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Perfect time for Patriots

Clamp lid on Colts, Manning, 20-3, head to AFC title game

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Staff / January 17, 2005

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FOXBOROUGH -- They drew the curtain on another football winter at Gillette Stadium early last evening. There'll be no more tailgating in the parking lots of car dealerships along Route 1. No more ''Rock & Roll Part 2" booming over the PA when the Patriots put points on the board. No more monster traffic jams when 68,756 fans try to drive home after a Patriot win. No. The north end zone lighthouse will be dark until the Patriots return this summer.

Don't be surprised if the Patriots are reigning Super Bowl champs next time local fans trek to the Razor. In a near-perfect game yesterday, the devoted sons of Bill Belichick grounded the heretofore high-flying Indianapolis Colts, 20-3, advancing to the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh next Sunday night. A win against the Steelers at Heinz Field would put the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX Feb. 6 in Jacksonville, Fla., with a chance to earn dynasty status by winning a third championship in four seasons.

In perfect Patriot conditions -- think Edgar Allan Poe meets Currier & Ives -- Tom Brady outplayed the All-Universe Peyton Manning, and the Patriot defense smothered the quick-strike Colts. On a cold (wind chill 16 degrees), snowy field, the Patriots gobbled precious minutes playing blood and thunder, smashmouth football. Leading, 6-3, at intermission, the Patriots routed the Colts in a second half that approached playoff perfection. The most-anticipated playoff game of the weekend evolved into a surprising rout.

"It was an awesome performance," said Belichick, a man incapable of hyperbole (think Mike Dukakis with a whistle around his neck). "The second half was certainly our best 30 minutes of football this season. To hold a team like that to 3 points, that's a good defensive effort."

Indeed. Had this been a baseball game, it would have been an 8-0 win with only one man reaching base on an infield single. The idea that the Colts could be dominated this thoroughly was unthinkable outside of the Patriot locker room.

When will the national experts and football fans of America ever learn? The Patriots were disrespected by pundits for seven full days after America watched Manning dissect the Broncos (49-24) in the first round of the NFL playoffs. The country was blinded by the light once again. Everyone forgot that when the Colts take their game outdoors, they can be stopped by good defense and bad weather. At Gillette, Indy's supersonic offense spent a long night on the tarmac, waiting to be de-iced.

The Patriots thrashed the Colts in similar fashion in the AFC Championship game one year ago, a contest that inspired the league to change the rules of engagement to favor team offense.

"What rules are they going to change now?" New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi said yesterday. "I was tired of hearing this and that about how we didn't win last year -- they just lost by turning the ball over. I respect those players, but sometimes you just have to be quiet and play football."

It is now clear: The Colts cannot beat the Patriots. Manning cannot beat Tom Brady. Tony Dungy cannot beat Belichick. The playoff win gave the Patriots six straight over Indy. Brady is 6-0 lifetime against the Colts and the vaunted Manning never has won a game in Norfolk County. The reigning (two-time) league MVP completed 27 of 42 passes for 238 yards, but couldn't get his team in the end zone. His final, futile heave of the day was intercepted by Rodney Harrison with four seconds left. It was a fine exclamation for a perfect win by New England's almost-perfect team.

"Not perfect," said veteran Patriots linebacker/defensive end Willie McGinest. "We let [Indy's boastful kicker Mike] Vanderjagt get 3 points. That bum."

Vanderjagt, who said the Patriots were "ripe for the picking" and "not as good as they were last year," supplied the Colts' only offense with a 23-yard field goal at the end of the second period which made it a 6-3 game at halftime. But Belichick asked his players to give him their best 30 minutes of the season in the second half and as always, the obedient Patriots delivered for their coach.

Without snowshoes, Patriot running back Corey Dillon plowed through the Colts for 144 yards on 23 carries, an average of 6.3 yards per attempt. Dillon's work enabled the Patriots to control the ball, keeping Manning on the sideline and exhausting Indy's mediocre defensive unit. New England put together scoring drives of 78, 48, 87, and 94 yards. The Patriots had the ball for 37:43, compared with 22:17 for the Colts.

"We call him `clock-killin' Corey Dillon,' " said Bruschi.

In addition to controlling the ball and torturing Manning, the Patriots forced three turnovers and committed none. The most dramatic theft came when Bruschi wrestled the football out of the hands of Indy running back Dominic Rhodes.

"I wanted it more than he did," said the New England captain.

That's what it was about for the Patriots. All week, they'd heard about the invincibility of the Colts. And they did what they always do. They kept their mouths shut and went to work. They let their play speak for them.

"Nobody picked us and that's how we like it," said all-purpose veteran Troy Brown. "We don't take it personally. It makes us happy. Just leave us alone."

Ever consistent, the Patriots said great things about the Steelers and indicated that next week's game would be the toughest of the year. The Steelers are 16-1 and beat New England in Pittsburgh, 34-20, on Halloween. The loss at Pittsburgh ended a 21-game winning streak. Overall, the Patriots have won 30 of their last 32 games and 20 straight at home.

"I'm really proud of this team and the way we've played all year," said Brady. "Our motivation comes from within, from what we think we're capable of doing."

Embrace this team, Patriot Nation. These are the good old days of professional football in New England. Pretty safe to say it will never be better than this.

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