Two teams, two tremendous quarterbacks, and one immense challenge for any defense. That's the simple breakdown of Sunday's AFC Championship game between the Patriots and Colts.
When it comes to the Colts, the first area that one NFL assistant said any team must contend with is quarterback Peyton Manning's work at the line of scrimmage.
"The biggest thing the Colts are able to do at home, with the calming conditions, is have Peyton work his audible system after getting a pre-snap read," said fourth-year Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith. "It's very similar with Tom [Brady] as well. Both of them are so in tune to setting the protection and reading the coverage based on a pre-snap look. If they know what you're in, they're going to get the ball to the right guy."
So how does a defense counter such intelligence?
Smith said disguising coverages is important, as is not tipping off where extra pass rushers are coming from. By keeping those intentions under wraps, it forces the quarterback to make quick decisions after the ball is snapped. That's especially important against heady players like Manning and Brady.
"I think the team that is able to force the quarterback to make more decisions post-snap has the best chance to win -- that would be a key," said Smith, whose defense held the Colts to 21 and 17 points in two meetings this season, and the Patriots to 24.
The Colts' offense averaged 29.6 points per game during the regular season at home, where the team went 8-0.
Overall, the Manning-led attack tied for second in the NFL in points per game (26.7), although the unit has been slowed a bit in two playoff games, scoring 23 in the wild-card win over the Chiefs and 15 last Saturday against the Ravens.
Another area of concern for any defense facing the Colts is third down, as Indianapolis ranked first in the NFL by converting 56.1 percent of the time.
The Colts don't significantly alter their offense on third down, most of the time staying with their base three-wide package. Since receiver Brandon Stokley has been sidelined by injury, Indianapolis often has run its three-wide alignment with receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne and tight ends Dallas Clark and Ben Utecht, with Clark presenting mismatch problems as he has receiver-like skills when lining up in the slot.
"When that gets rolling, it's really tough to stop," Smith said. "That three-wide spread opens you up."
Yet it doesn't necessarily mean the Colts are always throwing the ball, as evidenced by a ground attack that seemingly has picked up steam in recent weeks, and helped run out the clock in Sunday's win over the Ravens. The signature of the ground game, which is led by the tandem of rookie Joseph Addai and six-year veteran Dominic Rhodes, is a stretch play.
"All the offensive linemen run sideways, and your own guys can get hooked going that way, and they'll run the play all the way to sidelines with the ball carrier staying patient looking for the opening," said Jaguars defensive line coach Ray Hamilton. "You want your linemen to get penetration, and make the running back cut before he wants to."
But Hamilton said defenders also must be cautious of thinking run too quickly.
"They have an excellent play-action off the stretch play, so if you play the run first, they can hit you down the field," he said. "You really have to be disciplined in how you play it."
Hamilton also has noticed the discipline of Manning in operating the offense, as "he'll take the short passes, the dump-offs for 3, 4, 5 yards; he doesn't need to sling it deep all the time."
In that sense, Hamilton sees a similarity with the Patriots.
"When we played the Patriots, they were happy to take the 3-, 4-, 5-yard routes, Tom wasn't trying to force the ball 20-30 yards down the field," he said. "They ended up with around seven third-and-1's, which is a lot for a game. But by taking the short passes, it keeps the clock rolling and makes for manageable third downs. That would be an effective approach to keep Manning on the sidelines, whether by running or dinking and dinking."
Also tied into the defense is special teams play and what could be a field-position type of game. One NFL special teams coach who requested anonymity gives the Patriots the edge, mainly because of the potential presence of Laurence Maroney as a returner.
"[Adam Vinatieri] is not going to kick touchbacks, even playing indoors, so they'll have some chances," the coach said. "I'm sure New England doesn't want a whole lot of kickoff returns, but that is the biggest threat I see.
"On the other side, the biggest threat is if it comes down to a field goal. Vinatieri has obviously made his career on big kicks. Those are two real pluses for both those teams, two real outstanding guys."
Overall, the Patriots' special teams units are bigger and more physical than the Colts', according to the coach. The Patriots' kick coverage (20th) and punt coverage (26th) were in the back half of the NFL, while the Colts were even lower in kick coverage (30th) and punt coverage (31st).
In the punting game, the Colts' Terrence Wilkins can be a threat, as he had an 82-yard return for a touchdown during the regular season. Patriots punter Todd Sauerbrun, who is coming off an impressive performance against the Chargers, will be the key to negating Wilkins.
"It looked to me like Sauerbrun was punting as well as anybody in the league on Sunday," the coach said. "Usually when you lose a punter, you're looking at trouble, but that doesn't appear to be the case."
From an offensive perspective, two other NFL coaches said there is no secret where the Patriots' main concern lies: with defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
"They just keep coming and coming and coming," said Mike Sherman, assistant head coach/offense for the Houston Texans. "You have to account for them and they're relentless pass rushers. From a passing-game standpoint, when you get into a third-down situation, you're either chipping those guys or doing something schematically to slow them down. The quarterback needs to be very aware of those guys."
Sherman said the Colts generally rush four players out of their Tampa-2 defensive scheme, and hope to force quick throws and then rally to the ball.
Another NFL offensive line coach whose team played the Colts echoed those thoughts. And while he is naturally impressed with Freeney and Mathis, he believes another Colts defender might be overlooked.
"One guy in their defense who sort of flies under the radar is [linebacker]
Overall, the coach described the Colts as "a light group, and people have run the ball on them, although you've been starting to see them playing with more confidence. If you're athletic up front, you have a chance to play with them, and the Patriots seem to be athletic and can handle their twist game and movement."
Both coaches noted the impact of the return of safety Bob Sanders, which has helped improve the Colts' run defense.
And while the Colts seemingly have an edge being at home, Sherman believes the Patriots have an important ace in their deck.
"I think their experience and confidence, the fact they've been in this situation so many times and won so many games in the playoffs is a big factor," he said. "They just appear to have such confidence, and I think their experience overrides any home-field advantage."