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Injury-plagued secondary will be tested by Manning

1/9/2005

FOXBORO, Mass. -- The vacation is over for the New England
Patriots.

After four days off, they return Monday to prepare for a huge
challenge -- stopping record-setting Peyton Manning and the
Indianapolis Colts with a patchwork secondary.

Manning set an NFL record with 49 touchdown passes in the
regular season and started the postseason with 457 yards and four
touchdown passes in Sunday's 49-24 win over the Denver Broncos.

The Colts earned a return trip to Foxboro, where they lost to
the Patriots 27-24 on opening night and 24-14 in last season's AFC
championship game.

Four-time Pro Bowl selection Ty Law intercepted Manning three
times in the playoff game, but he and New England's other starting
cornerback, Tyrone Poole, are on injured reserve and out of the
playoffs.

"You wish they were there, but if they're not you trust the
next guy that's coming in," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said before
the Patriots' four-day break began last Thursday.

The replacements have done enough to help the Patriots to their
second straight 14-2 season. But inexperience has forced coach Bill
Belichick and his other defensive backs to make adjustments.

At times, strong safety Rodney Harrison played farther back than
he normally would to guard against a receiver getting behind a
cornerback.

"It's been a difficult year with me," Harrison said. "I've
played a lot different at times this year than I played last year,
but for me it's just a matter of fitting in."

Law missed the last nine games after breaking his foot. Poole
missed 12 with a knee injury. In their places, the Patriots have
used solid second-year pro Asante Samuel, wide receiver Troy Brown
and undrafted free agents Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland.

At times, free safety Eugene Wilson moved to cornerback and
linebacker Don Davis was at free safety, a spot he never played in
his other nine NFL seasons. Davis even started the last two games
there.

"It's not as tough a transition as people think. I think you
have to have a bit of intelligence, a bit of football savvy,"
Davis said. "If you're up against a faster wide receiver, you've
got to (play) a little bit deeper. If a team is running the ball
more, then you can kind of cheat up a little bit."

But what about a team like the Colts?

They have one of the NFL's top runners in Edgerrin James, three
players who each had more than 1,000 yards receiving _ Marvin
Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley _ and tight end targets
Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark.

There's only so much the linebackers can do to help the
defensive backs.

"Maybe if I think that's going to be a problem I've got to drop
back a little bit deeper to help them in coverage and I forget
about the inside routes," Bruschi said. "I can't do that."

Belichick and his staff do an outstanding job of devising
schemes to overcome weaknesses. The Patriots have beaten
Indianapolis in their last eight matchups in Foxboro, and Manning
is 2-9 against them.

But they've never faced a Colts offense as good as this one, and
their pass rush could be hampered if Richard Seymour, who missed
the last regular-season game with a knee injury, is sidelined or
subpar.

Even if Seymour is at full strength, Manning could pick apart
defensive backs who are surprised they've played so much.

"I'm very amazed," Davis said. "We went from Ty Law, from
Tyrone Poole to free agents and linebackers and a wide receiver so
it was kind of a joke around here, but it's fun. Guys are doing
good. It's indicative of the good coaching that's going on around
here and it's also good players."

The Patriots already have beaten strong offensive teams with
productive quarterbacks -- St. Louis with Marc Bulger and Kansas
City with Trent Green.

But Manning is the best.

"It's just another test," Davis said before his brief
vacation. "Bring it on and let's just see where it goes. We've
been doing good so far."