- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2004

Bill Belichick is credited with devising two of the greatest defensive game plans in NFL playoff history, leading to two of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history: the New York Giants’ 20-19 win over the Buffalo Bills in XXV and the New England Patriots’ 20-17 thriller over the St. Louis Rams in XXXVI.

If Belichick can figure out a way to stop Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in today’s AFC Championship, it might be his greatest accomplishment to date.

Rarely have a quarterback and an offense been so dominant during a postseason run. In playoff victories over Denver and Kansas City the last two weeks, the Colts scored 79 combined points, piled up 913 yards of total offense, produced a staggering 156.9 quarterback rating for Manning and punted zero times.

But even more rarely has an explosive offense like the Colts’ found a way to overcome Belichick’s maniacal defensive game planning in the postseason. The Patriots have given up an average of 15 points in their last four playoff games — all wins.

Thus the stage is set for an epic battle of brains vs. brawn today in Foxboro, Mass., with the winner earning a trip to Super Bowl XXXVIII two weeks from today in Houston.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a great defense for 16 weeks, you could go out there on Sunday and stink up the place,” Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. “It doesn’t matter what Peyton did last week. It doesn’t matter what we did against [Tennessee quarterback] Steve McNair [last week]. The only thing that matters is what happens on Sunday.”

The conference championship may be determined by what takes place on the field today, but much of that could depend on what took place in the film rooms and coaching offices last week at Patriots headquarters.

That’s where Belichick and his staff assembled to formulate a plan of attack against the previously unstoppable Colts (14-4), despite the defensive wizard’s attempt to downplay his preparation.

“We are not going to reinvent the wheel or anything this week,” said Belichick, whose Patriots (15-2) have won 13 straight games. “I think what we need to do is just be able to play defensively a game that’s complimentary and that is effective against them. There is no magic to it. They’ve got too many weapons and too many players that they can’t take one guy away.”

The Colts aren’t taking Belichick’s bait. They fully expect to see something they’ve never seen before when they step on the field at Gillette Stadium today.

“You can almost rest assured you’re not going to get what they did the week before,” linebackers coach Mike Murphy told the Indianapolis Star this week. “If they do what you see on tape from the week before or the week before that, it’s going to be wrapped in a different package. They’ll disguise it.”

Belichick has stymied the Bills’ old no-huddle offense and the “Greatest Show on Turf” theatrics of the Rams, but he’s never faced anything quite like Manning (at least not the current co-MVP version).

With pinpoint precision and savant-like reads of opposing defenses, Manning is in the midst of perhaps the greatest postseason quarterbacking effort ever seen. No longer the guy who couldn’t “win the big one,” Manning has become the quarterback who could lead Indianapolis to its first Super Bowl appearance.

“You can’t stop them totally,” New England linebacker Willie McGinest said. “You just try to contain them and play your type of football.”

The Colts have shown they can put up points against the Patriots, scoring 34 in a Nov.30 game at RCA Dome. New England, however, scored 38 points of its own that day and won the game when McGinest stopped running back Edgerrin James on fourth-and-goal from the 1 in the final moments.

“I don’t even look at that,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “What I looked at is, we gave up two long kick returns, we let them convert three touchdown drives by converting third-down plays … that’s what I looked at. Hopefully, we’ll score from the 1 if we get down there, but we can’t give them 38 points in this game and expect to win.”

Nor can Indianapolis expect to have a field day against the game’s top defensive mind.

“You can’t take these situations for granted,” Dungy said. “Philadelphia is rare to be in three championship games in a row. I’ve been coaching 24 years with some very good organizations, and this is my third championship game as a coach. They don’t come along that often.

“You’ve got to seize the moment.”

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