- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

Count on one thing: Bill Belichick’s team always finds a way to prevail in the postseason.

The New England Patriots have stopped “unstoppable” offenses, as they did in their 20-3 suffocation of quarterback Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.

They have won in the wind and snow, as they did against the Oakland Raiders three years ago and again against the Colts on Sunday.

They have staged last-minute drives to win, as they did in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII.

“We thought if we could play our best football, a good football game, that we’d be able to win,” Belichick said on Sunday after his team shut down one of the highest-scoring offenses in league history. “That’s pretty much the way this team always feels.”

Indeed, only the Green Bay Packers of Vince Lombardi won more consecutive postseason games than the seven straight victories of these Patriots.

That record is why the Patriots are favored in Sunday’s AFC Championship game despite playing on the road against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that has won 15 straight games, beat New England easily in the regular season and has the league’s best record and top-ranked defense.

The conquest of the Colts was even more impressive considering injuries sidelined starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole. That left youngsters Asante Samuel and Randall Gay and converted receiver Troy Brown to cover the Colts’ productive trio of wideouts Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley.

Those receivers caught 16 passes for 143 yards but didn’t reach the end zone.

“We tried to go after them,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “They outplayed us with the guys that played.”

That wasn’t just from being their usual unflappable selves.

The Patriots’ secondary also was fired up by the consensus it would be shredded by Manning, who threw a record 49 touchdown passes in the regular season and four in a first-round rout of the Denver Broncos.

But after nine starts apiece, Gay no longer is playing like an undrafted rookie nor Samuel like the 120th player taken in the 2003 draft.

“We took it personally when everybody talked about us,” said strong safety Rodney Harrison, the only remaining veteran in the secondary. “All you could hear was Ty Law the whole week. We won a lot of games without Ty Law. Ty Law wasn’t even in the equation the last 10, 11, 12 weeks.

“We welcome the challenge. There’s no reason to sit back and get nervous or play scared because they didn’t give us a chance anyway. To hold them to three points, that was tremendous.”

The Patriots also played without All-Pro defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who was sidelined because of a knee injury. He was hardly missed.

“Any other team that loses Pro Bowlers loses a lot,” Manning said. “But the Patriots never seem to.”

Belichick, one of the NFL’s defensive masterminds for two decades, said there was no mystery to shutting down Manning and Co.

“There’s nothing magical,” Belichick said. “They rushed them. They jammed them. They tackled them. They covered them. They did a good job. It was an outstanding effort. We played a lot of people, and they all played well again. They played their hearts out, and they got the results to show for it.”

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady always does, too.

Brady is 7-0 in the postseason in his career, and in four years he has won more playoff games than any active quarterback except 35-year-old Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers. Only three quarterbacks, Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Troy Aikman, have more Super Bowl victories than Brady’s pair.

Now the Steelers, who beat New England 34-20 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on Oct.31, stand between the Patriots and a shot at history in Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville on Feb.6. Only the Dallas Cowboys have won three Super Bowls in four years, taking titles in the 1992, 1993 and 1995 seasons.

The Patriots aren’t concerned by the earlier loss to the Steelers, one of just two defeats for New England in its last 32 games. For starters, top running back Corey Dillon missed that game because of a thigh injury, and the Patriots rushed for five yards on six carries. Dillon is in high gear now: He trampled the Colts for 144 yards on 23 carries.

“Your natural instincts say ‘revenge.’ [But the Steelers] are standing in the way of what we ultimately want, and we’re standing in the way of what they ultimately want,” Harrison said. “It’s going to be the hardest-hitting, the most physical game of the year, us and Pittsburgh. We welcome the opportunity.”

Don’t they always?

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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