I have this idea in the back of my mind that coach Bill Belichick has Peyton Manning's number. Maybe it's because the two times Belichick's Patriots met Manning's Colts during the 2001 season, New England won by lopsided margins. But let's be fair—those weren't triumphs of a defensive mastermind over a star quarterback, they were victories of a soon-to-be Super Bowl champion over a team in turmoil that would finish 6-10.
Belichick has coached against Manning eight times, four games each with the Pats and as the assistant head coach of the Jets. The record stands at 4-4. In those eight games Manning has thrown 11 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. Not terrific numbers, but they include his first two years in the league, when he was learning the game—with Belichick's help, of course.
The Patriots and the Colts followed similar paths to victories on the road last weekend. New England and Indy each had to put together late drives to overcome fourth-quarter deficits of seven and 11 points, respectively. It was one of those blood-and-guts Sundays when almost every game was hard fought. Seven teams rallied in the fourth quarter to win. Tennessee was down 21-0 in Atlanta and won. And the Rams had to score late to force overtime in their win over the lowly Cardinals.
The Patriots have been the NFL's miracle team, squeezing out seven straight victories with a roster ripped by injuries. But how about the Colts? Their offense has been ravaged, too. Makoa Freitas, a rookie sixth-round draft choice, is starting for left tackle Tarik Glenn (strained left-knee ligament), and wideout Marvin Harrison is laboring on a very sore hamstring. Two other wide receivers, Troy Walters (hamstring) and Brandon Stokley (concussion), missed Sunday's game, as did tight end Marcus Pollard (sprained knee).
I don't know how many of the wounded Colts will suit up in Indy against the Patriots. The Colts got by Buffalo last week on teeth-gritting performances by Manning and running back Edgerrin James, but they'll need more weapons against New England. I get the feeling that this will be the game in which the personnel drain catches up with them. The Patriots are my upset pick.
Here's the good news for the Panthers and their premier runner, Stephen Davis. The Eagles have given up 100 yards or more to an enemy running back in three straight games. Here's the bad news. Philly has won all three. The teams meet in Carolina. The following Sunday, Dallas visits the Eagles in an NFC East showdown. I think Carolina is a look-ahead game for Philly. I'll take the Panthers.
Green Bay ran for 243 yards against the 49ers on Sunday, the most rushing yardage San Francisco had given up since 1978. The Ravens will give the Niners a heavy dose of Jamal Lewis on Sunday. The Tim Rattay legend took a hit against the Pack, and things won't get any easier for him in Baltimore. The Ravens are the pick. I give the Giants an edge over the Bills in a squeaker at the Meadowlands. The Rams can't put an Olympic 400-meter relay team on the field, as they once could, but they still have too much speed for the Vikings. St. Louis will win a high scorer.
What do we make of Cincinnati? Is this truly the Cinderella of 2003? What the hell, I'll stick with the hot team, even in as scary a place as Pittsburgh. The Bengals win in an upset. The Broncos are reeling, while Oakland seems to be firming up. But Denver's desperate at this point. The Broncos win a tight one on the road.
What a menu for Monday night, the 4-7 Jets against the Billy Volek-led Titans. Chad Pennington & Co. could put enough points on the board to win this one, but I suspect that Volek, probably subbing for the injured Steve McNair (strained calf), is better than people think. The Titans will win it.