To those of you who are still agog at how hot Peyton Manning is (and you can include Manning himself on that list), we offer you a little bit of reality which should help calm your nerves.
It is possible that the good people of Indianapolis, who may still not know the Colts as well as Baltimore does, have huge delusions of grandeur right at this time. And why not? Manning has put up postseason passing numbers that would make Joe Montana and the late Otto Graham stand up and cheer. To say nothing of Peyton's heralded father, who must be thrilled to death at the sweetest manifestation of "I want you to have everything I never had!"
While the capital city of Indiana is just beginning to deal with things not related to bricks and brickyards, the people 1,000 miles to the east already have their thinking caps on. And the man with the biggest cap and the largest hard disk space inside his brain is already busy at work concocting the exact right formula to knock Manning and the rest of his Colts from the playoffs, so that his team can claim the spot in the Super Bowl that they seem destined to claim.
And unless you look at the record, you are probably shivering with fear right now. How in the world is Bill Belichick going to stop Manning this time? Look at what he did to the 13-3 Kansas City Chiefs. Look at what he did the previous week to a team which won a 31-17 decision against the Colts two weeks prior. For the second consecutive week, Belichick will have to try and stop a co-MVP in the NFL.
Before attempting to calm you down, let's quickly look back and see exactly what the Patriots now have on their hands.
First of all, last week's mauling of Denver in the rematch suggested that Indianapolis was in a funk more than Denver was that good. If you recall, the Colts finished poorly in the regular season. Starting with the 38-34 loss to the Patriots, the Colts barely survived a tough battle at Tennessee which in effect won the division title for them. After a blowout of Atlanta, they lost at home to Denver, then barely, and we do mean barely, managed to edge by Houston in the season finale, 20-17. The win clinched the division for the Colts, but Manning and his troops were misfiring and totally out of sync.
To make things worse, Manning had never won a postseason game and had a ton of things to prove to everyone. He has done that so far, with a 41-10 trouncing of Denver and Sunday's 38-31 wingding with the Chiefs. Manning is currently playing the best football of his career, and thanks to players like Brandon Stokely, Marcus Pollard and Reggie Wayne, he no longer has to rely on only Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James as his only other offensive weapons of choice.
So, fine. Manning is hot. He'll tell you that himself. His offense has scored 79 points in two games. His quarterback rating is so high that they may need to up the scale to make 200 a perfect rating. There is no question that the Colt offensive juggernaut looks more imposing than the St. Louis Rams of two years ago.
(onset of cold sweat) Oh, God. The 2001 Rams. Belichick can't possibly deal with a high-octane offense like Indianapolis, can he?
Now, let's make the cold sweat go away. It's agreed that Tony Dungy is a little bit better game manager than Mike Martz. Colt offensive coordinator Tom Moore certainly has his good days here and there, but now and then Moore looks like the game has passed him by. And perhaps you can hear the words of wisdom from the mouth of Ty Law: "I never seen anyone win a 100-yard dash with someone standing right in front of them!" We assume you all know that it was the 2001 Rams he was referring to.
Fortunately, no "expert" is yet on record as saying that Manning will do to the Patriots what he did to the Broncos and Chiefs. And with good reason.
Simply stated, unless Belichick and Romeo Crennel still think it's a good idea to put Eugene Wilson one-on-one with the other team's "A" wideout, Manning will not come anywhere close to putting up the insane numbers he has been doing in each of the past two weeks. Manning won't be totally stuffed, but punter Hunter Smith won't have another day off next Sunday.
It figures to be a good game Sunday, with the strength of the Patriots matched up squarely against the strength of the Colts. But the Patriots have a whole ton of history on their side, and that includes their series with their former division rivals. The Bert Jones Colts usually had their way with the Patriots, but the Jeff George/Jim Harbaugh/Manning Colts haven't been quite so lucky.
Since 1993, the Patriots are 14-4 against the Colts, including the win this season. Manning is 2-7 lifetime against the Patriots. Since becoming Patriot head coach, Belichick is 4-1 against the Colts. The last time that Indianapolis won in Foxborough was in 1995, a year where the eventual division champion Colts swept the 5-11 Patriots.
The last time Manning came to Foxborough was in 2001. Law and Otis Smith returned interceptions for touchdowns, and the Patriots came away with a 44-13 win (although this game is better remembered for Bryan Cox's monster hit on Jerome Pathon). Manning was 20 of 34 passing for 196 yards, was sacked twice and threw three picks total. His passer rating was 48.2. James was held to 55 yards rushing on 17 carries, and also led the team with six pass receptions (Harrison was held to only 3 catches for 49 yards).
People will bring up how close the last meeting was, and that the game came down to the final play and the now-famous goal line stuff of James by Willie McGinest. What they will perhaps not mention is that the Patriots led that battle, 31-10 in the third quarter and should have blown the Colts away just as they had done in the two 2001 meetings. Tyrone Poole had just picked off Manning, and had the ball and a three-touchdown lead with 6:12 left in the third quarter.
But Tom Brady went into a funk, and the defense slinked right down with him. Two plays after the Poole pick, Brady gave it right back with an interception to Donald Strickland. Manning cashed it in nine plays later to make it 31-17. Before you could say "RCA Dome", Brady gave it back to the Colts three plays later, and Manning needed only one throw to hit paydirt. Harrison caught a 26-yard pass and it was 31-24. Manning took it all the way on the next drive to tie the score.
Brady's interception rut helped trigger a three-touchdown explosion in just six minutes. This being the postseason, Brady is not likely to go through such a rut on Sunday. If the Patriots do manage to bombard the Colt defense like Kansas City did (and like the Patriots themselves did in November), the Patriots won't loosen their grip this time. The Patriots had the Colts beaten down and almost killed, but the word "almost" came back to bite the Patriots on the ankle.
Belichick and Crennel will be up late this week, and odds are that they will come up with just the right answer for Manning, which they have done numerous times in the past. For all the hay that Manning has made in the past few weeks against Denver and Kansas City, it is foolhardy to think that he can repeat this offensive barrage against New England.
If this be the case, Brady can go to sleep and dream of how he's going to attack cornerback David Macklin. He won't have David Patten like he did two years ago, but he may not need him. Just send Bethel Johnson deep and see what happens.
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