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ON FOOTBALL

Rule of Law has final say in this case

FOXBOROUGH -- All you really need to know about the kind of day Ty Law had in the AFC Championship game is this: He had more receiving yardage than Marvin Harrison. The Patriots' Pro Bowl cornerback not only intercepted three Peyton Manning passes to stymie the Indianapolis Colts' offense yesterday, he made remarkable interceptions. He made a diving interception. He made a one-handed interception. He made a brainiac interception on which he came off his man and stepped in front of Manning's throw when it was least expected.

They were three mind-numbing interceptions, two of them catches that Randy Moss might not have made. He made catches that, well, Harrison didn't make, either, which is the major reason the Patriots are returning to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years while the Colts are going back to the barn for the winter, 24-14 losers in their biggest game of the year.

It might have been the biggest game of the year for the Patriots as well had Law not turned it into a resume tape. Law will enter next season with a salary cap number of $9,457,365, with a base pay of $5.65 million and a reporting bonus of $1 million. Those numbers escalate in 2005, when his cap figure will be an astronomical $12,557,365. In this day and age, they are the kind of numbers that can get you fired.

The Patriots want that number down, and they have a history of being hardline about such matters of business. When Lawyer Milloy refused to restructure his contract in a downward direction, he was cut five days before this Super Bowl season began. And Law already has made it clear he knows the same thing could happen to him. What he's also made clear is, well, he'll take his chances.

Yesterday it was obvious why, because Manning mistakenly took his chances against Law and paid dearly for that decision. After two weeks in which the Colts quarterback wasn't perfect but could see perfection from where he was standing, Manning finished a nightmare day with a quarterback rating of 35.5. The major reason for that was Ty Law.

This is not to say Law didn't have help. As always, the defense played like a finely-tuned unit. The defenders up front put just enough pressure on Manning to leave him feeling slightly undone. But the person who finished him off was Law.

"Ty changed the whole game," safety Rodney Harrison said after all was said and done.

He said a lot of other things about Law, but after that, what more is there?

Law changed the game. What else is there?

Ty Law may not be in a class by himself, but whatever class he is in has a short roll call. He has all the things you must have to be successful at the most lonely of positions. He is fast, quick, athletic, confident, brave, and tough-minded, yet he is more than that. He is smart, relentless, and one of those rare players who can hit you in the mouth if that's what it takes or can gracefully run down the field with you and knock the ball away instead of knocking you out.

Yesterday at Razor Blade Field was the kind of day he likes best. It was a knock-you-in-the-lip kind of day.

A week ago, the Patriots' defensive plan had their secondary in soft coverages, seldom pressing the Tennessee receivers. Titans quarterback Steve McNair chose not to throw a single ball in Law's direction, giving him the night off in a way that reflected the respect he held for him. Yesterday, both the Patriots defense and Colts offense took a different

approach. When Law saw the game plan early in the week, he smiled. There was no passivity this time. He and his fellow defensive backs were going to play the Colts receivers at the line of scrimmage, challenging them as they released into their routes with bumping and wrestling. They were taking a hands-on approach. No cornerback in football likes that more than Law, who fancies himself a linebacker with speed and often plays like one. Yesterday was no exception.

As good as Law is, Manning chose to challenge him because he had no choice. If he wanted to get the ball to his best receiver, Marvin Harrison, he had to get it past Law. He would do that or die trying.

Well, call the undertaker.

Harrison finished his long day with three catches from Manning for 19 yards. Law had three catches from Manning for 26 yards.

Marvin Harrison's longest reception from Manning was 8 yards. Ty Law's longest reception from Manning was good for 20 yards. The guy always has said he could play wide receiver. Maybe he's right.

Whatever else Law can do on a football field, the thing he made clear once again yesterday -- and has made clear for most of his career if you have been paying attention -- is that he is an elite cornerback, one of the league's best practitioners of a lonely profession.

Where Law plays, you often stand alone. Where Law plays, you stare across at guys like Harrison, who is fast, athletic, and aware of where he is headed when the ball is snapped while Law is not. Or is he?

"In the biggest games, Ty Law comes through and shows he's the best cornerback in the league," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said of his long-time teammate.

Like Harrison, Bruschi had more to say about Law, but why bother? One sentence said all that needed to be said. Something about being the best.

Law was irked last weekend when the Titans declined to throw in his direction, but he understood it was a sign of respect. Although he knew the Colts felt the same way about him, he also knew this day would be different. This day he would be challenged, and he would respond. Of the latter he was sure most of all.

"I wasn't surprised because I knew I was going to see a lot of Marvin Harrison," Law said. "He's the go-to guy. He's the best receiver in the league, along with Randy Moss, so I knew I was going to be in for some action this week. And I was looking forward to it. I was ready.

"It got a little frustrating last week, but I guess I did my job because they didn't throw at me. I think that's just as good as making interceptions, but Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison is his man. I felt I was up to the challenge. I felt it all week. I looked forward to the opportunity.

"Peyton has confidence in Marvin and he should, but I felt I was up to the challenge. I'm a pretty confident individual also."

Yesterday, with a trip to Super Bowl XXXVIII hanging in the balance, Ty Law showed his confidence in himself was not misplaced. It is why he did not fear Peyton Manning or Marvin Harrison. It is also why he doesn't fear what might come when this season ends and the focus is no longer on his play but on his salary cap charges.

"No matter what happens, I'll be all right," Law said. "Some decisions will have to be made about my future, but it's not like I'm a free agent. It's out of my control. The best thing I can do to negotiate for myself is to play football."

Yesterday he negotiated like Marvin Miller, the old baseball union man who was undefeated against major league owners for 20 years. After a week of discussions about Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, Bill Belichick vs. Tony Dungy, and the influence each of them might have on this game, Ty Law went out and negotiated for himself.

By the time he was finished, he'd negotiated a return to the Super Bowl for his team and a return to Indianapolis for Peyton Manning and the Colts.

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