Manning looking to reverse trend
How Peyton Manning performs against his nemesis, the Pats, is the highlight of this weekend's conference championships.
Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's "First ... And Goal" column takes you around the league with a look at the conference title games.
The question is timing. The Patriots beat the Colts, 38-34, in a high-scoring game in which Manning did everything but convert four plays inside the Patriots 2-yard line on their final possession. It might have ended up the most significant four-play series of the season. Two yards could be the difference between this championship game being played in the freezing cold of the Northeast or the 72-degree warmth of the RCA Dome.
The Colts players have unbelievable faith in Manning and they should. Twice this season, he's brought the Colts back from 21-point deficits. Once was in the final four minutes of a Monday night win against the Buccaneers. The other was in the second half of the Patriots game in November.
And as good as the Patriots are at home -- they're the lone unbeaten home team (9-0) at this point -- the game could come down to one last Manning drive, giving the Colts a chance. The Patriots survived two home games in which Titans quarterback Steve McNair had the ball in Patriots territory in the final two minutes with a chance to win. During the regular season game, cornerback Ty Law intercepted a McNair pass for a touchdown, leading to a 38-30 victory. Last Saturday, two penalties and a dropped pass killed a final McNair drive during a 17-14 playoff loss to the Patriots.
With Manning being one of the hottest quarterbacks in NFL history, can the Patriots stop him in one desperate drive?
In Manning's favor is the fact that the Colts had a chance to repair their goal-line offense. One of the reasons the Colts had difficulty scoring is they lost two fullbacks, a tight end and an offensive lineman because of injuries in that Nov. 30 games. Three of those players -- fullbacks Detron Smith and James Mungro and tight end Dallas Clark were lost for the season. Manning had to go on the goal line with a three-receiver lineup that had too much finesse.
Though the Colts haven't added much bulk, they've worked out the strategic problems. Twice against the Chiefs on Sunday, the Colts scored touchdown runs from Kansas City's 1.
Scoring points in Foxboro will be tough. In the past seven home games, including the playoffs, the Patriots have allowed only 36 points. They've had three shutouts at home. There was a four-game stretch at home in which the Patriots didn't allow a touchdown. And everyone knows going into the game that Manning is 0-4 in Foxboro, and Belichick has a way of getting into his head.
One thing that helps the Colts is the running of Edgerrin James. Since blowing out his knee in 2001, James has become smarter and stronger. He used to rely so much more on his incredible athletic ability. One of his specialties before surgery was making a quick stop and them spinning directions for big games.
That explosion is not there any more. James now relies on a more efficient, slashing style that is still good enough to make defenders miss. He's had 203 yards and a 4.7 yard average during the playoffs. His running has kept the chains moving and allowed the Colts to score 10 touchdowns in 17 possessions.
Turnovers will be a key. The Patriots had a plus-17 turnover differential during the regular season and are 11-0 when they have a turnover advantage. Against the Chiefs, the Colts showed they could put up a flawless performance on the road. They had no offensive penalties and didn't have a turnover.
One advantage for the Patriots, ironically, will be the quarterback. This is Manning's first AFC title game. He just got through being a quarterback who had not won a playoff game going into this season. Now, he's won two. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has never lost a playoff game and has gone through the pressure of winning in an AFC championship game and a Super Bowl.
He knows the pressure.
... And goal
Two years ago, they were 1-15. Their quarterback, Jake Delhomme, entered the season as an unknown backup who even now throws off his back foot. What they do isn't pretty, but coach John Fox finds a way to manage close games and win them.
Their record in games decided by seven points or less (10-3) is amazing, including last Saturday's double-overtime victory over the Rams. They are 4-1 in overtimes. They set an NFL record by being 7-0 in three-point games.
But this will be the supreme challenge to the Panthers. They survive because of a running game led by Stephen Davis, who had 1,444 yards. Davis strained a quad muscle early in the divisional win. He's questionable and may not be able to play. Backup DeShaun Foster came off the bench in road victories in Indianapolis and St. Louis to bail out of the offense.
Can he do the same if he's asked to start against a good Eagles defense?
The unstated story of this championship game is that the Eagles love to win low-scoring games. Under defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, the Eagles are 42-6 when they allow opponents 17 points or less. Still, this is his most strained defense.
Four defensive linemen were lost for the season with injuries. He's lost his best coverage linebacker, Carlos Emmons, for the season. Cornerback Troy Vincent missed last week's game with a hip injury and Johnson isn't sure he will have him for Sunday's game.
And teams that run the ball give the Eagles a problem. Part of that is because of the loss of the four defensive linemen. The remaining defensive linemen have to play more downs than their normal rotations. Opponents rushed for 2,071 yards -- 129.4 yards a game -- against the Eagles and they averaged 4.5 yards a carry.
The Packers continued that trend by having Ahman Green rush for 156 yards on 25 carries. What the Eagles have to do is make sure they don't give up too many big running plays. They've got to keep the score low and close.
Ultimately, the game comes down to the play of quarterback Donovan McNabb. His victory over the Packers on Sunday was sheer tenacity. He rushed for 107 yards. He survived eight sacks. He passed for 248 yards on 39 attempts.
The Panthers defensive line, which was second in the league with 32.5 sacks, will have to contain McNabb. The Panthers will probably ask middle linebacker Dan Morgan to spy him.
Since losing their first two games, Eagles coach Andy Reid struck a more balanced attack, mixing the run with the pass. But the loss of leading rusher Brian Westbrook for the season has McNabb resorting to more passes than run.
The Panthers were one of five teams this season that had more running plays than passing plays during the regular season. Their playoff run will be determined on the ground, but it would help if they had Davis available.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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