Saturday, January 15, 2005

1st and 10: Pats-Colts preview

After watching Ben Roethlisberger play with the tentativeness of a rookie quarterback making his postseason debut - hey, quit moping there, big fella - and after watching Bill Cowher coach as horribly as . . . well, as horribly as Bill Cowher traditionally coaches when his team is favored in the postseason, I know this much to be true: The Pats win today, the Pats win the Super Bowl. It's that simple.

Pittsburgh, cocky as ever and oblivious to its vulnerability, absolutely will not beat the Patriots a second time this season. That became apparent in their skin-of-the-goalposts 20-17 overtime victory over the Jets today. And as impressive as the Falcons were in a 47-17 rout of Mike Martz's dainty Rams, no team in the NFC cracks the top four in the AFC.

Of course, there is one daunting obstacle on the Patriots' road to Jacksonville via Pittsburgh: The Indianapolis Colts, whom they must defeat today. It's no easy task to be sure.

We've heard all about Indy's unstoppable offense for two long weeks, and it's impossible not to be impressed with what Peyton and his Ponies have accomplished. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that if they can do this - if the Patriots can defeat the high-scoring Colts today with a defensive backfield held together by duct tape, crazy glue and Troy Brown - it will be Belichick's greatest feat as an NFL coach. With two Lombardi Trophys as a reminder of all this man has accomplished, that's saying something.

The drama begins at 4:45 today. Save a spot on the couch for me.

And with that, it's first and 10, Patriots . . .

1) Obviously, the key to this game is the quarterback. No, no, not Golden Boy Peyton. I'm talking about Thomas Rondell Brady. If he plays his usual game, flawless and precise, the Pats will prevail. But if is careless with the football - meaning more than one interception, or an ill-timed fumble - and the Colts get an extra possession and some decent field position, that dream of three Super Bowls in four seasons will not become a reality.

1a) Okay, Rondell isn't really Brady's middle name. His real full name is Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. I just didn't feel like looking it up at that particular moment, so I guessed. Curiously, my conscience chose this moment to wake up. Damned journalistic integrity.

2) The sleeper offensive star of the game: Deion Branch. A knee injury temporarily derailed what many of us thought would be his breakout season. He's an outstanding receiver and the Colts don't have a d-back who can run with him. (I know this. You know this. The national guys haven't a clue.) Branch is healthy now, and best of all, he's severely underestimated at the moment. I'm predicting a performance similar to his sensational effort in the Super Bowl last year: 8 catches, 133 yards, 2 touchdowns, which, knowing Branch, also means three ridiculous end zone dances. Hopefully, he resists making an ass out of himself until they are up 20 points. Then, for all I'll care, he really can do what Randy Moss pretended to do.

3) My hunch - or maybe it's something more concrete than that - tells me Richard Seymour is not going to play in this game. When, if you think about it, is doubly damaging to the Pats' chances. Not only is he among the elite defensive lineman in the league, but he's emerged as a wrecking ball of a blocking back in short yardage situations. I trust Dillon on third-and-1, but it's reassuring to have Seymour blasting a hole in front of him.

4) The Patriots will miss Ty Law, and I'm sick of hearing Two-Faced Ordway and his bloated minions tell us oh-so-condescendingly that his three picks against Manning last year were the result of zone coverage. It's nonsense. The Patriots may have been in a zone, although I suspect Ordway couldn't recognize a zone defense on film if the alignment of players spelled out Z-O-N-E, but it was Law, not the scheme, who made three fantastic plays. It was the best big-game performance I have ever seen from a defensive back, and his performance deserves more than a casual dismissal by a pack of chicken-wing-gobbling know-it-all nitwits.

5) If I'm a Patriots defender or a loonie in Section 302, there's one thing I'm yelling at Peyton Manning all game: "Cut that meat . . . cut that meat . . ." Say this for Manning. He sells his affection for insurance adjusters as well as he sells the play fake. Great commercial. And today he's going to regret ever doing it.

6) If you want to convince yourself that the Patriots won't miss Law, there is a fairly easy way to do it: A starting defensive backfield of Eugene "The Hittin' Machine" Wilson, Rodney Harrison, Asante Samuel and Randall Gay is better than 20 of the starting foursomes in the league. Maybe 25. The problem is that, by my count, Indy has six top-flight pass catchers (Harrison, Wayne, Stokley, Clark, Pollard and James) and the Patriots will have a difficult time defending all of them consistently, especially if Earthwind Moreland is prominently involved. Rather than signing Hank Poteat (the best name in football, Earthwind be damned) and Antwan Harris off the street, maybe Belichick should have enlisted Mike Haynes and Raymond Clayborn for nickel- and dime-back duty. They can't be anymore out of shape than walk-ons 'Teat and 'Twan.

7) I'm curious to see who's taking punts for the Pats now that it's apparent that Kevin Faulk will not be doing so even if he does play. Bethel Johnson, a threat to bust one every time he touches the ball, is the tempting choice, but his inexperience as a punt returner is a concern. He fumbled (and recovered) a punt against the 49ers in the season finale, and we're all aware the Pats can ill-afford to be careless with the ball today, especially in their own territory. I hope it's Johnson early, but I want Troy Brown back there with him as a security blanket, and I want the cerebral Brown taking punts solo if it's close late.

8) The prevailing opinion from the national media is that the Patriots will try to control the clock with Dillon. There is logic to the theory, not to mention precedence. When the Parcells/Belichick Giants stifled the K-Gun Bills in 1990, they took time into their own hands by pounding Ottis Anderson time and again and keeping Buffalo's offense off the field. I suppose there would be less effective strategies than taking their chances by giving it to Dillon 38 times today. Ultimately, though, I think the tempation to go after Indy's porous pass defense will be too strong for Charlie Weis to ignore. As I said, victory will be in Brady's hands, and not Dillon's legs.

9) I doubt Manning is sleeping well tonight, knowing full well that the defining game of his career is hours away. Think about it: If he wins, the burden of beating his longtime nemesis Belichick will have been overcome, a Super Bowl victory will seem entirely possible, and his place among the finest quarterback of all-time will be secure and indisputable. But if he loses? That monkey on his back takes on the weight of a gorilla, and the comparisons to Dan Marino - a great passer who will hear until his dying day "yeah, but he couldn't win the big one" - will only get louder. Of all the players performing in this game, Manning faces the most pressure, and he hasn't always handled adversity well. It'll be fascinating to see how he copes in a few hours.

10) So after all the words are spent and all the stats are crunched and spewed, it comes down to this: Who's gonna win this friggin' thing? Thought you might ask, though I suspect you already know my answer. Your faithful blogger's prediction: Patriots 38, Colts 35. I'm expecting an NFL Films all-time classic, with Adam Vinatieri adding another line to his Hall of Fame resume in the final seconds. And once again, we'll thank the great coach in the sky for blessing New England with a kicker who isn't a drunken idiot.

Enjoy the game, peeps. And remember: "Cut that meat . . ."