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ON FOOTBALL

As they ready their defense, Patriots have backers

If you don't think the Patriots can win a third Super Bowl in four years, you're just looking for "someone different" to get in and win.

I don't care that Pittsburgh has been the best team or that Peyton Manning has had the most extraordinary season for a quarterback.

The Steelers went 15-1, tying the 1972 Dolphins' record for most consecutive wins in a season (14). They are a balanced, complete team with a good coach and good ownership, a good organization top to bottom. The Colts are an offensive machine and have two terrific defensive ends with a combined 27 sacks, and they have the motivation to prove the Patriots don't have a hold on them.

That's all swell, but to beat the Patriots in the postseason, (1) you have to be perfect; (2) you have to get out to a fast lead and make them play catch-up; (3) hell has to freeze over.

This is New England's time. The Patriots' place in history will be defined by another Super Bowl win. They will be considered the next NFL dynasty, right there with Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Dallas. Bill Belichick will be thought of in the same light as Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, and Joe Gibbs. Regardless of what they say, those things are extremely important to Belichick and the players.

In a league that was pretty ordinary this season, the teams in the playoffs are very good, particularly in the AFC. Barring upsets, the Patriots will have to beat Indianapolis (at home) and Pittsburgh (on the road) to reach the Super Bowl. The Colts would have to beat the Patriots and Steelers on the road (what an accomplishment that would be). The Steelers would have to beat the Chargers-Jets winner and the Patriots, both at home. No cheapies for anyone.

This will be a very meaningful AFC championship. The Super Bowl could be as anticlimactic as the World Series was, because the NFC representative won't be able to hold a candle to New England, Indianapolis, or Pittsburgh.

Could Indianapolis or Pittsburgh beat the Patriots?

Of course.

Manning could have an error-free day and finally get the monkey off his back. He could exploit a thin secondary. Even if Ty Law does return, how effective would he be in his first game back fighting off Marvin Harrison? The Steelers could apply the same game plan they did back on Oct. 31: smash the Patriots in the mouth, take away their running game (yes, we know Corey Dillon didn't play), and pressure Tom Brady. Will it happen? Again, it would take near-perfect efforts by Indianapolis or Pittsburgh to unseat the most playoff-tested team of this era. That's why it's a long shot.

That's our take.

A few NFL coaches and executives don't think the Patriots are such a slam dunk; they give equal props to New England, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis. For the most part, San Diego doesn't get a lot of respect, and the Jets and Broncos get virtually none.

Houston Texans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said: "We played Indy twice and you're talking about having to contain Peyton Manning. That's what it comes down to. You can't blitz him because you can't get to him. He's so clever and he gets rid of the ball so quickly that you have to cover his receivers well.

"The question with Indy is: Can their defense contain Pittsburgh and New England? If they get a lead and they can play a Cover-2 and make it a one-dimensional game, keep it close, then you have a shot."

Concerning the Patriots' secondary, Palmer said, "I don't know what their situation will be by then, but last year Ty Law had an unbelievable game against them. If he's not out there, well, Peyton can pick any team apart."

Palmer calls New England and Pittsburgh "two prizefighters lining up and getting after each other. A game like that would come down to things like special teams or a turnover. Those are two outstanding teams."

In the quarterback matchup, Palmer said: "Brady gets the edge because he's been there and done that. Ben [Roethlisberger] has done a tremendous job and the coaches there have done a great job just staying with what he does best and not overwhelming him. Pittsburgh is very physical, as New England found out, but that experience factor New England has is very big in the playoffs."

Said an AFC head coach who did not want to be named: "A smart team will expose their secondary, but you've got to make sure your quarterback is clean so he can make plays. That's what Miami did. Cincinnati did a great job against them, but they turned the ball over and the one thing you absolutely can't do against New England is make mistakes.

"Pittsburgh just proved to be too physical for them at the time, and I think the Patriots know they have to turn on the intensity if that's who they face for the AFC Championship. Pittsburgh is the team to beat. As great a run as New England has had, the Steelers have had that near-perfect season. I'd pick them over anybody right now, and I wouldn't rule out Indy beating New England."

Those were the most pessimistic comments about the Patriots that we ran across.

Another AFC general manager said: "The Patriots haven't done anything to indicate they can't win another one. Look what they did with their two corners out all year. No team survives that except for them. I think the Patriots can handle Indianapolis because they always do. Their defense always finds a way to disrupt Manning just enough, and unless he's clicking, [the Colts] can't stop New England's offense. People were saying that maybe Charlie Weis would be distracted by holding two jobs. Yeah, right. I'll take that kind of distraction any day."

A secondary coach from an NFC team that played the Patriots this season said: "I wouldn't say they're unbeatable. [Corey] Dillon makes them better, there's no doubt about that, but because they're throwing it downfield more, you can get to Brady. I would think Indy with those two defensive ends could create some havoc out there. They have a little bit of inexperience on the right side of the line that you can do some things with. Pittsburgh matches up very well against them and to me they're the team to beat. But New England is battle-tested. When they get Ty Law back, he'll be able to shut down one side of the field."

The Chargers, according to an AFC West defensive coach, "could be the sleeper. They are well-balanced. Their offense isn't Indy and their defense isn't New England or Pittsburgh, but they can create some havoc. Don't count them out."

We won't. But as Belichick says, "Don't believe the hype." Don't believe it about Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, or San Diego. 

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