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No time to take sides

Patriots' offense and defense both need to shine

Just because it's first in the job description, defending the Colts isn't only the defense's responsibility. It's a group effort.

The saying goes that the best offense is a good defense. The opposite is true when playing the Colts.

You play keep away when you play the Colts, because, as anyone who's seen them in their two playoff games knows, that offense of theirs isn't anything to play with.

Peyton Manning isn't at his worst when he's on the move or out of the pocket, or even on the ground. He's at his worst, and your chances of victory are best, when the co-MVP quarterback is on the sideline.

The clock is your friend when the Colts are your opponent. You can't stop the unstoppable. But you certainly can stall. And in the meantime, try to keep up.

"It's going to be one of those deals where our offense is going to have to score a lot of points," guard Damien Woody said yesterday. "Everybody's talking about Peyton and all his numbers; I expect our defense to meet the challenge. I think they'll be ready for them.

"They're on fire, no question," Woody said of the Colts. "They're as hot as can be on offense. They're what you call in a zone. But if one defense can take them out of it, I'm putting my money on ours."

You could say New England's defense took the opposition's lunch money in the regular season, allowing a league-low 14.9 points per game. The Patriots allowed only 68 points at home (fewest since the league went to a 16-game schedule a quarter-century ago) and 36 over the last seven at Gillette, including last Saturday's divisional playoff win over Tennessee. But they're going to need help Sunday afternoon against a team that hasn't punted in two playoff games. It's hard to decide which is more impressive: that Indianapolis hasn't punted, or that it hasn't punted in the playoffs, when defenses are supposed to make the difference. "It must be good to be the punter," tight end Christian Fauria said.

New England's offense gave the defense enough of a cushion in the first meeting, Nov. 30 at the RCA Dome -- 38 points. But Tom Brady and Co. also turned around and let the air out of it.

The Patriots came out and did what you're supposed to do against a defense built to defend a lead, meaning rush the passer. They built a lead of their own. New England got a field goal (43 yards) on its first possession. That was key. A touchdown on its opening drive in a fifth straight game Sunday would go a long way toward helping the cause.

The defense forced a turnover on the Colts' first possession, and the offense didn't waste it, turning it into Mike Cloud's 4-yard touchdown run that gave the visitors a 10-0 lead. Then the defense got a rare stop, and the offense didn't stop, going up, 17-0, on Brady's 31-yard touchdown to Dedric Ward. You win shootouts by firing shots early and often, and that's what the Patriots' plan was, to make plays. So far, so good.

After the Colts answered with 10 second-quarter points, the special teams chipped in when Bethel Johnson returned a kickoff 92 yards for a score with 12 seconds left in the half, giving the Patriots a 24-10 lead at the break. New England had punted only once, as had the Colts.

The defense stopped the Colts again on their first drive of the second half, and the offense kept it going, going ahead, 31-10, on Cloud's second touchdown, this one from 1 yard.

Then the offense let up, and let the Colts back in the game. The Patriots can't have that Sunday, or they could have several months to look back on a 15-2 season that ended a game early.

After Tyrone Poole picked off Manning, Brady gave the ball right back with an interception. That gave the Dome crowd life. Manning's 13-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne gave the Colts life, as well, and pulled them to within 14.

Brady threw another interception on New England's next possession, and Manning hooked up with Marvin Harrison for a 26-yard touchdown on the next play. Patriots 31, Colts 24. At this point in the group effort, everyone wasn't doing his part.

The Patriots went three-and-out, punted, and the Colts, the momentum behind them now, went down the field to the tying touchdown. Manning to Troy Walters, 6 yards, and, just like that, the game was tied at 31.

But the offense got itself together just as everything seemed as though it were coming apart, taking a 38-31 lead on Brady's 13-yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch. Johnson set up that score, returning a kickoff 67 yards. That turned out to be enough. The defense held the Colts to a 29-yard field goal following Kevin Faulk's fumble and on the game's final play, slammed the door on the Colts, who were on the doorstep of a completed comeback.

The game probably never should have come down to Willie McGinest's dramatic stop of Edgerrin James on the 1. It did because the offense took a break from doing its part -- keeping Manning and the football apart.

"You want to limit his touches as much as possible," Fauria said. "The more chances he gets, the better chance he's going to get on a roll. You have to restrict him from getting in a flow. He's a really good captain of that ship, and he's got a good crew."

New England's offense was short a few crew members in the first meeting; Antowain Smith and Troy Brown were inactive. They both should factor into the game Sunday, assuming Smith's foot injury isn't major.

The divisional win over Tennessee was the Patriots' toughest game of the season. This one promises to be the hardest. Beating the Colts, who went an NFL-best 7-1 on the road this regular season (as did Philadelphia), requires that the defense and offense be at their best. "Any time you can go into a place like Kansas City and perform like that in the playoffs, that shows me a lot about them," Woody said of the Colts. "They've been up to the challenge all year, especially on the road." . . .

The Chicago Bears announced that they had narrowed their candidates for coach to Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach Russ Grimm and St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith.

Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who recently agreed to a three-year extension, interviewed for the Bears' job two weeks ago. Crennel also is up for the Bills job, as is offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.

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