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ON FOOTBALL

Colt reality

Indy a horse of a different color

This one will be The Thrilla in the Chilla. Sunday afternoon, when the Patriots and Indianapolis Colts face off at Razor Blade Field for the AFC Championship, it will be a heavyweight title fight and it won't be Tyson-Spinks. It'll be Ali-Frazier . . . on ice.

As rematches go, it won't be Ali-Liston II. It'll be Ali-Frazier III, the fight Ali later said was the closest to dying he ever wanted to come.

Patriots-Colts II seems destined to be a classic confrontation, a textbook test of the eternal question asked by coaches, players, and fans since the creation of the most interesting ball ever made, the football. When a title is on the line, how do you best try to win it? With offense or defense? What's your poison when the best offense in the game steps in front of the best defense in the game, irresistible force or immovable object?

If you favor balance then you favor the Patriots next Sunday. Their offense is not comparable to the Colts', but it's closer in production than Indianapolis's porous defense is to New England's stingy and steadfast unit, which has allowed a total of 36 points at home in the last seven games. That's an average of just over 5 a game in case you are mathematically challenged.

Into this cauldron of pain will march an offense that has been volcanic in two playoff wins this winter. The Colts blasted the Denver Broncos at home, 41-10, and then went into Kansas City's supposedly hostile Arrowhead Stadium and trampled the Chiefs, 38-31. In two playoff wins the AFC South champions have had the ball 17 times. They haven't punted yet.

Peyton Manning was perfect against the Broncos, registering a quarterback rating of 158.3, the highest possible. Yesterday he wasn't quite as fine but in those two games he has gone 44 for 56 for 681 yards and eight touchdowns with no interceptions. Just for the record, before you start to say `Yeah, but that wasn't against Belichick,' Manning was 29 for 48 for 278 yards with four touchdown passes and was standing a half-yard from the goal line with the game on the line when Edgerrin James was stuffed on fourth down in a 38-34 loss to the Patriots two months ago. So let us not forget what we are dealing with here.

The difference-maker in this game may not be Manning or Tom Brady, who many in New England feel can only be stopped by Kryptonite. It may not be the marvelous Marvin Harrison or his concussive alter ego in New England, Rodney Harrison. It may not even be James or the new addition to the Blue Hills, Ted "Mount" Washington.

If the elements Sunday are similar to Saturday night's deep freeze at the Big Razor, they will be the Patriots' 12th man on defense because frozen fingers do not often lead to making difficult catches. Just ask New England tight end Daniel Graham and Tennessee wide receiver Drew Bennett, who both dropped throws at pivotal moments Saturday night.

That does not, of course, mean the Colts will be utterly unable to function if the temperature again hovers around zero, as is being predicted. As long as the wind is not a problem, Manning still should be able to throw, as Steve McNair was able to do in the divisional playoff loss. Whether his receivers can catch is another question, but surely Manning will spend the week dissecting as much tape of the Patriots' defense as Belichick will of the Colts' offense. In preparation for the Chiefs, for example, Manning broke down and reviewed the last 10 games Kansas City played and ordered his backups to break down the other six and report to him on what they saw. He will do at least as much this week, so mentally at least he will be ready for whatever challenge is thrown at him.

Belichick surely will do the same, and so will defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. But it is one thing to study and prepare for the Colts and another to execute against them. The Patriots learned six weeks ago that no matter how well you think you have Manning under control he is only a whip of his wrist away from burning you. Of that they will be more aware than they were Nov. 30, because that afternoon he rang up 21 points on them in 12 minutes to turn a 31-10 lead into a tie game in the fourth quarter before Brady led the Patriots to the winning score.

What New England also has to believe, however, is that as difficult as stopping Manning, James, Harrison, and the rest of an offense that now has three more solid receivers in Brandon Stokley, Reggie Wayne, and tight end Marcus Pollard will be, it can do more against Indianapolis's undersized defensive front than the Colts will do against its powerful front seven.

It is no secret that the Colts' defense can be run on. It did not take Priest Holmes's 176-yard day with two touchdowns yesterday to make that point. The Broncos ran wild on them late in the season as well, gaining 227 yards rushing even though lead runner Clinton Portis was out with a bad ankle. This problem exists in large part because interior linemen Larry Tripplett and Montae Reagor and defensive end Dwight Freeney are undersized and thus not firm at the line of scrimmage, so the Patriots have to believe they can find success pounding them between the tackles with Antowain Smith.

Indianapolis improved this season from the 29th-ranked defense to the 11th, so coach Tony Dungy has the Colts moving in the right direction over the long haul, but the secondary is hobbling with injuries and has had season-long problems stopping the run. So unless the Colts can get pressure on Brady it would seem they will have problems of their own to contend with when New England has the ball.

Statistically, there is one odd number that does not bode well for New England and another that is bad news for the Colts. Dome teams, which the Colts are, generally have not fared well in freezing weather, going 11-32 in playoff games over the years. The St. Louis Rams are the only dome team to ever win the Super Bowl, and the last time the Colts ventured out into frigid weather in the playoffs was a year ago, when the New York Jets crushed them, 41-0. So that too should buoy the Patriots and their supporters during the long week leading up to this game.

But just like the ability of the Colts' offense to counter your defense, their statistician can counter your dome numbers with this one -- Indianapolis was the best road team in the AFC this season, going 7-1 away from the RCA Dome. So much for home-field advantage.

So what does that leave us to conclude six days before the Patriots play for the AFC title for the second time in three years and for the third time in the last eight? What we can conclude is that this will be another long and difficult affair that will be tougher than the first meeting between these teams, even though fewer points are likely to be scored.

Will the high-powered offense beat the powerful defense? It seldom does in the postseason because offense has more variables and can be more affected by foul weather and gusting winds than defense, yet Manning couldn't care less about that.

He will be coming here for one purpose. He will be coming here to win. Waiting for him and the Colts will be a very proud defense with the same inclination. How will it turn out? Honestly, nobody can know, which is what makes it interesting.

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