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Archive for Sunday, January 16, 2005

Manning to face depleted Patriots secondary

January 16, 2005

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— Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady and the champion New England Patriots are on a roll. So are league MVP Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

For one side, all that success will vanish into the chilly night air. For the loser, one single game will overshadow months of domination. Today's winner will keep rolling into the AFC championship game with a chance to play for the NFL title.

"That's the reality of playing this time of year," Brady said. "You have these great goals and these great aspirations for your team, and you prepare like it's going to continue to go on.

"If you lose that game, bam, your season's over and you go figure out what to do for the next five or six months."

Brady, unbeaten in six playoff games, led the Patriots to their second consecutive 14-2 record after winning his second Super Bowl MVP in three seasons. Manning had one of the greatest seasons by a quarterback in NFL history with a league-record 49 touchdown passes.

That's a nice line in the history books, but other numbers are far less pleasant to him -- a 2-9 record against the Patriots, an 0-6 mark in Foxboro and four interceptions there in a 24-14 loss in last year's AFC championship game.

For now, the only game that matters is today's.

"One team is going to be practicing the next day, and the other team is going to be taking their exit physicals," Manning said, "and that's not where you want to be."

Playing at home should help the Patriots, who had a first-round bye. A full house of screaming fans and temperatures in the 20s will assault the Colts after they played eight home games in the 72-degree warmth of the RCA Dome.

But the Colts' prolific offense that beat Denver 49-24 in last Sunday's wild-card playoff game will be tough to stop, especially against a banged-up Patriots secondary missing its top two cornerbacks -- four-time Pro Bowler Ty Law and Tyrone Poole. Both are on injured reserve. New England also might be without one of the NFL's best defensive linemen, Richard Seymour, who is questionable with a knee injury.

"It's a challenge, especially as a secondary, but we step up to challenges," said free safety Eugene Wilson. "I'm confident. We've been getting wins with the guys we've got, and I don't see any reason why things should change now."

For Indianapolis (13-4), the most important injured player is defensive end Robert Mathis. He is second on the team with 101/2 sacks and doubtful for the game with a knee injury. But the Colts still have the NFL's sacks leader, Dwight Freeney.

If the New England passing game falters, Brady can hand off to Corey Dillon, the AFC's second-leading rusher.

The Colts also have a strong ground game with Edgerrin James, the AFC's No. 3 rusher and the conference leader in yards from scrimmage.

"They want to throw the ball a lot and give Edgerrin the ball on those stretch plays," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "That's where he really has to trust his vision, not so much following blockers but finding the open area to run through."

That's a strength of Manning's targets -- Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokley, Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard. The Patriots played physical defense against the Colts receivers in the last AFC title game, a strategy that may have influenced the NFL to more vigorously enforce a rule against such contact.

The league also requires the field to be covered the night before the game. The Patriots left it uncovered during a rainy Wednesday. With freezing temperatures Saturday and today, heating coils under the surface can melt any ice that might slow the speedy Colts.

"If you expect the worst, it doesn't surprise you when the weather is bad," said Wayne, who had 10 catches for 221 yards and two touchdowns indoors last Sunday.

Indianapolis has improved since a season-opening 27-24 loss in Foxboro in which it rushed for 202 yards, 142 by James, and threw for 244. Manning came up short in key situations -- an interception by Bruschi at the New England six, and a sack by Willie McGinest one play before Mike Vanderjagt missed a last-minute field goal.

"I can't argue with what's happened in the past, but I really don't dwell on it a whole lot," Manning said. "It's such a 'what have you done for me lately' league."

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