Striking a match
Colts' explosive offense, Patriots' stout defense ignite great intrigue
The Great Debate that began on the NFL's spectacular Opening Night at Gillette Stadium in September will be decided on the mushy tundra of the same venue Sunday afternoon when the Patriots try to make it six straight victories over the man of numbers, Peyton Manning.
Although many factors will decide which team prevails in the weekend's most anticipated AFC divisional playoff game, victory will be perceived by many as involving only one issue - Manning vs. Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Tom Brady will play a huge role in the outcome, of course. So will New England's injury-riddled secondary and the broken body of Richard Seymour, the team's finest and most explosive defensive lineman whose questionable health is being guarded more closely than the condition of many heads of state.
The rest of the Colts will have something to say about the outcome as well. Their young and improving but still vulnerable defense has much to prove and will get its chance against the fourth highest-scoring offense in the league. Brady's powerful running back, Corey Dillon, is being seen by many as a key to victory even though this is his first exposure to playoff football. The theory is that for New England to win with its secondary in tatters, it must use Dillon's powerful runs to control the clock and keep Manning on the sideline for long stretches so he cannot pour on the coals as he did a week ago against the Broncos.
That day Manning had 35 points and 360 passing yards by halftime. Everyone believes the Patriots must avoid this type of shootout, and many postulate it is the judicious use of Dillon that will turn the day once again in New England's favor.
Brady enters this game coming off arguably his best season. With more being asked of him in the passing game, especially deep, he has produced 3,692 yards and 28 touchdowns, second only to Manning in the AFC. Most importantly, he has led his team to a 14-2 record for the second straight season. No active quarterback in the league has won more often than Brady, who is 54-14 as a starter, including 6-0 in the playoffs. He is an extension of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis on the field, a player who seems calmest when the most pressure is on. That accounts for a phenomenal 18-2 record in games decided by less than a touchdown.
The most decorated quarterback in the league, Manning remains haunted by the ill-conceived idea that he cannot "win the big one'' because he has yet to produce a Super Bowl title after seven years in the NFL. Certainly he's produced everything else, including a record-49 TD passes this season. Manning runs the most productive offense in the league and is responsible for selecting the play from several suggestions once he gets to the line and reads the defense. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of defenses and a sound understanding of what the opposition wants to accomplish and uses that, plus a tremendous arm, to do things few of his predecessors ever thought of.
RB Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk, Cedric Cobbs
FB Patrick Pass
Dillon is the best runner in a Patriot uniform since the departure of Curtis Martin. He can pound the ball between the tackles but also has the speed to take any play to the end zone. Because of his size and punishing style, Dillon wears a defense down and, like many of the best, often finishes them off in the fourth quarter. His 1,635 yards this season is a club record and he tied the team record with nine 100-yard games. Not much as a receiver, but he's complemented by Faulk and, to a lesser extent, Pass in those areas. Dillon is averaging 4.7 yards a carry and is perceived to be the key to victory today if he can control the ball and keep the offense on the field.
RB Edgerrin James, Dominic Rhodes
FB James Mungro
James appears to be back to the runner who twice led the league in rushing before a 2001 knee injury slowed him. He has been a more patient runner this season, not as wreckless as before his injuries but more willing to give holes time to open. He finished fourth in the NFL with 1,548 yards rushing and added 51 receptions for 483 more, giving him 2,031 total yards from scrimmage, which was second in the NFL. His good body lean and pad level prevents teams from getting full shots on him very often. He can take a game over but is often underutilized because of the passing game. The Colts are 27-7 in the 34 games in which James has touched the ball 25 times or more in his career.
WR Deion Branch, WR David Givens, WR David Patten, WR Troy Brown, WR Bethel Johnson, TE Daniel Graham, Christian Fauria
An undersized group that lacks the flash of the Colts but has been productive all season. Givens is the biggest target and leads the team with 56 catches for 874 yards, although he has inexplicably seen the ball less lately. Each of his first 30 catches produced a first down and 47 of the 56 this season moved the chains. He seldom drops a ball and has shown the ability to make catches in tight circumstances. Patten (44, 18.2 yards per catch) has been the deep threat in part because Branch (35 catches) has been limping much of the season. He's healthy now and that adds a weapon that must be respected. Brown has spent so much time on defense he has only 17 receptions, but he remains one of the league's most reliable third-down receivers.
WR Marvin Harrison, WR Reggie Wayne, WR Brandon Stokley, WR Aaron Moorehead, TE Dallas Clark, TE Marcus Pollard
Best corps of receivers in the league. Harrison has been the most consistently productive pass catcher in the NFL for seven years and has given the Patriots fits many times. He is more dangerous this year because of the improvement of Wayne, Stokley's injury-free season, and the absence of the injured Ty Law to cover him Sunday. All three finished with more than 1,000 receiving yards, only the fourth time that's been done by three receivers on the same team. Each also scored 10 touchdowns or more, a first for three receivers on one team. Stokley has tremendous speed out of the slot, causing severe matchup problems for New England. Wayne showed what he can do if left one-on-one with a young corner such as Rock Roc Alexander, whom he destroyed last weekend in the playoffs with 10 catches for 221 yards.
LT Matt Light, LG Joe Andruzzi, C Dan Koppen, RG Stephen Neal, RT Brandon Gorin
Although peopled by no big names, this is a solid unit that does a sound job in pass protection most of the time and has found many ways to spring Dillon on enough runs to pile up more than 1,600 yards on the ground, the third best total in the AFC. The key today could be the play of left tackle Light, who has at times had difficulties containing speed rushers such as the Colts' Dwight Freeney. Light is a powerful blocker and a battler but he may need help with Freeney, who is undersized but exceedingly quick and agile and has used those gifts to become the AFC's leading pass rusher. Koppen is an underrated battler, and the same is true for the rest of a unit.
LT Tarik Glenn, LG Rick DeMulling, C Jeff Saturday, RG Tupe Peko, RT Ryan Diem
Asked to pass block nearly 500 times this season, this group of fairly unknown bodies has allowed Manning to be sacked only 14 times. In addition, they've opened big enough holes for James to rush for nearly 1,600 yards. They are not overpowering at the line of scrimmage nor terribly athletic over all. There is no great leader here, no player who dominates the line of scrimmage and sets a tone for the rest. But as a unit they work together smoothly and understand each other's weak points as well as their strong points. While they put no fear into anyone, seldom have they put Manning at risk.
Edge: New England.
DE Richard Seymour, NT Vince Wilfork, NT Keith Traylor, DE Ty Warren, DE Jarvis Green
If Seymour can play and be effective it changes everything. Without him, offenses can double the nose to create more running room and still feel comfortable on the edge. If Seymour is out or subpar, Green, who had a big game in the AFC Championship game last year, will start. It is one thing to be a situational role player, however, and another to be asked to replace Seymour full time. Seymour's absence would change the rotation and perhaps result in McGinest seeing more time at defensive end. Wilfork has been a great addition. Neither he nor Traylor are as effective vs. the run as departed Ted Washington, but they've more than held their own.
DE Dwight Freeney, DT Josh Williams, DT Montae Reagor, DE Raheem Brock, DE Robert Mathis, DE Brad Scioli, DT Larry Tripplett
The Colts have their own problems here with designated pass rusher Mathis probably out. He and Freeney have combined for a league-high 26.5 sacks. Freeney is the lead dog in that regard, but his speed rushes become a lot more difficult to control with Mathis pinching the pocket from the opposite end. This is not a physical front and that could allow New England to knock them off the line and run the ball, as the Chiefs did earlier this year. Not a single man goes 300 pounds, with Freeney 268 and Mathis 235. That makes for a light load of linemen on a team that needs a big rush to protect a shaky secondary. Freeney is a classic speed rusher with destructive quickness but you can run straight at him.
Edge: New England
OLB Willie McGinest, ILB Ted Johnson, ILB Tedy Bruschi, OLB Mike Vrabel, ILB Roman Phifer, OLB Rosevelt Colvin
Still one of the strengths of the defense despite a lot of age on Phifer, McGinest, and Johnson. Johnson has had a renaissance. He's third on the team with 112 tackles, his highest total in six years, and a factor again on run defense. Bruschi is a tremendous playmaker and the soul of the defense. He forced three fumbles this year, two of which were turned into touchdowns, and had a two-year streak in which he returned four straight interceptions for scores. Very smart player who always seems to be in position to make plays, in part because he has soft hands. McGinest is seldom out of position and also has a nose for the big play. Vrabel may be their best linebacker. Can rush, drop into coverage or play tight end They are all heady playmakers, which makes them hard to handle.
OLB Cato Jones, MLB Rob Morris, OLB David Thornton
Average group but one that seems to create turnovers. Morris, Jones, and Thornton are all very athletic. They like to make plays on the move, using their speed to avoid blockers and range from sideline to sideline. Their problem comes when asked to hold their ground against an offense attacking straight ahead. Teams that can put a hat on each of them and force them to play physically tend to win the battle because, like the front four, they lack size and are not as athletically gifted as the corps of linebackers Dungy had at Tampa Bay, although they are built out of the same mold and try to create the same kind of havoc with their speed.
Edge: New England
CB Asante Samuel, CB Randall Gay, S Rodney Harrision, S/CB Eugene Wilson, CB Earthwind Moreland, S Dexter Reid, S Don Davis
If Law and Tyrone Poole were healthy this would be a huge edge for the Patriots, but both are out and have been for half the season. Replacements Gay, Moreland, Brown and the rest have done an admirable job, but more and more in the last six weeks teams have begun to expose their weaknesses. Now they must face the best pass offense in the league and there are matchup problems all over, which will force New England into a lot of zone coverage with LBs dropping deep and Belichick limited in how many different looks he can throw at Manning. Without a pass rush, this group struggles, and if the Colt running game gets going and forces Harrison to play in the box, those problems mount.
CB Nick Harper, CB Jason David, S Mike Doss, S Idrees Bashir, Bob Sanders
This is a better group than the one that played in last year's AFC title game but remains suspect. David is a rookie and undersized at 5 feet 8 inches. He led the club with four interceptions but that's partly because teams were throwing at him. Harper is solid but not special. The safeties are both big and very physical but struggle in coverage. Weis will scheme to get them into mismatches and if he does and the rush isn't there to protect them, they can give up a lot of points in a hurry. Still, the defense did produce 36 turnovers, including 19 interceptions. Fourteen of those turnovers came in the fourth quarter when teams were often trailing and one-dimensional because of the pressure the Colts offense was putting on them. Edge: Even.
K Adam Vinatieri, P Josh Miller, KR Bethel Johnson, PR Troy Brown
Vinatieri is the NFL's scoring leader with 141 points and the most reliable kicker in the game. Vinatieri has kicked 17 winning field goals, including two last-second winners in the Super Bowl. Miller is a marked improvement to Ken Walters of a year ago. Johnson averaged 24.8 yards per return and is one of the most explosive young kick return men in the league. Brown is an old hand who is not as dangerous as he once was but is reliable and surehanded. The weakness here has been a bothersome penchant for giving up long returns by their coverage teams, in part because many of their coverage team players are being used more than normal on regular downs.
K Mike Vanderjagt, P Hunter Smith, KR Dominic Rhodes, PR Troy Walters, PR Brad Pyatt
"The idiot kicker'' as Vanderjagt has been called because of his loose lips, was once the most accurate kicker in the game but he was 20 of 25 this year, including a key miss in the season opener that could have tied the game with New England. He has not yet proven to be reliable on the kind of field he'll be kicking on tonight - a slippery one that is less than ideal. Smith netted 36.8 yards a punt, not up to his physical skills. Rhodes is a dangerous and swift return man with elusiveness and must be carefully watched. He is averaging the same 24.8 yards a return as Johnson. The punt returns were split between Walters and Pyatt. Neither is anything special.
Edge: New England
Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
Belichick and his staff have repeatedly frustrated Manning, beating him in six of the seven matchups between coach and quarterback. Belichick and Crennel are masters at finding one favorite thing to take away from an opposing offense and thereby making him feel uncomfortably pressured and addled. With two weeks to prepare for the Colts, Belichick should be at his best for this game. This staff has done a remarkable job in the second half of the season holding a battered secondary missing both starting corners together with a well-documented group of misfits. For that alone, Belichick should have been named coach of the year.
Tony Dungy, offensive coordinator Tom Moore, defensive coordinator Ron Meeks.
Dungy is among the most successful head coaches in the league, having gone 34-14 in his three seasons with the Colts. Prior to that, Dungy led the Buccaneers for six years, building a team that reached the NFC Championship game and fundamentally the team that won the Super Bowl the year after his departure. Since 1999 he is 64-32 and is the winningest coach in the league over that span. A master defensive coach like Belichick, Dungy believes in speed and creating havoc and he has yet to have enough time to fully build a defense in Indy as suffocating as the one he created for the Buccaneers, but they have improved steadlily and made significant strides in the second half of this season.