- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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FOXBORO, Mass. -- Something's wrong here. The atmosphere surrounding Sunday's AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Colts and Patriots feels, I don't know, weird. Is it me, or does it all seem a bit backward?
Based on the game's coverage and analysis, it's as if the league's top dogs all of a sudden are underdogs again. It's Tom Brady and the Patriots, who have won their last five meetings with Indianapolis -- three at home, two at the RCA Dome -- who must prove that they're equals to Peyton Manning and the Colts, not vice versa.
That would be the Peyton Manning who is coming off a postseason record 457 yards against Denver last week. Forty-nine-touchdown-passes Manning. And that would be the same Manning who has lost all six times he has played at Foxboro and Gillette Stadiums. The Manning -- and, let's be fair, it's not all on the quarterback, it's all of the Colts -- who has lost six of seven to the Patriots since Bill Belichick became head coach in 2000.
Yet it's the champs who have to stop the Colts.
Yeah, that makes sense.
So it isn't just me.
"It feels like a championship game," said Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, referring to the buildup to last year's AFC title game at Gillette Stadium, Manning coming off surgical procedures against the Broncos and Chiefs, only to be picked off four times by New England. "All the hype and the focus are on them. But it's fine with us. It doesn't matter. You still have to go out there and win the ball game. That's what it comes down to.
"No one really gives us any respect. But we're pretty much used to it. The way you get respect is to go out and kick some butt. That's what we've got to do is silence everyone. We have a lot to prove. No one really gives us a chance to win."
That's due mostly to the state of New England's secondary. All-Pro cornerback Ty Law, who picked off Manning three times in last year's postseason contest, is done for the year, as is fellow corner Tyrone Poole. Second-year man Asante Samuel and undrafted rookie Randall Gay now start on the outside. At nickel corner is, Troy Brown, one of the team's receivers. When the Patriots go to their sub packages, backup linebacker Don Davis plays free safety. Add to that the fact that Manning clearly is at the top of his game, and then there's the league's point of emphasis on illegal contact, born from the clear clutching and grabbing that went on in New England's defensive backfield in last year's 24-14 Patriots win.
The task, for sure, is daunting, but history -- recent history -- says it's not impossible.
Law is a great player, though not half-the-field great. But there's no question the Patriots aren't as good defensively without him or Poole. They're even worse if their dominant defensive lineman, Richard Seymour, can't go with a knee injury, especially considering the Colts gashed them for 202 yards on the ground earlier this year. But Harrison will be there. So will Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, and Eugene Wilson -- all of whom have made plays to help beat the Colts.
Regardless of who is on the field for the Patriots, Manning, offensive coordinator Tom Moore, and Co. have to figure out how to make more positive plays against the schemes of Romeo Crennel and Bill Belichick. They've produced far too many negative ones against them to overcome. The Patriots have gotten the better of Manning playing with as bad or worse in the secondary.
Look it up. In 2000, when the teams split their division series (the Colts' only win over the Patriots in the Belichick era, in Indy), the Patriots' starting secondary for both games was Law at left corner, Otis Smith at right, Lawyer Milloy at strong safety, and Larry Whigham at free. The reserves were Tony George, Antwan Harris, Tebucky Jones, Antonio Langham, and Kato Serwanga.
In 2001, when the Patriots swept the Colts, their starting secondary featured Law, Smith, Milloy, and either Jones or Matt Stevens at free safety. The reserves were Terrell Buckley, Harris, Leonard Myers, and Terrance Shaw.
If you'd like, go back to Manning's first two years in the league, when Pete Carroll coached the Patriots. His secondary in '98: Law, Chris Canty and Steve Israel at right corner, Milloy and Willie Clay at the safeties, Jones off the bench. In '99 the cast of characters featured Chris Carter (no, not that one) and Tony George at free safety, Israel and Jones at right corner, and Serwanga off the bench. Under Carroll, New England won three out of four against the Colts. Granted, Indy's come a long way since then.
And so have the Patriots defensive backs. No commentary necessary on the names just mentioned. Some of them speak for themselves. Let's just say those weren't Hall-of-Fame secondaries, either.
Manning's problems with the Patriots have had as much to do with scheme as personnel. I wouldn't go so far as to say Belichick and Crennel are in his head. But they certainly appear to know how things work in there. They've figured out that Indy's passing game is far less effective when Manning and his receivers are forced to try and make accurate post-snap decisions as opposed to pre-snap. The Patriots disguise coverages well enough to where they force him to do what he doesn't do quite so well: make decisions on the fly. So much of what the Colts do offensively is off the adjustments they make at the line of scrimmage, which are based on what defense they see, and the Patriots manage not to let them know until the last possible moment. Factor in the wideouts being jammed coming off the line, and now the timing of the play is totally off. Manning is reading one thing, the receivers another, they're not on the same page, and the result is an interception or a sack.
And, ultimately, a New England victory. As brilliant as Manning is, the Patriots always manage to fool him.
"It's bad enough with whatever play they have called, trying to stop it," Belichick explained. "It's worse when they have the very best play they can have on against the coverage that you're in, so you want to try to avoid that situation as much as you can. If he hits the right one and dials it up right, there's nothing you can do about that. But, if you show him 'this is what we are in, what do you want to do about it?' he'll probably have a pretty good attack against it. So that's not where you want to be."
The Colts' defense is under more pressure, I'd say, than the Patriots'. Again, backward. Going back to the 44-13 blowout in Brady's first pro start, to David Patten's record-setting performance (TD passing, receiving, and rushing) in the rematch that year, to the 38-34 shootout at the RCA Dome last season, to this year's opener in which New England put up 402 yards (320 passing) -- I mean, just by the numbers, you'd have to forgive offensive coordinator Charlie Weis if he thinks he has Indy's number. Now the Colts defense has to slow down the best and most balanced offense the Patriots have had under Belichick.
Weis seems to be at his most aggressive against the Colts. He had Corey Dillon going against the Colts' undersized front, yet he started the first game with a brand new personnel group: three wide receivers and two tight ends. Brady, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, consistently outplays Manning, the reigning two-time league MVP, when they meet head to head.
Mike Vanderjagt may not have said the smartest thing when he remarked that the Patriots are vulnerable, but he was right. However, not only did he provide the champs with more motivational material, he also took the pressure off them and placed it squarely on the Colts to now go out and prove it. The Patriots have a built-in excuse: they're the underdogs.
The Colts are out of them. Fact is, they have to show and prove Sunday, not the other way around.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Even with Ty Law out and Richard Seymour hurting, the Pats shouldn't be underdogs against the Colts.