Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Patriots 20, Colts 3 (1/16/2005)

That is why they say, “To be the champ, you gotta beat the champ.” For the third time in 12 months, your New England Patriots defended their turf against the Indianapolis Colts with a 20-3 domination of the “greatest no-show on grass.” The win puts the Pats in the AFC Championship game next Sunday at Pittsburgh against a Steeler squad that bested them 34-20 in October.

So how did the Patriots stop the Colts offense? Again? Well, I hope you read last week’s update and told all your friends what was in it, because you’d look like a genius if you did. Re-read the “Bottom Line” section and it’s all pretty much there: Pats already beat the Colts in September and things have changed in their favor since then; Pats run defense is vastly improved (202 yards in the first game, 46 Sunday); Patriots were healthy overall; the Colts are worse outdoors (3-4 this year), the Patriot offense had a bigger mismatch than the Colt offense did, and finally, the "Patriots should win this one without too much difficulty."

One last time and forever, please repeat with me: “Great defense beats great offense.” Next time some amazing offense comes along, and your friends claim that *this* is the year offense wins it all, remind them of Pats/Colts in consecutive playoff years: aggregate score, New England 44, Indianapolis 17. That is a 72% drop from the Colts two-season scoring average (31 points a game), so remember, defense usually trumps offense, and defense wins championships.

So how did the Patriots defense do it? They rushed 3, dropped 8 into coverage, hit the receivers at the line to slow them down and disrupt their timing, hit the receivers trying to catch the ball, and tackled them before they gain any extra yards after the catch. They sent one more pass rusher once in a while to keep Peyton Manning off-balance, let the defensive line and linebackers handle the running game, and waited for the Colts to self-destruct. So simple you’d think every team would do it, but not every team has the players to pull it off.

This was truly a team win, and there are too many defensive players who had great games to go over them all, so here’s a short list for those who had the really big games. Tedy Bruschi had seven tackles, disrupted the middle-short passing game all day, and caused one fumble and recovered two. Mike Vrabel made eight tackles and his speed rush from the outside made Manning move up so the inside guys would pressure him to throw it early. Roman Phifer had his best game of the year in pass coverage, breaking up several passes and making sure there were no yards after a catch was made. Asante Samuel covered Marvin Harrison for much of the day, and Marvin had only 5 catches for 44 yards (long of 18). Rodney Harrison did his usual spectacular job of holding together the patchwork defense and somehow worked in ten tackles. And of course, Troy Brown got picked on all day in his coverage of Brandon Stokley, and while Stokley came up with 8 catches for 64 yards, Troy knocked down a few passes and made the tackle right away after almost every Stokley catch.

But this was so much more than individual performances. The physical nature of their play led to six or eight dropped passes by the Colts and there were very few yards after the catch and the tackle was usually a big hit. The defensive line didn't sack Manning much, but they just pushed the Colts line back into Peyton, making him move or throw off the back foot. Manning had to ground the ball about five times the ball due to confusion or a Patriot defender right next to his target, and the audible-all-day strategy didn't seem to get the Colts into any decent plays. There were at least three times the Patriots left receivers uncovered at first because they knew which play was coming and that the player would come across in motion before the snap.

And I might be the only one to tell you the following: the Colts did not lose because of Peyton Manning. Sure, he was confused and frustrated at times. But by my count, he dropped back to pass 43 times and made only 3 mistakes. His throw to Marcus Pollard early in the game was off-target; he threw short to Brandon Stokely when Marvin Harrison was open for 20 yards and a first down, and he missed a semi-open receiver to the left when he threw into the endzone with 2 seconds left in the half (the pass that was almost intercepted by Eugene Wilson).

Other than those plays, I thought he made the right decisions and delivered as well as you can in that weather. He had at least three incompletions where he threw at the receivers feet, but on all three plays, the receiver was covered and it would have been a dangerous throw. When Tom Brady does that, it’s a sign of his football intelligence; same thing with Peyton.

So who on the Colts is most to blame for their offensive problems? Five players: Dallas Clark, Dominic Rhodes, Marcus Pollard, Edgerrin James, and Reggie Wayne. Clark had two drops, and Rhodes caught a ball and then let Tedy Bruschi take the ball away. Pollard dropped a 10-yard gain, and the Colts had to punt. Edgerrin James just wasn’t into the game: two drops, and a number of “Gee, I just don’t know where to go” plays. And Reggie Wayne fumbled to kill the Colts last chance to get back into the game.

There are your culprits, folks. Did they hear footsteps? Were they worried about running after the catch? Was the cold ball too tough to handle? Big game jitters? We may never know, and the national pundits won’t bother considering the questions. Peyton Manning was their story coming in, and he’ll get all the blame for the loss. That’s the life of an NFL quarterback.

The Patriots offense had some trouble getting going in the first half, but once they started rolling, there was nothing Indy could do to stop them. They had their three lengthiest drives *of the year* in this one game (9:07, 8:16, and 7:24), combining for more time of possession in those three drives than the Colts had in their ten possessions for the entire game (24:47 to 22:17). Corey Dillon made his playoff debut well worth the wait, with 23 rushes for 144 yards and 5 receptions for 17 yards. He and the rest of the Patriots offense rolled over the Colts for a rushing total of 210 yards and 37:43 seconds of possession time.

The Patriots pass offense gained a paltry 4.2 yards per pass attempt, but it didn’t matter because they were just playing keep-away from the Indy offense. They were great on third down conversions, keeping their long drives going and keeping the clock moving. On their three long drives, they converted 7 for 8 third downs and scored all three times. And perhaps most importantly, they committed zero turnovers. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the adjustments the offensive line made. The Colts got pressure on Brady in the first half, but never really got near him in the second half. Aside from Brady, there were no real stars in the passing game, but Kevin Faulk, Daniel Graham, Christian Fauria, Corey Dillon, Patrick Pass, David Patten, and David Givens all had one critical catch in the game – how’s that for spreading the glory.

A great coaching job, good special teams coverage and some nice returns, clock-eating and very effective offense, and a suffocating defense. As Bill Belichick put it: "That second half was our best football of the season." No argument here.

So where does that leave us? 15-2 and tied for the most regular season and playoff victories in a two-year span (32) in NFL history, and one win away from a chance for that third ring. We've got a tough game against Pittsburgh this Sunday with a berth in Super Bowl XXXIX at stake, and that game promises to be a real old-fashioned grind-'em-out defensive struggle cold weather football game. Should be fun. Seems clear that Kevin Faulk and Bethel Johnson will play, but Richard Seymour's status is under wraps for the time being. I'm sure he'll be a "game time decision" when the Pats release their injury report on Wednesday, and we could really use him in trying to slow down the Steeler running attack. I'll have a preview of the game out by Wednesday or Thursday, and here's hoping the Steelers rookie QB (Ben Roethlisberger -- and no, I didn't have to check the spelling) plays like he did against the Jets. Two interceptions by Big Ben, and the game is almost assuredly ours.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Those Steelers better hope that Duce Staley is healthy, because the Patriots have *owned* Jerome Bettis ever since he got to Pittsburgh. Against the Pats, he's averaged less than 50 yards a game, and less than 40 a game in the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

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