Sunday, January 21, 2007

If the Indianapolis Colts are finally going to end years of playoff frustration and reach the Super Bowl, they’re going to have to beat the three-time world champion New England Patriots in tonight’s AFC Championship game in the RCA Dome. How fitting.

“It’s probably poetic justice,” said coach Tony Dungy, whose Colts were eliminated from the playoffs by the Patriots in the 2003 and 2004 seasons but have won the last two regular season games in Foxborough, Mass. “All you hear about is their mystique. You see the rings. They’re tough enough to play against without having to worry about all of those other things. The fact that we’ve won the last two puts us on even ground.”

Tonight’s game is especially huge for Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who, despite being one of the game’s best passers, has been saddled with the “can’t win the big one” label because of a 5-6 playoff record that doesn’t include a Super Bowl appearance, let alone a championship.

“Certainly you feel the clock ticking,” Manning said. “In your ninth year you realize you probably won’t get as many opportunities and when you have one, you want to be able to take advantage of it.”

No team has taken better advantage of its opportunities than the Patriots, who have won 12 of 13 games in the playoffs since 2002.

“We always feel like we have a chance when Tom [Brady] is on the field in the fourth quarter,” Patriots defensive tackle Ty Warren said. Brady threw an uncharacteristic three interceptions last Sunday in San Diego but rallied the Patriots from a late 21-13 deficit for the 24-21 upset in overtime. Brady, whose first career start was a victory over the Colts on Sept. 30, 2001 is 6-2 against Indianapolis with a 90.9 passer rating.

“It’s always fun to go up against Peyton,” Brady said. “You know that you have to play your best game because you believe Peyton is going to, as he [has] the last few times we’ve played him.”

Still, Manning is 3-7 overall with a 76.1 rating against the Patriots since Bill Belichick took over as coach. Furthermore, Manning hasn’t helped his playoff reputation with five interceptions and just one touchdown in victories over Kansas City and Baltimore the last two weeks.

Dungy however, likes to keep a glass-half-full mind-set in that regard.

“Absolutely, it’s a positive when you can say, ‘We can win no matter how the game goes,’ ” Dungy said. “That’s what the playoffs are all about. That’s what New England has done so well over the years.”

And it’s what the Patriots continue to do well. Whether it was losing both their defensive and offensive coordinators to head coaching jobs — which happened following the 2004 season — or overhauling their roster — just 10 players remain from the team that won Super Bowl XXXVI — the Patriots have just kept winning.

Reche Caldwell, whose 49-yard catch on third-and-10 with 4:36 left was one of the biggest plays in last week’s win at San Diego, and fellow receiver Jabar Gaffney, who has 18 catches in the postseason after just 11 in the regular season, are veteran receivers who failed with other teams before coming to New England this year.

“Guys come in and buy into the system,” said end Richard Seymour, whose defense helped New England to allow the second-fewest points this season. “You don’t want to be the guy who kind of derails the whole thing.”

Manning’s poor postseason hasn’t derailed the Colts yet, thanks in large part to a defense that has allowed a combined 370 yards (127 on the ground) and 14 points in its two playoff victories. Indianapolis’ defense also has stopped 19 of 22 third downs in those games.

“Guys are just playing assignment-sound football with speed,” cornerback Nick Harper said.

But while the Colts are looking to become just the 10th team to go 10-0 at home, Brady has yet to lose in 10 games indoors. Still, two of those victories came in Super Bowls decided by kicker Adam Vinatieri, who signed with Indianapolis last winter.

Vinatieri, who was 7-for-7 on field goals in the Patriots’ two playoff victories over the Colts, is 8-for-8 this postseason. His replacement, rookie Stephen Gostkowski, is 6-for-6 the last two weeks.

“I assumed that the Patriots were going to be a good team this year, same as I assumed that the Colts were going to be a good team,” Vinatieri said. “So if you keep winning, inevitably your crossroads will meet. If we’re going to take the next step, you have to knock off the champ. It’s kind of a rite of passage.”

Dungy has made the playoffs in nine of his 11 seasons with Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, but this will be just his third conference title game. He has yet to advance to a Super Bowl.

“We left the locker room in Foxborough after [the 2003 AFC] championship game and said, ‘Hey, it was a tough loss, but we’ll be back,’ ” Dungy said. “Three years later, we’re back, but we only have 18 of those guys. We really should seize the moment.”

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