AFC Championship: New England Patriots vs. Indianapolis Colts
By Chris Pokorny, PFCritics WriterJanuary 21, 2007
This Sunday, the final game of the playoffs before the Super Bowl heads through Indianapolis when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots take on Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. The story between these two teams in recent years has been dramatic. The Colts have gotten the upper hand in the past few regular season meetings, but the Patriots have won the meetings that count: in the postseason. This time around, Manning hopes that the resurgence of the team's defense will allow the Colts to prevail to the grandest stage of them all. On the other side of the field, Brady and Belichick wouldn't mind adding a fourth ring to their fingers under the Patriots. No matter what the outcome is, this game has the makings to be a classic for years to come.
Tom Brady: 49 of 85 for 492 yards, 4 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 3 sacks.
Note: No one is cooler, and no one is calmer in the postseason than Tom Brady, right? We've heard about it for years, and now the future Hall of Fame quarterback has a chance to eliminate the Indianapolis Colts from the postseason yet again. Last week, Brady actually made several passes that were very uncharacteristic for him. In fact, if the Chargers had not shot themselves in the foot, Brady would never have even had the chance to rally his team from behind. Between what the Colts' defense has seen in the playoffs so far, Brady will be the guy who has the ability to catch them off guard throughout.
Peyton Manning: 45 of 68 for 438 yards, 1 touchdown, 5 interceptions, 2 sacks.
Note: Five interceptions to go along with one touchdown doesn't look too promising for Peyton Manning, but you have to consider how important he has been. Manning has orchestrated the Colts offense so that when defenses are expecting the long passes, he can audible to a run play and run as much time off the clock as possible. That was critical for the Colts last week against the Ravens, as Manning and the Colts drove down the field for about seven minutes to seal a victory. Manning has already beaten the Patriots defense this season, but he will be cautious against a team that is king at making adjustments.
Corey Dillon: 18 carries, 71 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 fumble. 1 catch, 0 yards. Laurence Maroney: 23 carries, 74 yards. 2 catches, 24 yards. Kevin Faulk: 12 carries, 48 yards. 3 catches, 18 yards, 1 touchdown.
Note: Just as I anticipated, the Patriots did not run the football last week. In the end, it turned out to be the right move. The Colts' defenders will be facing a group of receivers that are by no means any better than the Chiefs' and Ravens' were, but Brady's knowledge of the game will have to force the defense to gear themselves to the passing game a little more. That should create some more opportunities for Dillon and Maroney to run the football, even coming close to maintaining a balanced 50-50 attack on the ground and through the air.
Note: Unless the Colts get behind, they do not and will not abandoned the running game. That method of playing hasn't put touchdowns on the scoreboard, but it has moved the chains enough to frustrate the opposing team, while still getting kicker Adam Vinatieri in position for field goals. Addai and Rhodes will see plenty of action against the Patriots, however they should not try to be cute and run the screen play constantly. That has been on of the Colts' faults against the Patriots in the past.
Note: Who would have thunk it: Jabar Gaffney has statistically been the best wide receiver in the playoffs this season. And, if you want to narrow it down even more, Reche Caldwell is pretty close to being the second best receiver, statistically. This comes back to the point of how Brady can make everyone around him appear to play at a higher level. The team's strategy to throw to the receivers has caught teams off guard in the playoffs, especially since the main focal point of their passing game went to the tight ends in the regular season. Thus far, it's been a very quiet postseason for Mr. Ben Watson and Daniel Graham.
Note: Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Dallas Clark. In terms of receivers, that has literally been it for the Colts through two playoff games. The defenders have been playing way back in an attempt to prevent Manning from hitting Wayne or Harrison down the field. In turn, that has opened up some holes for tight end Dallas Clark over the middle, and Manning has taken advantage of it. The Colts nearly had a big-play touchdown to Aaron Moorehead last week, but Manning's pass just barely sailed towards the sidelines. The Colts should try and see if that is something they can attack the Patriots with at some point of the game.
Note: New England's defense isn't intended to shut down an opponent, but they will come up with the big play when it counts. That's what happened last week, when Philip Rivers' "floating" pass to LaDainian Tomlinson near the sideline was intercepted. Asante Samuel continues to be a force in the secondary, and he is the person that Manning will try and stay away from on plays geared towards the sidelines. Manning will be pleased with the fact that Rodney Harrison won't be playing, as he is one of those players known for the classic "physical overpowering" that the defense exerted on the Colts' receivers several seasons ago.
Note: In terms of the regular season, I would have never labeled the Colts defense as being "better" than the Patriots. However, based on the past two games, I don't see how the Colts' defense can possibly fall apart. They aren't just playing "better" than they did in the regular season, they are playing at a level that could almost be deemed as "shut down". They stopped two bulkier running backs over the past two weeks, while also forcing interceptions from opposing quarterbacks. Brady won't make those same costly errors, but the Colts at least have a whole lot of confidence on their side.
Ellis Hobbs: 22.0 yards per kick return. Laurence Maroney: 22.0 yards per kick returnStephen Gostkowski: 6-of-6 in field goals, with a long of 50 yards.
Note: The Patriots' special teams will be the underdogs heading into Indianapolis on the road, but Gostkowski has been perfect in the playoffs, including what turned out to be a game-winning kick last week.
Terrence Wilkins: 21.0 yards per kick return, 9.5 yards per punt return. Adam Vinatieri: 8-of-8 in field goals, with a long of 51 yards.
Note: Pick your fairy tale ending, depending on which team you're on. If you're the Colts, Vinatieri proves to be the best move of the offseason, defeating his former team with clutch kicks. If you're the Patriots, Vinatieri ends up not coming up clutch for the first time in his career.
New England Patriots
Receivers have not has a whole lot of success against the Colts in the playoffs, but one thing has stood out: where is the deep ball? The Ravens tried it only once last week if I'm not mistaken, and Steve McNair connected. The Chiefs didn't even have an offensive gameplan heading into their game it seemed. The Colts' secondary has hardly been tested in the playoffs this season, but to their credit, they've made some big plays when quarterbacks have thrown the ball. Tom Brady won't spread the field out as often as he did against the Chargers last week, but there are some mismatches that can be created if his accuracy is on the mark down the middle of the field.
Although my predictions have been correct in terms of how the Patriots will utilize their running backs throughout their first two playoff games, it is extremely difficult to project what they are going to do. The Patriots play the Colts the best when they are able to keep Peyton Manning off of the field, and that usually involves pounding the football and putting together drives of eight minutes or longer. I don't think they will be able to physically do that to start the game, so I am anticipating a full-on running attack only if they get a two possession lead at some point of the game.
When it comes down to it, the defensive approaches taken towards Peyton Manning the past two weeks have actually been very good. The Patriots are usually better than most teams in terms of scheming a certain quarterback, but they have not done too well the past two times they've taken on the Colts in the regular season. The biggest matchup in the game will involve whether or not Asante Samuel can put a clamp on Marvin Harrison. If Harrison has some success early, that will only open up gaps in coverage for Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark.
One step at a time. The ultimate goal for Peyton Manning is to win a Super Bowl, but first he needs to focus on getting there. If he can finally overcome Bill Belichick in the postseason, then most of the monkey will be shrugged off of his back. There's no doubting that Manning will have pressure to perform, but he has the benefit of having the crowd behind him. His five interceptions make it seem like he's struggled a lot, but in reality he has had a firm control of the team's offense against what has been some incredible defensive performances.
The key for the Colts' offensive gameplan is to not be too cute. When the Colts have tried to outthink themselves against the Patriots in the past, they get away from what their offense is all about early on in contests and end up finding themselves behind at halftime. Joseph Addai will probably get the start at running back again, with Dominic Rhodes providing a fresh burst later on in the game. The Patriots may try to eliminate any short passes that Manning likes to attempt to his running backs, so there may actually be some man-to-man opportunities for him down the field.
The Patriots' offense will be specifically geared at neutralizing the Colts' primary defensive playmakers. On passing plays, the scheme will be set up to make sure Dwight Freeny doesn't get near Brady. On running plays, the design will be to take out Bob Sanders. That may cause the Patriots to commit an extra tight end or running back as a blocker on certain plays, but they'd rather take their chances that way instead of being completely shut down.
AFC Conference Championship Prediction
Winner - Indianapolis Colts
I've said it the past several years, and I'm sticking with it this year: the Colts are going to the Super Bowl. By no means will Tom Brady and the Patriots lay an egg, but Indianapolis has a major edge on their side being at home. The RCA dome is not a place where opponents will be intimidated, but it's also a place where the Colts will be able to thrive of off the emotion surrounding them. Manning will have his best game of the playoffs statistically, finally getting the type of win everyone has been begging for. The check marks throughout this preview favor the Colts in a major way, but understand that the gap at each position is so close together, with the exception of receiver. Final Score: Colts 27, Patriots 24.