January 18, 2005
Grogan's Grade: Divisional Playoffs
BY: With Steve Grogan & R.R. Marshall
R.R. Marshall: Steve, it turns out the experts were wrong making the Patriots the underdogs to the Indianapolis Colts, as the world’s greatest offense was humbled by a tune of 20-3. When will the football world finally wake up to the fact that this Patriots team can rise to a challenge?
Steve Grogan: The Patriots are the kind of team that will come out and play really well when they feel they are being disrespected like they were going into this game against the Colts. They had two weeks to prepare for Peyton Manning and his offense and they never allowed the Colts offense to get untracked. It was just a dominating effort by the Patriots both offensively and defensively, and it was exactly what they needed to beat a great offensive team like the Colts.
RRM: The Patriots have won two Super Bowls in the last three seasons and yet because they don’t have a lot of Pro Bowl players they never seem to get the respect and credit they deserve. Why do you think that is?
SG: I think that’s part of it. They don’t have the big-name players that everyone knows about and they tend to get overlooked. But I thought the Colts’ game plan was far from the best in the world. They tried to throw a lot of screens and short passes, and the way that they beat people all year was throwing the ball downfield to their three great wide receivers and they didn’t try to do that very much in this game. The Patriots’ secondary was thought to be their weak point and that’s why it’s a little bit confusing about how the Colts approached the game. The Patriots were certainly prepared for whatever they were going to see and they were very physical with the Colts. It really took the wind out of their sails and the results speak for themselves.
RRM: Peyton Manning came into this game as the league’s MVP after a record-breaking season. Since he got much of the credit for the Colts’ great season should he also get the blame for this loss to the Patriots?
SG: I really don’t think Peyton Manning lost this game for them. He actually put up some pretty good numbers, but as I said I thought their game plan was a little confusing. He didn’t fumble the ball or cause his team problems. Even the one interception that came late at the end of the game didn’t matter. It’s also pretty obvious that the Colts’ defense is not that good. It’s been said and proven year after year that defense wins championships, and they just don’t have the defense to go along with a great offense. Peyton Manning is still a great quarterback, they just have to find some defense to go around him if they are ever going to be a contender.
RRM: Do you think something gets inside Peyton Manning’s head when he comes to play in Foxboro?
SG: It may not just be him but the whole team, including the coaching staff. They just can’t win up here for whatever reason, and again I think it goes back to their defense. They can’t stop anybody, and on top of that the Patriots have their number.
RRM: Did you have a team that gave you trouble during your playing days, like the Patriots always seem to do to Peyton Manning?
SG: I always had trouble playing against Buffalo but played really well against the Jets. I think sometimes when you have some success against a particular team, or on the other hand you have a bad game or two against another team it starts getting in your head. They match up well against you and you just can’t play well against them. It happens.
RRM: The Patriots’ physical style of play was perfectly illustrated on the hit Asante Samuel delivered to the Colts’ Brandon Stokley. I’m amazed he was able to get up and walk away after that one?
SG: The way Rodney Harrison plays the game physically is starting to rub off on a lot of the Patriots’ young defensive backs. They are all playing physically right now. That was one of the main reasons why the Colts weren’t able to get the ball to their wide receivers. The Patriots’ cornerbacks and Harrison were banging them and jamming them at the line of scrimmage. They didn’t get the illegal contact penalties that everyone thought they would, and the Patriots were able to disrupt the Colts’ timing with a lot of physical play.
RRM: The attention of the national media was so focused on Peyton Manning that Tom Brady had to feel snubbed. Did you feel his solid play reflected the fact that he took this game as a personal challenge?
SG: I think that’s a fair statement. All he heard about all week long was Peyton Manning, and while I don’t think Tom Brady is the kind of guy that takes something like that personally I believe he took it as a challenge to prove that he could still win the big ones much better than Peyton Manning can.
RRM: Although the Patriots offense spent a lot of time on the field in the first half this was still only a 6-3 game at the half. Why do you feel it took the New England offense so long to get into high gear?
SG: I don’t know whether it was the week off or just the fact that the Colts were showing them something they weren’t expecting, but it took them awhile to adjust. I think it took them a little while to get a feel for what the Colts’ defense was throwing at them. Matt Light was having some problems with Dwight Freeney early on. They were moving Freeney to the other side and Brandon Gorin was struggling with him, too. Once they got that figured out and started pounding the ball and blocking on pass attempts they were all right.
RRM: There was a key play at the end of the first half where the Colts used a direct snap to Edgerrin James that appeared to work well and would have given them a first down at the New England 11-yardline. Instead the play drew a penalty flag because Peyton Manning was still moving. Were you aware of that rule?
SG: Once the announcers explained the call I remembered that being the rule. I know from my playing days I had been told that once the quarterback’s hands go under center you either have to go back to the shotgun or set yourself someplace before the snap can be made. I know Tony Dungy took the blame for not knowing the rule, but as smart as Peyton Manning is you would figure he would know that rule himself! Both of them slipped up on that one and it cost the Colts a chance to score a touchdown and take the lead at halftime.
RRM: The dominating performance by the Patriots’ offense in the second half was nothing short of amazing. New England held the ball for over 21 minutes and never gave Peyton Manning a chance to get his team back into the game?
SG: It’s rare to see that happen in a playoff game, and a lot of credit has to go to the Patriots’ offensive line. They really got the job done in that second half. I thought Charlie Weis did a nice job of changing things up with Kevin Faulk to give the Colts a different look from Corey Dillon. Faulk seemed to be back and healthy, and he had a couple of big runs and one huge catch. I thought offensively the Patriots played as good in the second half as they’ve played in a long time.
RRM: More than one person asked me when Bill Belichick is going to wear more than just that old sweatshirt on cold, snowy days like Sunday. I’m pretty sure he isn’t trying to make a fashion statement, so what gives?
SG: No, I agree with you fashion isn’t on the top of his to do-list [laughs]! I noticed the sweatshirt too, and as the game wore on you know he had to be getting cold. No one asked him about it at the press conference so I guess that will remain a mystery for now.
RRM: It all comes down to the Patriots and Steelers in Pittsburgh this Sunday for a trip to the Super Bowl. Does the fact that the Steelers didn’t play well against the Jets and just managed to survive play any factor going into this game?
SG: I don’t think it really matters one way or another. I think they are going to prepare for the Patriots just as hard if not even harder than they did for the Jets, and I don’t think they are going to look back at how they struggled with the Jets. They are just going to look forward to playing the Patriots this Sunday.
RRM: Unlike the Colts the Steelers are a predominantly physical team that will try to beat the Patriots at their own style of football. That would make this a different kind of challenge for them this week?
SG: It really is. The Pittsburgh passing game shouldn’t scare you as much as the Colts’ passing game, but the Steelers’ wide receivers are bigger, more physical players and you have to play them differently than you did the wide receivers on the Colts. You also have to stop the run, which the Patriots weren’t able to do last time around. The Steelers are going to come at you with Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley, and if you can shut them down and confuse their young quarterback Ben Roethlisberger just a little bit I think they’ll have a pretty good chance of winning.
RRM: The Steelers love to run the play where they get single coverage from a cornerback and they just loft the ball some 30 to 40 yards downfield where either Hines Ward or Plaxico Burress can use their height and physical ability to come away with what essentially is a jump ball. The Patriots can’t double cover them on every play, so how do they defend against such a potentially big play?
SG: No, you’re right. You can’t double cover them all the time and that’s where your shorter cornerbacks are going to have to make a play. You also have to make getting pressure on Roethlisberger a priority. The only time he really hurt the Jets last Saturday was when he got out of the pocket, so they are going to have to make sure they keep him in there and get somebody in his face. They are also going to have to try and confuse him, because a rookie playing in an AFC Championship Game is going to have to be a little bit nervous.
I think it is going to be a real smash mouth football game. Both teams like to control the clock and run the football, and they both have great defenses. To me the difference is the Steelers are playing with a rookie quarterback who struggled against the Jets last Saturday and the Patriots are playing with a two-time Super Bowl MVP at quarterback in Tom Brady who is playing really well.
RRM: Corey Dillon didn’t play against the Steelers in their meeting during the regular season. Will he be a difference-maker this time around?
SG: I think Corey Dillon will make a huge difference in this game. Not having him available the first time around really handicapped the Patriots and turned them into a one-dimensional team. The Patriots rushed for less than 10 yards in that first meeting with the Steelers, and that’s not going to be the case this time around. Dillon will see a lot of action, and we can’t forget about Kevin Faulk. It was nice to have him back, and between the two of them they pose a real threat to Pittsburgh.
RRM: Do you have a gut feeling on how this one is going to go?
SG: I like the Patriots. I said last week the Colts scared me more than the Steelers did. I think Pittsburgh is much more one-dimensional offensively, and if the Patriots can find a way to shut the run down I just don’t think a rookie quarterback can beat them. The Patriots did a nice job against the Colts in not turning the ball over and outside of Matt Light’s penalty that called back a Corey Dillon touchdown they didn’t have a lot of penalties. They are going to have to play the same kind of mistake-free game against Pittsburgh. It would be nice if Richard Seymour could get healthy so he could help out stopping the run that Pittsburgh is sure to throw at them. But for me the key is for them to keep playing at the same level of intense, physical style of football that they played against the Colts. If they can play at that same level I really like their chances.
RRM: What are Grogan's grades for the win over the Colts in the divisional playoffs?
SG: They earn an A+ all around for this effort. I didn’t see anything in this game that was negative. Tedy Bruschi needs to be singled out for his effort; he was just everywhere in this game. He is playing so well for a guy that is getting up there in age. He made so many big plays in this game including stealing the ball from Dominic Rhodes. I thought the other player that did a great job for them on defense was Willie McGinest. He was putting a lot of pressure on Peyton Manning all day long. Right now this Patriots‘ linebacking corp is just an outstanding group that is playing great football.
This is a team that knows how to rise to the occasion and it’s really been a fun run around here. Let’s hope it continues for a few more weeks!
A veteran writer on the Boston sports scene, R. R. Marshall has written features for both local and national sports publications for more than a decade. His popular Q & A columns on the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, and Boston College Eagles appear year round in magazines and on websites. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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