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ON FOOTBALL

Key piece of evidence a missing-persons report

FOXBOROUGH -- This much we know for sure. The Indianapolis Colts can beat the Patriots' junior varsity.

Five weeks ago, kindly Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer tried to make clear to the world what the battered Patriots were up against with injuries at every level of their defense and to nearly every playmaker on their roster. He was attacked for those comments by Tom Brady several days later, who insisted that Schottenheimer had no right to talk about Bill Belichick's team. The way things have gone since then make his empty words sound like a boy whistling past the graveyard.

Since that afternoon New England's beaten-up defense has allowed 431 yards, 400 yards, 432 yards, 394 yards, and 453 yards. It has allowed an average of 30.6 points per game. The Patriots have lost three of those five games by a combined score of 153-89. To put that number into perspective, the Cleveland Browns team coached by New England's former defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel, has allowed 136 points -- in eight games.

The Colts annihilated the Patriots with their passing game, their running game, and their defensive speed. Yet, whom did they really annihilate?

Richard Seymour wasn't there. Tyrone Poole wasn't there. Rodney Harrison wasn't there. James Sanders wasn't there. Chad Scott wasn't there. Guss Scott wasn't there. George C. Scott wasn't there (didn't they look like they could use a field general?).

On offense, Matt Light wasn't there. Kevin Faulk wasn't there. Patrick Pass wasn't there. And Corey ''Bringin' the Pain" Dillon was there but only barely, limping along like Amos McCoy on his way to a 40-yard rushing night in which he also fumbled on perhaps the most critical play of the game, if there can be such a play in a 40-21 loss.

In the end, the Patriots were forced to wave their 5-foot-9-inch white flag when they inserted backup quarterback Doug Flutie to be sure that Brady didn't join the growing list of wounded, which added defensive end Ty Warren last night.

That's the kind of evening it was for a team that was only a shadow of itself because regardless of how well you may be coached, it is still who is being coached that means the most, and at the moment the people Belichick and defensive coordinator Eric Mangini are coaching are not the ones they planned to be coaching.

The Colts exposed the problems that injury, free agency loss, and organizational stubbornness have caused (how did Seymour's knee get hurt again?) by controlling the ball with their running game whenever they needed to and repeatedly by throwing over the heads of Asante Samuel, Randall Gay, and Duane Starks. They might even have thrown over safety Eugene Wilson if anyone could find him.

''We can do it either way," Colts running back Edgerrin James said. ''If we can't pass it, we can run it. If we can't run it, we can pass it. But what it really boils down to is we got a defense."

Last night the Colts had everything. The Patriots? They had Tom Brady, which was not anywhere near enough this time.

The worst part of what happened at Razor Blade Field is that it's happened before. A week ago. And before that, too. There seemed to be not one sign of improvement defensively or in the running game, which last night netted 34 yards to the Colts' 132.

The last two weeks, Buffalo and Indianapolis have combined for 76 minutes and 1 second of offensive possession, an average of 38 minutes a game. This cannot continue if the Patriots intend to continue playing when the regular season ends, because while it is fashionable to believe, as I still do, that there is no way the Patriots can lose the AFC East, there is one way: keep allowing your opponent to control the ball for nearly 40 minutes a game. Keep doing that and bad things will happen, as they did last night.

The Colts had drives of 54, 68, 73, 60, and 74 yards, including a ridiculous 17-play second-quarter drive that chewed up over nine minutes. For a time, Brady matched Manning as best he could, but when you can't run the ball (Dillon is now on pace to rush for 880 yards, which is roughly half of what he put up a year ago when he actually was bringing the pain) and you can't stop your opponent from running or passing, there is only so much even a quarterback as gifted as Brady can do.

''Tonight we came out and played the way we should have," Dungy said. ''We were consistent. We ran the ball when we needed to and we threw it when we needed to. Defensively we still get a little helter-skelter sometimes but we're faster and we're more sound."

While all of that is true of the 8-0 Colts, certain things have also become clear about New England. Anyone still think they ''won the Super Bowl without Richard Seymour," last year, after he was hurt and replaced by Jarvis Green for a brief time? Whatever happened to Jarvis Green anyway? Oh. He played last night?

Anyone still think Duane Starks and Asante Samuel are the answers at cornerback?

Anyone still think everyone is replaceable because The System is the answer?

Anyone still think Corey Dillon is the same back he was a year ago when he was running for a contract?

And, just for Marty Schottenheimer's sake, anyone still think he didn't know what he was talking about five weeks ago?

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