- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

It’s the playoff matchup everyone wants to see: defending champion New England and mastermind coach Bill Belichick trying to slow record-setting Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning and the NFL’s highest-scoring offense today in Foxboro, Mass.

Will Belichick’s Patriots continue their march toward becoming only the second team to win three Super Bowls in four years? Or will Manning and the Colts shed some of their reputation for not winning the big ones and advance to next Sunday’s AFC Championship game?

The Patriots (14-2) have won five in a row against the Colts, dating to a 44-13 rout in quarterback Tom Brady’s first start Sept.30, 2001. The last three meetings have been particularly memorable. Linebacker Willie McGinest stuffed Colts running back Edgerrin James on the goal line with 11 seconds left to preserve a 38-34 Patriots victory Nov.30, 2003, in Indianapolis. Seven weeks later in Foxboro, cornerback Ty Law snatched three of Manning’s four interceptions in a 24-14 Patriots triumph in the AFC Championship game. And in this year’s opener, James fumbled at the goal line and Mike Vanderjagt missed a 48-yard field goal try in the final seconds as the host Patriots held on to win 27-24.

“[We knew that] if they kept playing the way they were playing, we were going to end up playing them again,” McGinest said after Manning and the Colts (13-4) torched Denver in a 49-24 wild-card game last Sunday. “So here it is. It’s going to be a great show.”

Not if Belichick can help it. The coach had Gillette Stadium’s groundskeepers keep the field uncovered during heavy rains last week. With the temperatures having dipped since, the playing surface could vary from icy to muddy — far from the perfect conditions the Colts enjoy in the RCA Dome. The Patriots also have won 19 straight at home.

New England’s usually stout defense needs all the help it can get today because Law and fellow starting cornerback Tyrone Poole are both hurt, leaving youngsters Asante Samuel, Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland and converted receiver Troy Brown to deal with Manning’s trio of talented wideouts: perennial All-Pro Marvin Harrison; Reggie Wayne, who had one of the greatest playoff games ever last week; and Brandon Stokley, who joined Wayne in having a career year this season.

“Those guys are playing great,” Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. “It’s going to take a lot for us to slow them down. You can’t stop them. You can only contain them.”

No defense has done a better job of containing Manning than the Patriots, against whom he’s 2-9 (0-6 in Foxboro) with 21 touchdowns, 19 interceptions and a 77.1 rating. So while Vanderjagt proclaimed the Patriots ripe for the taking, Manning took the opposite tack.

“We have no room to talk,” said Manning, who set an NFL record with 49 touchdown passes this season while winning a second straight NFL MVP Award. “They’ve dominated us for the past number of years, and they’re the world champions. We know how tough it is playing at their place. We have an opportunity. That’s all we have.”

Though the Patriots’ defense is ailing, they still have a potent offense led by Brady, who’s 5-0 against the Colts with nine touchdowns, four interceptions and a 99.0 rating. Brady, 6-0 in postseason, can join Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman as the only quarterbacks to win at least three Super Bowls with another title Feb.6.

“You throw one interception against the Colts, it’s like throwing three or four against some of the worst teams in the league,” Brady said. “They can make you pay. When you play a guy like Peyton, you don’t want to give him the ball any more than he should have it because they’re probably going to go down and score some points.”

A loss today wouldn’t diminish what Brady and the Patriots have accomplished in going 54-16 the last four years. But a victory for the Manning and the Colts could earn them plenty of respect.

“When you’re up against a great team, you have to step up and win some of those games,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “That’s what our challenge is.”

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