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Nov. 30 was a big day for the four remaining Super Bowl contenders. The Patriots squeezed out a win over the Colts in Indianapolis, but no one will ever convince Peyton Manning and his gang that they should have lost. In Carolina the Eagles beat the Panthers, who were sure the defeat was a fluke. Maybe both losers were right. We'll find out this Sunday; only this time New England and Philadelphia are the home teams.
The Patriots led 31-10 in November, and they had the ball on the Indy 32 with 6:12 left in the third quarter. Manning had just thrown an interception, and the Colts were a whipped team. But then New England started flinging the ball all over the place, and a quick pick set up an Indianapolis scoring drive. Now the Colts were back in it, and the fans woke up, and...well, it ended with the Pats stopping Edgerrin James two yards short of the goal line. New England won 38-34.
Bill Belichick and his defensive brain trust will be facing one of their most serious challenges this time because Manning and the Colts are in a zone. It's hard to imagine how anyone can play the quarterback position better than he did in K.C. When the Chiefs blitzed him, Manning was meticulous on his hot reads. When they laid back in a zone, he picked them apart. So what do the Pats do to stop this machine?
Pop their inside backers into the lanes, blitz and beat Manning's hot receivers to the ball, stunt like crazy inside and get a lot of pressure up the middle, forcing him to work the perimeters. Do I think New England can do all this? Well, some of it. The Patriots will do enough to hold Indy to fewer points than their own attack will generate against a suspect Indy defense.
In the first encounter the Panthers reached the red zone on five of their first seven possessions, but all they got out of it was 10 points. John Kasay had one of the worst days of his career with three missed field goals and a botched extra point. Carolina outgained and outsacked the Eagles, and still lost 25-16.
Brian Westbrook, who had 96 yards rushing and receiving for Philly that day, will miss the rematch (torn triceps). The Panthers' Stephen Davis, who rushed for 115 yards against Philly, might be out too (strained quad). Last weekend Duce Staley and DeShaun Foster filled in for Westbrook and Davis, respectively, and performed admirably. Carolina will run on the Eagles. Everybody does. But Panthers coach John Fox won't pull back and start putting the ball up, as Green Bay did on Sunday.
Early on the Packers looked like they were going to run it up on Philly, but the Eagles prevailed. Donovan McNabb's ball was nosediving on him for much of the game, but in crunch time he found a way to win it. Logic says to go with Carolina. But the Eagles are mystical, or something like that.