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A tale of two teams

As Colts crumble, Patriots show why they're champs

Posted: Monday January 17, 2005 5:22PM; Updated: Thursday January 20, 2005 11:44AM
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Patriots LB Tedy Bruschi sacks Colts QB Peyton Manning in the second half of New England's 20-3 win over Indianapolis.
AP

PITTSBURGH -- I simply can't believe how small Peyton Manning came up yesterday. What a Dodo bird-sized egg he and the Colts laid Sunday in Foxboro.

Is weather their kryptonite? Do the Colts have to play in pristine conditions to be any good in a big game? I'm not blaming everything on Manning, but three points? Three points! And if the Patriots don't drop an interception in the end zone late in the first half, it's zero points. Against a secondary that featured a rookie corner back who didn't even start at LSU, Randall Gay, a slot receiver playing nickel, Troy Brown, and Hank Poteat, who the Patriots pulled out of classes at the University of Pittsburgh last week, coming in on the seven- and eight-DB packages!

The Patriots embarrassed the Colts without what everyone thought were two irreplaceable players, Ty Law and Richard Seymour. There are only two conclusions to draw: The Patriots are the best team in football. And the Colts are the most disappointing.

Can you think of a bigger indictment of a football team than it melts in lousy weather? The National Ballet League could have played better in the Foxboro muck than the Colts did.

OK, vent over. And let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's proceed in chronological order.

Starbucks, Omni William Penn Hotel, downtown Pittsburgh, Saturday morning, 9:15:

"What a weekend of football,'' the Jets' special-teams coach, Mike Westhoff says. "Just think how many millions of people in this country will go out this morning, do their errands, do their shopping, and think: 'I've got to get everything done before 4:30 this afternoon because I've got to watch these games.'"

I love this weekend. If you watch football, how can you not?

"Four teams go home euphoric, four teams go home miserable,'' I say to Westhoff. "The great thing about playoff football is it's not the best-of-seven; it's the best-of-one.''

Two of the game were anticlimaxes -- the Eagles routing the Vikes and Atlanta embarrassing the Rams. But those, plus the Jets-Steelers thriller and the New England massacre of the Colts, left five distinct storylines, all with huge potential impacts on their teams now and in the future:

1) Ben Roethlisberger fell to earth. I listened to everyone in the Pittsburgh locker room and others in Steelersville -- except my brother-in-law and father-in-law, who are worried -- tell me Roethlisberger will be fine. Maybe he will be. But we all saw what we saw Saturday against the Jets. Roethlisberger ended up 17 of 30, but why is it we remember the bounced short out to a wide-open Hines Ward, missing a wide-open Antwaan Randle-El, hitting Jets safety Reggie Tongue four yards in front of him and floating an absurd wounded duck into the middle of four Jets for another interception inside of two minutes left? That one should have ended the Steelers' season, but they got lucky because Doug Brien kicks for the Jets. (Or used to, I should say. Used to.) The worst indictment of a quarterback is to say he looked nervous, but that's what some of those half-hearted throws made Roethlisberger look like to me. If I'm a Steeler, I'm thinking: If this phenom made some of those silly throws against the Jets, what's he going to do against the defense of the team led smartest man to coach the game in this era?

2) Mike Vick should scare the heck out of the Eagles. The Falcons now play an offense with two running backs: Warrick Dunn and Vick. Both are quick. Both are fast. Though most of what I saw of this game was via highlights, it didn't look to me like the Rams spied Vick, which is a huge mistake when he's shown such a proclivity to run. I keep thinking Vick eventually has to settle into being a pocket quarterback or he's going to get killed. That's fine and good for the long term, but what about the short term? The 2007 season doesn't mean squat to the Eagles right now. They've got to figure a way to pen this guy in and to wrap up Dunn.

3) Greg Lewis gives the Eagles exactly the receiving threat they need for a guy they got off the street. A guy I know who remembers Lewis from Illinois, where he backed up Brandon Lloyd mostly, is absolutely shocked at his ascension with the Eagles. Quiet kid, didn't stand out in personality or athletic ways. Had a little speed, but basically was just a guy. Well, in an Eagles offense missing its deep threat Terrell Owens, Lewis gives Donovan McNabb the bit of speed the QB needs -- especially when short-arming Todd Pinkston is playing so poorly. Against the Vikes, Lewis caught one deep ball, 52 yards, from McNabb and looked like he was in position to catch another couple. That's a huge factor for Philadelphia, because you saw how Minnesota was loading up to stop Brian Westbrook from taking over. The Falcons will have to account for Lewis. Obviously he's not Owens, but Philly's offensive coordinator Brad Childress is pretty good at making pieces fit the puzzle.

4) The Patriots are the premier team in football. Again. With three minutes left in the game, the Colts had 206 yards. The greatest offensive team of this day had 10 possessions. Indy ended punt, punt, punt, punt, fumble, field goal, punt, punt, fumble, interception. New England's defense was magnificent. Did you see the look in Tedy Bruschi's eyes, and how he flat stole the ball from Dominic Rhodes. And how Rodney Harrison played like every down was his last? No team  crushes the opposition with a patchwork team like this, and there is only one conclusion to draw: These players have more pride and hunger than any group of players in all of sports.

5) The Colts had better find some Bruschis. We've seen Indy's greatness all year. But when it mattered, where was its heart, drive, determination? Where was someone grabbing his teammates on the sidelines and screaming: "We're not going down this way!'' And while we're at it, where was Manning throwing downfield? How can the Colts look at that game tape and not be sick? It is simply incomprehensible that on every series the Colts didn't challenge the Patriots' beleaguered secondary deep, lousy field conditions or not. Indianapolis allowed the meteorologist to play in this game. Throw it deep, for crying out loud, and get the illegal contacts and pass-interference calls that Bill Carollo's crew was looking for so closely. If I'm Bill Polian, I'm putting two characteristics into my offseason list of requirements for new Colts. They must have excelled at playing outside, preferably in northern climes. And they must have a nasty, prideful streak.

THE FINE FIFTEEN

There's a change atop the Fine Fifteen, for the first time in more than two months. For one reason: Today, I trust Tom Brady to play a good game. Today, I don't trust Ben Roethlisberger to. Not saying he won't, but I just have no idea which Roethlisberger is going to take the field Sunday.

1. New England (15-2). Rushing yards when they played on Halloween in Pittsburgh: Steelers 223, Patriots 5. Sunday's rematch will be a tad closer on the ground. Have you seen any team be affected more by an imported running back than Corey Dillon with this team?

2. Pittsburgh (16-1). A chink in the armor showed up the other day, but it's not fatal. Steelers can still beat New England if they remember their running roots.

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3. Philadelphia (14-3). So much for my theory that the 41 days since playing a good offensive game would be a big factor.

4. Atlanta (12-5). Note to the national media: Atlanta coach Jim Mora is Jim Mora's son, but his name is not Jim Mora Jr. It's Jim Mora. I made the mistake more than once.

5. Indianapolis (13-5). When you guys decide to show up for a big game, let me know. That bordered on a disgraceful performance.

6. New York Jets (11-7). Doug Brien. Bill Buckner.

7. San Diego (12-5). Drew Brees' long-term contract request has trouble written all over it. His agent is the king of quarterback contracts, Tom Condon, and if you think he'll go below-market for a deal, you're wrong.

8. St. Louis (9-9). Hideous special-teams play. Just hideous.

9. Green Bay (10-7). I like Ted Thompson, the new GM, a lot. But he walks into a tough situation. I don't care how it's spun: There's been a neutering of Mike Sherman by Packers boss Bob Harlan. And what about the rest of the football side of the front office, with Thompson walking in over them? Thompson is as modest and let-me-just-fit-in as they come, but he'll have some eggshells to walk on in the next few weeks.

10. Minnesota (9-9). Pick up the phone, Vikes. Troll the waters for a Randy Moss trade. Call Ozzie Newsome.

11. Denver (10-7). One more playoff-winless year for Mike Shanahan and I think Pat Bowlen gives him the ol' golden parachute.

12. Baltimore (9-7). Adalius Thomas, you're going to love the Mall of America.

13. New Orleans (8-8). Why does Aaron Brooks have such a big chip on his shoulder?

14. Carolina (7-9). Half-price off those Muhsin Muhammad jerseys.

15. (tie) Buffalo (9-7). Mike Mularkey's doing a heck of a cogent job writing the playoff analyses on SI.com this postseason. Next year, he'll have his Bills in the January derby.

Miami (4-12). Scott O'Brien, director of football operations. Hmmm. The best special-teams coach of his day goes into football administration.

THE AWARDS SECTION

Offensive Player of the Week

New England RB Corey Dillon. The Patriots acquired Dillon last spring for days exactly like Sunday and he didn't let them down. Dillon's rushing yards: 144. New England's time of possession: 37:43. The Colts had the ball less than nine minutes in the second half and aside from some clutch third-down-conversion throws from Brady, it's because Dillon kept the chains moving.

Defensive Player of the Week

The New England defense. "Our defense won this game,'' said Brady. He's right. As well as Pittsburgh corner Willie Williams and Philadelphia linebacker Jeremiah Trotter played this weekend, a group that holds the Colts to a field goal is a slam-dunk winner here.

Special Teams Player of the Week

(tie) Pittsburgh WR Sean Morey, who you may recall from an SI.com training-camp postcard a couple of years ago, when he was with the Eagles and a fan who apparently has very little Irish in the family said on the sidelines, "Who is this SEEN Morey?'' Anyway, on the Steelers' first punt of the day, Morey got free from the Jets' double-team block at the line of scrimmage, burst downfield, and leveled Jets punt-returner Santana Moss a millisecond after Moss caught the punt. No gain. What intensity. What drive. Great play by the man who led the Steelers with 24 special-teams tackles during the season.

Minnesota DB Rushen Jones. Ditto. Same play early at Philadelphia, when he smothered Eagles returned Dexter Wynn for no gain. Brilliant.

New York Jets WR Santana Moss, who returned a punt 75 yards in the second quarter for a touchdown. Perfect return. I do believe not a soul touched him. He just outquicked everyone.

Coach of the Week

Atlanta offensive-line coach Alex Gibbs. The Falcons made Gibbs the highest-paid offensive-line coach in NFL history before the season, signing him for a reported $1 million a year (more than the Minnesota head coach). The most impressive stat line of the playoffs was the Falcons' rushing line: 40 carries, 327 yards. Amazing! Imagine averaging 8.2 yards per rush in a playoff game. Gibbs does a great job in creating expectations and pounding home the belief that if you don't please him you're going to be in really big trouble.

Goat of the Week

New York Jets K Doug Brien. Now I could tie this and give Herm Edwards and Paul Hackett a role here. Brien's a bit of a head case anyway. He'd missed a 47-yard field goal a minute earlier and the Jets got to the Pittsburgh 25. Edwards turned Schottenheimerish, running Curtis Martin up the gut for nothing, Lamont Jordan for two and Chad Pennington on a kneel-down -- for minus-one on a totally needless play! But you're an NFL kicker, for crying out loud, and when you miss one, you don't try to overkick the next one, which is what Brien admitted he did when he shanked the second potential game-winner horrendously left.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Randy Moss makes $338,235 per week during the regular season.

Players make $18,000 for being on the winning side in a wild-card game. Subtract the $10,000 fine for his pantomime-mooning of the Green Bay crowd eight days ago and the federal and state income taxes on his paycheck.

And so Moss' take-home pay for a two-touchdown playoff game is about $4,200.

Secondary point here: The NFL has a pretty nice racket going, when a superstar produces like one and, before fines and taxes, makes six percent of what he usually makes for a regular-season game.

STAT OF THE WEEK II

Minnesota's coaching budget this year was $2.6 million.

That's for all Vikings coaches.

Which means that at least 16 NFL head coaches made more money in 2004 than the entire Vikings coaching staff.

And the Vikings made it to the final eight.

Somebody up there -- more than just somebody -- is doing a pretty good job.

FACTOID THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME

In the wake of the awful end to his 13th season as the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, Brett Favre had one major media request last week. The Ellen DeGeneres Show wanted Favre as a guest.

He respectfully declined.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"It's legalized theft, a crime, that Art Monk is not in the Hall of Fame. Those voters ought to be absolutely ashamed of themselves.''

-- ESPN football analyst Sean Salisbury.

POSTSCRIPT TO QUOTE OF THE WEEK

I'm one of the voters, Sean. And I'm not ashamed at all. Over the past few years, there's been significant outrage over Monk not getting into the Hall of Fame. Salisbury's feelings are shared by many. Mel Kiper has raked me over the coals a time or two on this one. How can the 39 guys who sit in judgment of the merit of retired players think that Monk didn't do enough to earn a spot in the Hall of Fame, particularly when he had more receptions than any of the 17 current receivers enshrined in the Hall?

Since I get a lot of mail on this particular issue every year, I want to spend a couple of minutes going over Monk's case. At the end, you may think I'm wrong, but at least you'll know my reasoning.

It's a complicated situation, at least from my standpoint, but I'll start by explaining a couple of things about the voting system. Monk is one of the 15 finalists for the Hall this year, as he has been the last several years. We elect a minimum of three and a maximum of six to the Hall each year. There is a winnowing process that cuts the list to six in the room, and then the 39 voters are asked to vote yes or no on the final six. To make it, a player either has to have 80 percent of the vote, or in the event that fewer than three get 80 percent of the vote, the players with the most votes up to three are then elected. And so, if Monk makes it to the final six, basically, he needs to have at least 31 of the voters go his way. Eight no votes can squash a finalist, and obviously, he's had at least eight no votes every year he's come before the board of selectors. I am certainly not the gatekeeper. I have voted yes on Monk when the Hall asks us to cut the list from 25, and then to 15, in advance of the meeting, because I do think he is worthy of discussion, and I think he's one of 15 most deserving candidates in a given year -- which is different from thinking he's a Hall of Famer. But I have voted no on Monk each year he has gotten to the final six. These are the reasons:

1. I think numbers should be considered significant, but shouldn't be the god of election to the Hall. And they should be put in perspective. This says everything about why statistics alone shouldn't put people in the Hall of Fame: The year Jerry Rice entered football, 1985, there were four players with 600 career catches in NFL history. Today there are 34. Monk led the NFL in receptions with 940 when he retired after the 1995 season. Since then, four receivers have passed him. One of them is Andre Reed, who I also consider to be a marginal Hall-of-Famer. In the next few years, others will get into the 900 range: Marvin Harrison, Isaac Bruce, Jimmy Smith, maybe even Keenan McCardell (755 now, and he wants to play two or three more years). Think of the receivers who haven't turned 32 yet who could get to 900ville: Terrell Owens (31, 669 catches), Eric Moulds (31, 594), Muhsin Muhammad (31, 578), Randy Moss (27, 574). Torry Holt's 28. He's got 517. Four more years in that offense, and he's in Monk's neighborhood statwise. In other words, in the 30-year window between 1980 and 2010, a dozen guys, or more, could pass 900 catches. We can't elect them all. There has to be some positional integrity to the Hall of Fame. I believe that Redskins-era team, for instance, should have three offensive Hall-of-Famers: Russ Grimm, Joe Jacoby and John Riggins (though Riggins was obviously on the early side of that era), along with the offensive mastermind, Joe Gibbs. Two are in now. I hope at least one of the linemen makes it.

2. Monk was about the fourth-most dangerous skill player on those teams. I covered the New York Giants for Newsday from 1985-'88, and I remember covering a lot of those great Giants-Redskins games. And the guys in that locker room really respected Monk as a consistent player who gave a great effort on every play. But they feared Gary Clark. To a lesser degree, they feared Ricky Sanders. And they feared the run game, whoever was toting it on that particular day. If you stopped the run, and you stopped the fast, quick guys on the outside, the Giants felt, you'd beat the Redskins every time. I started covering the NFL in 1984, and I saw much of Monk's career. Some of what he did was unseen and important to the success of that offense. He was an excellent blocker downfield. That helps his candidacy. It doesn't get it over the top, at least not to me.

3. Monk was the not considered one of the very best receivers of his era either by his peers or the media. He played 16 years. Twice he made the AP's All-Pro Team, which honors the top two receivers in football. He never made the second-team. So twice in 16 years the media considered Monk to have had one of the top four seasons by a receiver in football. Three times he was named to the Pro Bowl. That means three times in 16 years his peers thought he'd had one of the top four seasons by a receiver in the NFC. Those facts are significant to me. We're saying no to guys who made 10 Pro Bowls. Mick Tinglehoff was an All-Pro center seven times, more than any center in history, and five times more than enshrinee Jim Langer ... and that guy can't come close. Think of it this way: Eight wide receivers go to the Pro Bowl every year. In three of 16 NFL seasons Monk was judged to be one of the top eight. Is a Hall of Fame player one considered one of the top eight at his job three times in 16 seasons?

One of the interesting things this time of year is listening to the passion of people advocating for their favorites for the Hall of Fame. I respect the opinions of the Monk side very much, but I don't believe he was a Hall of Fame football player. I just thought you'd like to know the feelings of one of the 39 people in that room.

AGGRAVATING/ENJOYABLE TRAVEL NOTE OF THE WEEK

By the time I called to make travel plans for the Jets' playoff game at Pittsburgh, in midweek, the return flights to all metro New York airports were jammed. If I wanted to fly home, I'd have to go in mid-afternoon. No way. Not with two playoff games in the offing. So I decided to drive back to New Jersey. Halfway Saturday night -- to the Holiday Inn just outside Carlisle -- and the rest Sunday morning. And the one thing that made the trip more than tolerable was satellite radio. I can't get enough of it. In the Steelers press box, I ran into Geoff Hobson, editor of Bengals.com and a former Bengals' beat man, who'd driven the five hours from Cincinnati for the game. "The trip felt like five minutes with that satellite radio in it,'' he said. He had XM. I had Sirius. I flipped back and forth to hear the second half of Rams-Falcs with both Rams and Falcons radio teams. Really fun. Didn't mind the drive at all.

CLICK HERE FOR TEN THINGS I THINK I THINK

Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.

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