- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Peyton Manning's ability to handle Bill Belichick's defense recently has forced a major adjustment in the Patriots' strategy.
After blowing an 18-point first-half lead in last season's AFC Championship Game against the Colts, Belichick and the Patriots figured the best way to compete against Manning is by having a powerful offense. The Patriots brought in wide receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth, and now New England has the capability to average 40 points per game.
Manning is the master of the 10-possession game, a concept that is overlooked by opposing coaches until they get into the game. Normally, a team is going to get 12 to 13 offensive possessions per game. Manning has the ability to manipulate defenses by using three-receiver sets or by using tight end Dallas Clark as a slot receiver, allowing the Colts to keep moving the chains. Last year, Manning and the Colts set an NFL record by converting 56.1 percent of their third downs. This year, they lead the league with a 53.9-percent conversion rate.
The result is a 10-possession game, and Manning is a machine at operating it. In seven games, he has had 71 possessions. The result: 25 touchdown drives and 14 field goal drives, meaning he is going to get three or four offensive touchdowns and two field goals a game. He'll eat up a lot of clock doing it, and the strategy puts pressure on opponents to score touchdowns, not field goals.
And it forces coaches to take more gambles. In Week 7, Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio went for it on two fourth downs and failed as the Colts beat the Jaguars 29-7. Even Belichick has gambled on fourth downs against Indianapolis, averaging two fourth-down attempts a game against the Colts.
Thanks to last season's AFC Championship Game, Belichick knows jumping off to a good start isn't good enough against the Colts. In that game, the Patriots had a 21-3 lead but lost 38-34. So Belichick's mission is to start fast and finish faster.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been almost perfect on his opening possessions this season. In eight games, he has produced five touchdowns and three field goals for 44 points. The next-closest team is the Giants with 25. (The Colts rank seventh with 20 first-possession points.)
In some ways, the Patriots used the first eight games as a tune-up for what should be a high-scoring game Sunday. In the 52-7 win over Washington in Week 8, for example, Belichick tried to get more balanced by running the ball with Laurence Maroney, and he worked in screen passes to the running backs and quick screens to Stallworth at wide receiver.
"It's just a number of different things that we can do, and I think that with all of the calls we're making, we're trying to keep defenses off their toes," Stallworth said. "There's a lot of different options we can go to.''
The Redskins were a good team to prepare the Patriots for the Colts. Like Indianapolis, Washington has speed on defense, particularly at linebacker and safety. Brady worked the running game and screen passes to counter the Redskins if they overpursued.
The Colts' defense is even faster than the Redskins', so expect the Patriots to use a lot of screens and counter runs Sunday. Even though the Patriots will spread the field with three and four receivers, they shouldn't be confused with a run-and-shoot team that is totally finesse.
"We like to be a more balanced team than a run-and-shoot [team],'' Stallworth said. "We really take pride with having the big guys on the line running the ball a lot. If you can do that, it definitely opens up the passing game for you. That's what our goal is, to run the ball and set up the ability to go either way."
Both teams run the ball 49 percent of the time. But Belichick's aggressive pursuit of a superstar receiving corps gives the Patriots the ability to match the Colts possession for possession, score for score. The defending champs must defend if they want to stay ahead of the Patriots.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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