The AFC Title game on Sunday evening is a matchup that is quickly becoming the NFL’s version of the Red Sox vs the Yankees. That rivalry feeling will be quite evident at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis on Sunday as the Colts try to finally take that next step to the Super Bowl. The only thing standing in their way is what many feel are the Colts worst nightmare – the three time Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots. Call it what you want – but this game has all the makings of one the all-time great AFC Title games if the two teams play up to their usual standards.
The Colts entered the 2006 playoffs with many thinking they would not even get by the wild card Chiefs, since KC had a stud running game, and the Colts have not stopped anyone on the ground this year. Give Colts coach Tony Dungy credit, as he got his defense prepared against KC, and top rusher Larry Johnson ran for just 44 yards in a Colts win. Last week the defense again stepped up, and didn’t allow the #2 seed Ravens to enter the end zone in a 15-6 win.
QB Peyton Manning has not played up to his usual level in either playoff game. The first game vs the Chiefs he threw three picks and just one score and had a QB rating of 71.9. Last week vs the Ravens he threw two more picks, and his rating was just 39.6. The Colts have been lucky to win with him having those types of numbers, but mark this down, if Manning has a game like last week or the week before, it will be disappointment once against for the Colts. In the regular season, Manning threw 16 TD’s at home, compared to just one pick. He has got to take better care of the ball against the Pats.
The Colts running game is led by Joseph Addai, who had a great game vs the Chiefs at home in the wild card round, going for 122 yards, but last week seemed stuck in the mud vs the Ravens and their second-ranked defense, and he ran for just 39 yards on 18 carries, a 2.2 yards per carry average. His longest run of the day was just seven yards. Addai is a better runner at the Dome, and the Pats are going to have to watch for he and Dominick Rhodes, especially on those deep handoff draws that the Colts like to run.
New England will play that type of confusing defense that has given Manning problems in the past. One play they will bring the heat, and then the next they will have D-linemen dropping into coverage. Remember it was just two years ago that Manning had a record breaking number of TD’s, yet was held out of the end zone in a Pats 20-3 win in the divisional round. Many think that Manning and the Colts have turned the corner vs New England, as they have won the last two vs the Pats, both on the road. In those games, the Colts jumped out to big leads, and had it in cruise control by the 4th quarter.
This week is no ordinary game though, and if there is one player who is best in these type of games, its Pats QB Tom Brady. Has there ever been a better big game QB? Brady has lost just once in the playoffs, and this year made some big plays vs the Jets in the wild card round, and then last week did enough to get the Pats past the #1 ranked Chargers on the road. Brady also has to be a bit more careful with the ball, as last week he threw three picks, and was lucky that one was fumbled and the ball went back to the Pats. He was not good vs the Colts the first time around in November, throwing 4 picks in that game in Foxboro.
The Pats could be helped greatly this week if the Colts revert back to a run defense that looked like swiss cheese most of the season. With the combo of Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon, New England can stay patient with the run game and try to wear down the Colts. The Ravens were having some success on the ground last week, and I felt they got away from the running game too quickly and put the ball in the hands of Steve McNair too much to try and make a play. Belichick will not be as impatient as long as the game is in doubt, and if the Pats can move the chains running, that would be a huge boost for the Patriots.
The Colts have been great at home this season, and were 8-0 at the Dome in the regular season and beat the Chiefs there two weeks ago. One has to wonder if there will still be some lingering demons from last January when the #6 seeded Steelers came to the Dome in the divisional round and shocked the Colts 21-18. The Colts have to put that thought out of their head and start strong vs the Pats, or all those memories may come back to them in a haunting nature on Sunday night. Look for Indy to start the game fast, trying to not allow Belichick’s defense to get in any sort of rhythm and try to build an early lead.
New England has to avoid early mistakes that could find itself behind, and if they can get out of the first quarter with a lead or even with a scoreless tie, that would be a victory for them. If there is one coach and one quarterback that can make things like that happen, its Belichick and Brady. The other Pats need to make some plays as well, as they can’t just count on being down going into the last minutes and magically being able to will themselves to win. They have to make plays, and their best shot to win is to bother Manning and control the clock with their running game.
I have been back and forth on who I feel is going to win this game all week. While I have every reason in the world to think that the Colts are the better team and that the home field is going to help them a ton, this is Belichick and Brady, and they can walk into any stadium on any day and do enough things on the sideline and on the field to win. Don’t believe me? Look at last week in San Diego. With that, this one is truly for me a tossup, but I just refuse to think that the Pats will make the same mistakes as they did in their last two meetings with the Colts, and I think they will do enough with the game plan to hold down Manning and make enough plays in their running game to advance to the Bowl for the third time in four years.
New England 28 Indianapolis 24