By: Bob George
Look on the bright side. This game won’t be about Peyton Manning. At least not just yet.
The Wild Card weekend is done, with three exciting games and an unexpected blowout telling the tale. The Patriots now know who their opponent will be next Saturday night at Gillette Stadium, and Bill Belichick can focus on his opponent as only he can do it.
Instead of Cincinnati coming to Foxborough, it will be the Indianapolis Colts instead. The Colts pulled off the second greatest comeback in NFL postseason history, ralling from down 38-10 to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday, 45-44 at Lucas Oil Stadium. It was the other game, Cincinnati versus San Diego, which would determine the Patriots’ opponent, and the Chargers went into Paul Brown Stadium and upset the hometown Bengals, 27-10. The Chargers now head for Sports Authority Field in Denver and a rematch with their division rival Broncos, whom they beat 27-20 back on December 12.
By all rights, Kansas City and Cincinnati should have moved on. The Chiefs scored on their first offensive possession of the third quarter and took a 38-10 lead on the Colts. Andrew Luck had thrown three interceptions at the time (he would throw one more), looked completely frazzled, and seemed like the game was too big for him. But on the next drive, Luck hit Da’Rick Rogers for 46 yards in double coverage, and Donald Brown ran it in from ten yards out on the next play. The game immediately took on a look resembling the epic 41-38 overtime win by Buffalo over Houston (now Tennessee) in 1993 where the Bills trailed at one time, 35-3. Sure enough, Indianapolis overcame and defeated the Chiefs, and that long bomb to Rogers was the official line of demarcation between Chief dominance and Colt dominance.
The other game was more shocking than the Indianapolis win. First of all, Pittsburgh should have been the opponent and not San Diego if the officials in the San Diego-Kansas City game had correctly called illegal formation on the Chargers the week before, giving Ryan Succup a chance at a 36-yard field goal which would have sent the Steelers to Cincinnati. So, you had a Charger team that nearly choked at home against a team resting its starters and not being that interested in winning going to Cincinnati against a team that had not lost a home game all season long.
Despite all indications pointing towards a Bengals win (which this writer humbly admits calling it practically a foregone conclusion), nobody could have counted on Andy Dalton playing so poorly at home. If the Bengals had been on the road, Dalton’s performance (29 of 51, 334 yards, two picks, a 67 rating) would have gone into the “yeah, that’s about right” category. But Dalton was at home in The Jungle (Paul Brown Stadium), and the home cooking would finally carry the Bengals through.
Maybe this stat might have been further emphasized. The Bengals’ last playoff win was 1990. The Chiefs’ last playoff win was 1993. How could these teams possibly win. Sure enough, the Chargers take full advantage of the mistake-prone Bengals. Philip Rivers hit on 12 of 16 passing for 128 yards and a 118.8 rating. But the key was the ground game, where three Charger running backs had 50 or more yards rushing. Ronnie Brown had a 58-yard touchdown run, and some nobody named Danny Woodhead (why can’t the Patriots get guys like Woodhead) had 54 yards rushing and two catches (the team leader had three).
So next weekend, the Colts come to Foxborough for a Saturday night date with the Patriots, while the Chargers head to Denver for a third clash with division rival Denver. How will this all turn out?
The Patriots and Colts meet often, but this will be the second time since 1997 that the Patriots will play the Colts without Manning on their roster, and the first time in the postseason. Last year, the Patriots lambasted the Colts at Gillette Stadium, 59-24 after trailing early. The teams have met three times in the playoffs, with the Patriots winning the first two at Gillette Stadium, and the Colts winning the most recent playoff game, the 2006 AFC Championship Game, 38-34. Tom Brady is 10-4 against the Colts in his career.
As always, the Colts are mostly about their quarterback. Manning is a Bronco because of his neck injury which got the Colts the top draft pick two years ago and thus accorded the Colts the chance to take Luck, the top collegiate quarterback out of Stanford. Since 1998, the quarterback has been the centerpiece of the Colt franchise. Without the unique opportunity to draft Luck as Manning’s replacement, Manning is probably still a Colt today, based upon Manning’s huge numbers in two seasons in Denver.
That said, it took Manning about seven seasons, but he finally figured out how to beat Belichick. The Patriots did drop 59 points on Indianapolis last year, but in the postseason, that’s not likely to repeat itself. Furthermore, Reggie Wayne, one of the few holdovers from ten years ago and those playoff losses in 2003 and 2004 to the Patriots, is gone for the season. T.Y. Hilton is the now guy for the Colts, checking in with 13 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns Saturday against Kansas City.
Manning, meanwhile, set records for passing yardage and passing touchdowns in 2013. His team is the top seed in the AFC for the second year in a row. But Manning has a poor playoff record, and he has the haunting memories of going one and done last year against Baltimore at home. He also will be reminded of the loss to the Chargers three weeks ago.
San Diego seemed to right its ship against Cincinnati after nearly gagging the season away at home last week. The Chargers know they can win at Denver. They also know they can win in cold weather. And if they do their homework, they should also know that Manning does poorly in outdoor cold games thanks to all those years playing indoors, mostly at the RCA Dome.
Patriot Nation will naturally be rooting for San Diego to upset Denver like Baltimore did last year, then get by Indianapolis to once again host the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots should be cautioned that it is not impossible for the six seed to make it to the Super Bowl. And six seeds can win those Big Shows also (like two years ago against a six seed named the Giants).
Let the planning begin. The Patriots get back to practice on Tuesday. The bye week did its thing. Now the Patriots have to do theirs.
The Patriots need a lot of good luck. They know that the Colts already have a good Luck.