- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

FOXBORO, Mass. — There is little about the New England Patriots that can be described as pretty. They don’t dazzle anybody with deep bombs or highlight-reel runs. They don’t boast a lot of names recognizable to the casual football fan. And they rarely blow out an opponent.

Yet in this age of free agency and parity and one-year wonders, the Patriots somehow manage to do what no others do: They win and they win, and then they win some more.

And for the second time in three years, they’re headed to the Super Bowl.

Behind yet another stout performance from its defense and an adequate effort from its offense, New England captured yet another AFC Championship yesterday, beating the mistake-happy Indianapolis Colts 24-14 before 68,436 snow-covered fans at Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots (16-2) go to Houston riding a 14-game winning streak, though based on the workmanlike attitude that permeated their locker room last night, no one would have known it.

“Winning 14 in a row is great,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “But if there’s no 15, it’s all for naught.”

That New England has gone undefeated since a late September loss (to the Washington Redskins, of all teams) is remarkable enough. That the Patriots have done it in such unspectacular fashion, capped by yesterday’s sloppy victory over the Colts, is downright astounding.

But where they lack star power and big-play capability, the Patriots more than make up for it in unmatched preparation and a team-first attitude that has served them well for years.

“This is the ultimate team defense, and this is the ultimate team, period,” said cornerback Ty Law, who hauled in three of Peyton Manning’s four interceptions yesterday. “If we play together, we feel like we can beat anybody.”

The Patriots had little trouble dispensing Indianapolis (14-5) and its previously unstoppable offense, even if they gave Manning and Co. a few too many chances for heroics down the stretch. Coach Bill Belichick’s long-awaited defensive game plan worked to near-perfection, forcing five turnovers and rattling Manning all afternoon.

“New England’s defense is definitely one of the best we have faced this season,” said Manning, who followed up back-to-back stellar games with a nightmare performance (23 of 47, 237 yards, a 35.5 passer rating). “But the past two weeks, our execution was so good, regardless of the defense we were playing.”

It’s debatable whether better execution would have made much difference yesterday. Sure, Manning looked foolish on more than one occasion, routinely firing balls into tight coverage. But at least some of his mistakes were a direct result of the wrinkles Belichick installed for this game.

“We tried to give them a couple different looks,” Belichick said. “I think the players really did a good job this week in practice of taking the different looks, trying to disguise them, really working hard at it. Some guys did some different things than what we normally do, but they were able to be comfortable in the game and execute it fairly well.”

From the start, Indianapolis knew it was in for a rough day — and not just because of the steady snow showers that started in the morning and ultimately turned the field into slop. Before Manning got his hands on the ball, the Patriots owned a 7-0 lead, thanks to a game-opening, 13-play drive capped by Brady’s 7-yard touchdown pass to David Givens.

The Colts came back to drive the length of the field, but on third down at the 5, Manning fired a pass right into the waiting arms of New England safety Rodney Harrison.

The pattern kept repeating itself. The Patriots would march down the field, chewing up the clock behind tailback Antowain Smith (22 carries, 100 yards). And though they had to settle for Adam Vinatieri field goals (ultimately five of them), they made all the 3-pointers stand up by repeatedly forcing Indianapolis into making mistakes.

The most egregious error came late in the second quarter, when appropriately named Colts long snapper Justin Snow launched the ball over punter Hunter Smith’s head. Deprived of his first opportunity to kick the ball legally in three weeks, Smith had no choice but to boot the ball out of the end zone for an automatic safety that put New England up 15-0.

“We did a lot of things to take the damper off our performance,” Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy said, “things you can’t do in a championship-type game.”

Despite their mistakes, the Colts managed to stay within striking distance, especially after marching 52 yards en route to an Edgerrin James touchdown run to open the second half. The Patriots responded with a pair of short field goals for a 14-point lead, but the Colts hung around and drew within a touchdown on Manning’s 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Marcus Pollard.

A failed onside kick gave the ball to New England, but the Patriots went three plays and out to give the Colts one last chance: Two minutes to go, ball on their 20.

Four plays later, the ball remained right there after Manning threw four straight incompletions. Indianapolis briefly thought it caught a huge break when Brady appeared to fumble at the Colts 15, but replays showed the quarterback’s knee already touched the ground, and the play was overturned.

It was a frustrating end to a frustrating day for the Colts.

“We certainly didn’t do the things that we have been doing — protecting the ball, converting third downs,” Manning said. “We just never quite found a rhythm. And certainly I didn’t play the way I wanted to play. I made some bad throws and made some bad decisions.”

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