Jacob Tamme has played well, but most any Colt does with Manning at the controls.

The Patriots simply have to take back this rivalry. They cannot afford to keep having the road to the Super Bowl go through Lucas Oil Stadium. Besides, anyone loyal to the Patriots cares deeply about the perception of these two teams, as well as the two quarterbacks.

So pop in your DVD of those playoff wins in 2003 and 2004. As Charlie Daniels told this restaurant patron in a commercial, "That's how you do it, son!"


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