- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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FOXBORO, Mass. -- No, the better team does not always win. But when one team wins every time it plays another, it, obviously, is the better team. Period, point blank, end of ... well, not yet.
Why must we complicate this? For a week right up until kickoff, Sunday's AFC Divisional Playoff between the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots and the supposed-heir-to-the-throne Colts was analyzed, scrutinized, debated, dissected, simulated, every aspect and every matchup examined in just about every way possible. And everyone, it turns out, had the wrong view of it. The details distorted the big picture.
The Patriots are just better.
The latest piece of evidence was a 20-3 dismantling. That's now six straight wins (including playoffs) for the Patriots over the Colts and seven out of eight dating to 2000, the beginning of the Bill Belichick era. There is rather a simple explanation for this, one that perhaps is overlooked for all the attention paid to Belichick's intelligence and creativity.
There is no curse, though you could go back to Peyton Manning's first year (1998) and find the Patriots' record against the Colts to be 10-2. But bad luck? Bull. New England's mastery over Indianapolis has nothing to do with a group of players being in the collective head of another. And it has little to do with the genius of Belichick getting the better of the game's most cerebral quarterback, Manning. Nor is it about Belichick's exotic defensive schemes, although the plan of attack he and his staff devised for the latest Colts conquest was hailed by Rodney Harrison as their best work in the two years he's been here. (While we're at it, props to coordinator Romeo Crennel, who looks like he'll finally be a head coach, defensive line coach Pepper Johnson, linebackers coach Dean Pees, and defensive backs coach Eric Mangini, who, after pulling this off with that secondary, should be somebody's coordinator next season.)
It's not the Patriots' style of play or where these teams play or under what meteorological conditions they play. It's who's playing. The Patriots' 53 are better than the Colts' 53.
There's this revolutionary theory women refer to when the light goes off about guys whom they like who don't show interest it's called, "He's just not that into you." So simple. Likewise, New England is just better. There's no mystery to it. Six in a row, four here and two at the RCA Dome? That's beyond a trend. These teams, as presently constituted, could play on gravel and the Patriots would beat them. There's been no proof to the contrary.
"I'm trying to think of what excuses they're saying in their locker room right now," Tedy Bruschi (two fumble recoveries) said afterward. "What rules do they want to change now? Maybe it'll be, 'We can't play a game if it snows.' I don't know. I was just tired of it. I was tired of hearing this and that, talking about the last game and how we didn't win the game, they lost the game by giving the ball away. Last time I checked, turnovers are when defenses take it away. And we just took it away again today. To hold that offense to three points, I mean, their players are great. I respect what Peyton Manning did this year. I respect those players. Sometimes you've just got to be quiet and play football."
And the Patriots have a better collection of players. There should be no further debate: Tom Brady is a better quarterback than Manning, no qualifiers necessary. If they were to go mano a mano in the Quarterback Challenge, my money would be on Manning, the prototypical passer. But in a competition that matters, Brady's the guy. He's 6-0 against Manning, 7-0 as a starter in the playoffs (including two wins against the Colts), and has two Super Bowl MVPs. Manning hasn't been to a Super Bowl yet. Regardless of which quarterback has the better defense and the better coach and yada yada yada, you are what your record says you are, and Brady's record versus Manning says Brady's the better quarterback.
If there were a backyard game of touch football, where the quarterback gets a "10 Mississippi" count to throw, I'd take Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley against Randall Gay, Asante Samuel and Troy Brown any day. But with Willie McGinest, Roman Phifer, and Mike Vrabel rerouting the Colts' slot receivers and jamming their tight ends, and Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson helping over the top, New England's corners, even without Ty Law, are better than Indy's receivers. At least they were Sunday. Harrison, by the way: five catches, 44 yards.
"I can understand why people were doubting us," Rodney Harrison said. "All you could hear was Ty Law the whole week. We won a lot of games without Ty Law [now 9-1]."
Maybe Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard are better receiving tight ends than the Patriots' Daniel Graham. All I know is Clark dropped a handful of balls and Pollard caught just one, while Graham caught the one he was supposed to and, with his blocking, was a key component of a ground game that grinded out 210 yards. He was the better tight end Sunday.
If you're starting a team and picking a running back, you'd probably want Edgerrin James over Corey Dillon. But today there isn't anyone the Patriots would want other than Dillon after he put up 144 on the Colts. We already knew the Patriots had the better defense. They certainly looked like they also have the better O-line, too, and they had the better runner Sunday, with James managing just 39 yards.
It's like they say, coaches coach and players play. Belichick and his staff might just be a tad bit smarter than Tony Dungy and his, but this is the NFL, not Madden NFL 2005. Matchups between Belichick and Manning often are referred to as chess matches, but the Patriot players aren't just a bunch of inanimate objects, wooden pieces, or even puppets. They're good players. The coaches' game plans usually are good. They work together to make one another look good.
Wilson lays a hit on Stokely to force an incompletion. Brown reaches around Stokely to knock down a pass. Vrabel strips Manning. McGinest hustles out to the flat to get a hand on the ball. Bruschi takes the ball away from Dominic Rhodes. Wilson gets his hands on a ball in the end zone to force the Colts to settle for a field goal before halftime. McGinest crashes down the line to tackle James for a 1-yard loss. Harrison comes flying out of the secondary to take down James behind the line of scrimmage. Harrison forces a Wayne fumble that Bruschi recovers. Harrison picks one off in the end zone in the final moments -- the Colts don't score a touchdown.
It goes on and on. The Patriots' defense was missing All-Pro defensive linemen Richard Seymour yet, by the way they played, they didn't even miss him.
"You gotta have talent to play in any scheme," McGinest said. "We've got great guys that scheme and get the game plan for us, but you've got to have those players to go in there and make those plays. You've got to have players to knock the ball out. You've got to have players to make the interceptions, get sacks, tackles for losses, to two-gap, to stop the run. No scheme or anything can do that alone. You've got to have the players in your system to do that."
"If you're not making the plays," added Harrison (team-high 11 tackles), "if you're not forcing fumbles, the scheme's not going to matter. I think our coaches do a wonderful job of knowing their strengths and weaknesses and putting us in a position so we can go out there and make plays. Yet, we still have to go out there and make the plays."
The Patriots had scoring drives of 16 (field goal), 15 (touchdown), and 14 (touchdown) plays that took 9:07, 8:16, and 7:24 off the clock, respectively. There was an unstoppable offense in this game, and it belonged to New England.
"We're never going to put up big numbers, but I think what we do as good as any team in the league is, when we need to, we answer the bell," said left tackle Matt Light. "We're a pretty good situational football team, and I think that's the difference. That's why we win games."
Meanwhile, the Patriots' defense threw every coverage look imaginable at Manning, some old and some new, and dissuaded him from challenging their depleted secondary deep. The longest completion for the league's leader in yards per attempt: 18 yards. In contrast to their offense, the Patriots believe the Colts to be incapable of consistently putting together long, methodical touchdown drives against their defense. The Colts' most productive possession of the day was an 11-play, 72-yard march before the half, but New England kept them out of the end zone, in part, by using a defense Dungy made famous in Tampa Bay -- the "Tampa Two," with safeties playing the deep half and a linebacker manning the deep middle.
The league's limitations on contact be damned, the Patriots' corners didn't let the outside receivers get free release into the secondary. The linebackers made sure Manning's middle reads weren't there as available as they were in the first meeting this year.
"We tried to go after them," Dungy contended. "It's not like we said, 'Oh, OK, we're not going to try to go get them.' They did a good job and outplayed us with the guys that played."
Dungy understood the difference between the teams. "We came up here with very high expectations and ran into a better team today," he said. "They outplayed us, and they've beaten us four times in a row now [since Dungy became coach in 2002], all kind of different games."
Said Colts defensive end Raheem Brock: "We played good enough to lose. All they do is execute. That's it."
It comes down to how well the Patriots do what they're told to do. It's personnel as much as it a person(s) devising schemes. Henceforth, now, and forever, let it never be said again that they are a team devoid of stars. Prima donnas, yes, but they have star players. And better players than Indianapolis has.
The question now is, can they be better than the Steelers next Sunday?
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
5dEric D. Williams
4dMel Kiper Jr.