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Even before the Broncos-Colts kickoff, pulses were quickening at the thought of Indianapolis facing the Super Bowl--champion Patriots. Peyton Manning was like a surgeon against Denver, directing an offense that racked up 529 yards against the league's fourth-ranked defense. He is at the top of his game and at the peak of a record-breaking season, but it'll all end in smush if Bill Belichick's Patriots hang one on him again.
New England has beaten Manning five straight times. In the AFC Championship Game last year the Pats intercepted him four times and roughed up his pass catchers so much that in the off-season the league announced it would strictly enforce the no-contact penalty against receivers. ( Colts president Bill Polian has been accused of being the force behind that move.)
In the opener this year New England survived a furious Indianapolis ground assault and pulled out a three-point victory, thanks to a Willie McGinest sack and a missed 48-yard field goal by Mike Vanderjagt at the end. But this time New England will be without injured starting corners Ty Law, an All-Pro in 2003, and Tyrone Poole. The replacements will be Asante Samuel, who had been the nickelback, and Randall Gay, an undrafted rookie. The new nickelback is wideout Troy Brown.
Facing Manning with backups in the secondary is a scary prospect, and controlling the offensive monster that Indy has become will be the ultimate test of Belichick's coaching artistry. On Sunday we all saw what Manning did to Denver's rookie nickelback, Roc Alexander. Reggie Wayne had a career day, thanks to Manning, with 10 catches for 221 yards and two scores (box, page 49).
"That's the difference between Manning now and what he used to be," says a personnel scout who knows Indy and New England well. "He's not worried about making his receivers happy. He's like a shark. If he smells blood, he'll keep going to the same guy--anything to give his team the best chance to win.
" New England won't make the same mistake Denver did, though. The Broncos rolled their coverage toward [All-Pro] Marvin Harrison, and they put Alexander on an island on the other side. But instead of having Alexander play Wayne tight and try to disrupt him, they had him playing off. The Patriots won't do that.
"And they won't blitz, even though they'll be talking about pressure all week," the scout continued. "You can't do that to Manning because he'll find the open guy too quickly. It'll be up to the New England defensive coaches to give Manning different looks on every play, and then have their guys moving and adjusting at the snap. You want to make him think for a moment, instead of going to his timed read right away. Then if you can get pressure, you've got a chance.
"When they met in September, Indy hurt New England by running and going to play-action. I think that's what they'll do this time. And the Colts can run any kind of offense without changing personnel packages. If they split their second tight end, Dallas Clark, then it's like they're in three wides because he has become a very dangerous receiver. Or they can go with three true wides, with Brandon Stokley. Defenses have a hard time changing personnel against them because Manning gets the ball snapped so quickly that he'll catch the other team with 12 men on the field."
Indianapolis-- New England will get most of the attention, but don't overlook the other games. The unchartable element for the Jets is their great courage, as they displayed in their nail-biting overtime win at San Diego last Saturday. Then there's the confidence that comes from beating a quality team on the road, in a playoff game, with a quarterback whose injured throwing shoulder is at least functional if not fully healed.
The Jets and the Steelers were tied 3-3 heading into the fourth quarter of their Dec. 12 game, during which Roethlisberger showed he is human. (He had his first off day as a starter, with two interceptions and only nine completions.) It took some hard running by Jerome Bettis, plus a bit of trickery on a touchdown pass from Bettis to Jerame Tuman, to subdue stubborn New York.