FOXBOROUGH - You know, nine million against the cap isn't so bad, is it?
You can sum up Sunday's AFC Championship Game in one simple sentence: Peyton Manning fought the Law, and Ty won. And win he did, picking off three Manning passes and almost single-handedly sending his team to Houston and the 38th annual Big Show in two weeks.
Led by a defense which merely did what it had to do and when it had to, the Patriots triggered a huge Gillette Stadium celebration, the echoes of which will reverberate across the region perhaps all the way to kickoff at Reliant Stadium on February 1st. Manning looked like a shell of his unbelievable self, and the Patriots captured their fourth Lamar Hunt Trophy as champions of the AFC in their history. The Patriots outlasted the Indianapolis Colts, 24-14, and will play Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII. The pride of New England now has a chance to capture its second Super Bowl win in three years.
Amidst an afternoon filled with snow flurries, the Foxborough fans, who come out in all kinds of weather to spur on their team, pulled out all the stops to cheer their team to victory. The crowd was so imposing that both Bob Kraft and Tom Brady went out of their way on the victory platform to give the crowd a ton of credit in their 12-0 (including preseason) record at Gillette this year. There was no accumulated snow to throw into the air like the Miami snowfest, but the fans more than made up for it in the form of organized hysteria and bedlam.
Still, the fans don't win the game, the players do. And it was a sound Patriot defense doing its thing, and an efficient but red zone challenged Patriot offense which played just well enough to win. Tom Brady managed a brilliant game despite one interception and two or three near picks. Antowain Smith rushed for exactly 100 yards. The defense sacked Manning four times, and Manning threw that many interceptions. Add all that up and you have the Patriots packing their bags for Smith's hometown and not Indianapolis.
Law will be forever known as the MVP of this game, unofficial that may be. But this was just a small component part of two key elements of what really won the game for the Patriots: dictation and adaptation.
It was literally mandatory that the Patriots dictated the tempo and pace of the game, and not the Colts. Right from the opening drive, Bill Belichick put his immediate stamp on this game. Perched on their own 44, fourth and one, Belichick told Brady to go for it. The fourth offensive play of the game thus became arguably the most significant of the contest.
Brady sneaked for two yards and a first down. Punt the ball or fail to make the first down, and Manning takes right over and probably does to the Patriots what he did to the Chiefs on the opening drive last week. Instead, the Patriots drove 65 yards in 13 plays, the longest play being a sideline toss to Deion Branch for 14 yards. David Givens would later deke David Macklin out of his jock, and Brady would hit him wide open in the end zone for a 7-0 Patriot lead.
That crucial call to go for it on fourth down set the tone for the entire game. The opening drive accomplished everything it had to do: consume time, slow the game down to the Patriot pace, and draw first blood on the scoreboard. Thus, the first component part of the win, dictation.
But Manning and the Colts would answer, which is where the adaptation part comes in. It is a literal given that a Belichick team is adept at this sort of thing anyway, but this is Manning and the Colts you're talking about. Adapting against the Colt offense is like trying to water an acre of vegetables with a toy squirt gun.
Manning proceeded to move his Colts from his 27 to the Patriot 5, thanks largely to a 32-yard left flat pass to Marcus Pollard (against, who else, Eugene Wilson). On third and three at the Patriot 5, Manning tried to hit Pollard at the back of the end zone, but Rodney Harrison stepped in front of Pollard and made the first of four interceptions off Manning (guess that Law would get the next three, perhaps). It was Manning's first postseason pick, and it gave him his first sense of fallibility in these playoffs.
From then on, the Patriots had a better idea of what was coming. The Patriots dared Manning to beat them through the air, and each of the four Colt drives of the first half ended in turnovers. Law knocked Harrison off a post route, and made an interception deep down the sideline when Manning threw the ball to where he thought Harrison would be. The next drive ended with the Colts needing to punt for the first time in these playoffs, but a high snap over Hunter Smith's head forced him to kick the ball out of the end zone for a safety. A Bethel Johnson fumble after a catch game the Colts great field position at the Patriot 41, but 20 yards later the Harrisons had a violent collision after Marvin made a catch on a crossing route. Marvin coughed up the ball, and Tyrone Poole recovered. It was 15-0 Patriots at the half, and an offensive war was shaping into Shutout IV at Gillette.
All thoughts of another blanking disappeared in the 6:44 of the second half. Colt offensive coordinator Tom Moore brilliantly crossed up the Patriots by featuring Edgerrin James on the opening drive. He rushed seven times for 32 yards, including the final two yards for a touchdown. Now, what, thought Romeo Crennel. Manning finally accepted the Patriot dare, and marched right down the field on the ground when the Patriots fully expected the Colts to pass.
The Patriot defense stiffened the rest of the way, for the most part. Thanks largely to Moore going away from James and back to Manning and his arm, the Patriots took care of the Colts and built a 21-7 lead. The Patriots induced a three-and-out, then on the second play of the ensuing drive, Law flagged down a short sideline pass which was intended for James but was overthrown. The next drive went 50 yards and ate up 14 plays, but Law hauled in an errant hurried deep throw by Manning.
The much-maligned Colt defense helped keep the game within reach all afternoon long. Adam Vinatieri tied a postseason record with five field goals, but that many treys usually means that a team has red zone problems. Six Patriot drives went inside the Colt 20; four went inside the Colt 10. Yet the Patriots could only cash in one touchdown, and Brady threw his first Gillette interception of the year by drilling one into the arms of Walt Harris in the end zone. Manning was able to lead the Colts on a 13-play, 67-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter, capped by a 7-yard scoring pass to Marcus Pollard.
But basically, the Patriot defense had plenty to keep Manning off balance all night long, and Moore pulled a Mike Martz by staying away from James instead of using something that worked well early in the second half. In addition to the pressure on Manning, the Patriot defensive backs laid the lumber on Colt wideouts, the most impressive being Wilson smacking both Brandon Stokely and Reggie Wayne in the fourth quarter just prior to Law's fourth and final pick.
The Patriots now get two weeks to plan for the Carolina Panthers, who will play in their first Super Bowl. Belichick now gets to watch film and scheme over what to do about that fearsome Panther defensive line. For the first time in their history, the Patriots will not be a Super dog, as the early line has the Patriots seven-point favorites.
Expect Belichick to find the perfect formula to defeat the Panthers, just like he did in defeating Manning and his brilliant offense.
And how he did it was simple. He merely laid down the Law.
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