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Super opponents told story

By Albert R. Breer
February 1, 2010

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - Vince Wilfork said Friday the two teams in Super Bowl XLIV are the best the Patriots played in 2009.

But really, to New England, the Saints and Colts games offered more symbolism than simply being the most significant speed bumps on the way to a 10-6 season.

Those games, in fact, tell the difference between the Patriots of this year and those that won Super Bowls.

It used to be that the Patriots’ strength was taking away your strength, forcing you out of your comfort zone, and making you beat them in a different way than you normally would. It was “matchup football’’ at its best.

Now? Not the same. Not even close.

Going into the annual Patriots-Colts showdown in Week 10, Indianapolis ranked 29th in the league running the ball, and first throwing it. What’s more, the Colts fell behind, 24-7, in the second quarter and, 31-14, in the fourth quarter.

As that happened, the already very one-dimensional Colts became just about completely one-dimensional out of necessity. In the final quarter, Indianapolis ran 16 plays, 11 passes. Two of those runs came at the end of the game, as the hosts bled time off the clock before scoring the winning touchdown.

And even though the Patriots knew what was coming, they were helpless to stop it.

Peyton Manning completed nine of those passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, and another one that went down as “no play’’ was good for 31 yards, courtesy of a pass interference penalty.

To review: The Colts, who had all kinds of problems running the ball in Weeks 1-9, came in one-dimensional, were forced to throw, and there was nothing the Patriots could do to stop a 17-point lead from completely melting away.

Fast forward two weeks to New Orleans.

By then, the Saints had passed the Colts and become the league’s most prolific passing offense. Yes, they were fifth in the NFL running ball, but anyone playing the Saints has to start with finding a way to slow Drew Brees and legions of weapons.

How’d that work out? Might want to cover your eyes.

Brees completed 18 of 23 passes for 371 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. On first down, he was 10 for 10 for 295 yards and three touchdowns. And the Patriots never really stood a chance.

Just a bad pass defense? Think again.

New England’s ouster from the playoffs came at the hands of the Ravens, who came in with the league’s second-ranked running game, and a quarterback, Joe Flacco, who was limping off the field with a quad injury after warming up.

The old Patriots would’ve forced the ball into Flacco’s hands. The new Patriots couldn’t.

It’d be easy to highlight Ray Rice’s 83-yard sprint, on which he wasn’t touched. But perhaps the most damning piece of evidence came at the end of the first half. Valiantly clawing back and desperately needing to close a 24-7 deficit, the Patriots defense had the Ravens backed up on their 4, with a chance to give the offense one more possession with solid field position.

Baltimore ran the ball six times, churned out two first downs, then let Flacco take a knee to close out the half.

Now, all this isn’t to denigrate the Patriots. If 10-6 is a bad year, then you’re doing pretty well.

And lots of teams get thrown on by Manning and Brees, and get run on by Rice and Co. Not a whole lot of shame in it, either.

But what it can show you is just where the divide is from what the Patriots were and what they are now, just another good team in a league with a lot of them.

The above problems highlighted the issues on defense, and by season’s end, they were spread across the team - witness the offense’s struggles to exploit a shaky, injury-riddled Baltimore secondary.

How do you fix these things? You get better players. Period.

The Patriots were able to exploit teams’ weaknesses in the past because of a balance to their roster they now lack, with clear holes in the running game, and defending perimeter running and rushing the passer. And they’re not so good at any one thing to make up for it.

So when you watch the Saints and Colts Sunday, take a long look at what those teams do well.

The Saints and Colts probably throw the ball more proficiently than anyone in the NFL. They both make big, game-changing plays on defense. Each team typically wins the turnover battle.

Are they perfect? Of course not, and neither club is as balanced as the Patriots once were.

But what they do well, they do very, very well. And until the Patriots again can force good teams to do something outside of what they do well, they’ll find themselves in the same predicament as they did last night.

That the Pro Bowl is the only bowl their players take part in.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com.

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