Email|LinkBy Eric Wilbur, Boston.com StaffJanuary 19, 07 10:37 AM
The second time around hasn't been kind for the Indianapolis Colts.
On Sept. 19, the Colts smoked division rival Houston, 43-24. When the two reconvened in December, the Texans shocked Indy with a 27-24 win.
Back on Sept. 24, the Colts beat Jacksonville, 21-14. When the two teams met again in December, it was the Jaguars putting on a whooping, 44-17.
And let's not forget that the Colts beat the Tennessee Titans in a 14-13 nail-biter on Oct. 8. Two months later, the Colts dropped a 20-17 decision to Vince Young and Co.
Of course, back on Nov. 5, the Colts beat the New England Patriots, 27-20. And on Sunday ...
It may be no small factor that three of the Colts’ four losses came when they played a team for the second time this season, a pattern that has been perhaps overlooked in anticipation of Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
Much of the talk surrounding this showdown is either about mystical paths and exorcisms or the sudden resurgence of the Indianapolis defense. In a pair of playoff wins, the Colts held the Chiefs and Ravens to 14 combined points, after entering January with among the most historically putrid defensive units in the NFL. But their defense has shown signs of revitalization before, if ever so briefly, most memorably in a December win over the Bengals, in which Rudi Johnson and Carson Palmer looked helpless. The next week, Houston beat the Colts by a field goal.
You can't teach a horse new tricks. And you certainly can't change them overnight, which is what we're being led to believe is precisely what happened with this Colts defense. If you had to gamble which would happen Sunday, Manning returning to form after two sub-par efforts, or the Colts D continuing its playoff dominance, you'd be a fool not to choose the former.
On the other hand, the Patriots are the complete antithesis of the Colts. Whereas we all get caught up in wondering whether the Colts can go undefeated from one season to the next as soon as Indy goes 5-0, it is the Patriots who show improvement week by week. With or without Rodney Harrison, they are a better team than the one that lost to the Colts in November. That comes from steady development. The Colts, we're being led to believe, have seemingly come out of nowhere to look this good. It simply doesn't happen that way.
As for a script, how about Tom Brady comes out gunning, sparking the Patriots to an early lead. Despite running Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney seemingly constantly to run out the clock in the second half, Manning brings the Colts back and ties the game in the fourth quarter. But Brady drives New England down the field with the clock ticking away for a game-winning touchdown, leaving no room for error that Adam Vinatieri can come back to haunt them.
All four staff writers for the Indy Star make it a sweep, going with the hometown team. Bob Kravitz writes: "Not to put all the pressure on Peyton Manning, but, hey, all the pressure is on Peyton Manning. That's going to happen when you're the highest-paid player in the league, a pitchman for everything except I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, and your past is littered with big-game flameouts. The great ones embrace this kind of moment. Tom Brady has. And Peyton? Time to get to the Super Bowl, by whatever means necessary."
The New York Post likes the Patriots by the slimmest of margins, 27-26. Newsday's Ed McNamara likes New England as well. "Those who see sports as a morality play think it's finally the Colts' year, but don't bet on it," he writes.
The Miami Herald's Greg Cote is tired of hearing about the Patriots, and wants a new regime. "Enough with Tom Brady, already!" he writes. "It's Peyton Manning's turn." Cotes’ pick: 27-21 Indy.
Five of Sports Illustrated's seven NFL experts go with the Colts, only Michael Silver and (gulp) Dr. Z sticking with the Patriots. Nunyo Demasio picks the largest margin of victory, a 14-point Colts win. "Tom Brady won't get a chance for any last-minute heroics because this one won't be close as Peyton Manning exorcises more demons," he writes.
Elsewhere on SI.com, Andrew Perloff presents 10 reasons why the Patriots should be favored in this game, including, "Regular-season matchups don't foreshadow playoff rematches: The Colts' 27-20 win over the Pats in Week 9 has little bearing on the postseason. Remember, Indy clobbered Pittsburgh during the 2005 regular season before losing to the Steelers in the playoffs." And let's not forget the Steelers' trouncing of New England back on Halloween, 2004. The Patriots, of course, won the AFC title in Heinz Field a few months later.
The CBS Sportsline folks all go with the Colts. Only the Harmon Forecast picks the Patriots to win. Pete Prisco writes: "This should be loads of fun. I get the feeling that there will be a lot of points scored. Peyton Manning and the Colts offense have not clicked in the playoffs, and they're due."
Over at ESPN only Joe Theismann and Eric Allen go with New England.
Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders reasons, "Colts columnists write of demons and assassins. Patriots scribes invoke toughness and resiliency. Buried beneath the rhetoric are some simple truths. The Colts are the better team."
Meanwhile, out in San Diego (remember them), the Tribune's Jerry Magee likes the Colts. "Being mindful of the history of conference championship games, which frequently are one-sided. Indianapolis has been advancing with Peyton Manning at a good deal less than his best. The Colts can cruise in this one," he writes.
Finally, if you can't trust Tecmo, who can you trust?
In the NFC Championship, it appears many are split on the Bears and the Saints. It's stunning that people still can't believe in a team that is now 14-3, and whose quarterback didn't play nearly as bad as people wanted him to on Sunday. That being said, the Saints provide a major challenge for the Bears offensively, and frankly we're not sure if Chicago, with a debilitated defense, can keep up. The heart says yay, but the pick says, nay.
, staff travel writer at The Boston Globe, checks in regularly at Boston.com with reflections from his travels. During more than a decade as a journalist, Tom has reported on economics, politics and culture in dozens of countries and five continents.