Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Come All, Be All Of Games

"See you two need to work on trust, and then, and only then, will there be a free exchange of sex and discounts...the cornerstone of any healthy relationship."

So with the days dwindling until Sunday, I have been thinking about this game...basically every second of the last four days. The more I think about it, the more I realize that this is one, if not the most important game in franchise history. Think of all the times the Patriots got into the Super Bowl before this (5 in all). The only time we have advanced to the "big game" on the road has been at Pittsburgh. Now, the game is in Indy. Indoors. No weather reports needed. This is new territory for New England. The Indy faithful will most likely reach a decibal that has not been heard inside the RCA dome, which has never hosted an AFC Championship game. Right now, the Colts defense is playing out of their minds. This can all be put on the re-emergence of safety Bob Sanders. Sanders is a hard-hitter, something the Colts' defense had been lacking for most of the year. With their new found confidence in the playoffs this year, they have stimied two high-powered running attacks and have not allowed either team to score in double digits. This is going to be their biggest test by far however, as the Pats are seemingly running on all cylinders, with new-found trust in their receiving core, which is made up mostly of other teams' "spare parts," and a duo at tailback that has proved to be one of the most potent combinations in the league this year.

The AFC Championship has never been held indoors, and only twice has the NFC title game been held in a straight-up dome (St. Louis both times...I don't consider Texas Stadium to be a straight-up dome like Indy or St. Louis has considering it has a gigantic hole in the roof). So this is uncharted waters. Both teams are excellent in domes. The Colts did not lose at home this year. If there is one bright spot, consider this: In games being played after Wild Card Weekend in Indy, the Colts are 0-2 at the RCA Dome (Pittsburgh last year, Titans in '99), so that is encouraging. Of course both games were decided by three points. Here's where the problem comes in. You're looking at a kicker in Adam Vinatieri, who simply is the most clutch kicker ever. There is no debate. No one has any conceivable evidence to say otherwise. The snow game, the first Super Bowl, the second Super Bowl, and all the game-winners in between. No one has the resume like #4 has. He has never missed in the RCA Dome. Never. The guy has been in the league eleven years, and has not missed at Indy. So if the game comes down to a last second Indy field goal, let's say I'll be a little less than confident. The Patriots need to expose the middle of the field, because frankly, the Indy linebackers are garbage. The reason they have been having success is that they get an incredible push up the middle from their defensive line, led by tackles Anthony McFarland and Raheem Brock. They are able to disrupt running plays and funnel the running backs right into the linebackers. One of the keys to the game will undoubtedbly be protection not only for Tom Brady, but for the running backs. Dillon and Maroney must be able to penetrate the line on their own and not be forced to make plays happen behind the line. In my opinion, the Pats should attempt a lot of toss plays and misdirections. A reverse play can be very effective, as the Colts, like the Chargers, are undersized on the ends. Also, they are very aggressive, so using that against them could be a smart idea. You have to hope that Sanders does not have the same kind of effect he did in the first contest between these two teams this year (11 tackles and an interception). It is painfully obvious that he keys this defense. If you are able to confuse him and try to make other players besides him attempt to win the battle of both sides, you are likely to see that the Colts will not be able to handle this offense. In their first meeting, Brady threw for 201 yards and four interceptions. Two of the interceptions came one tipped balls, which has been an achilles' heel all year long (especially in that game and the Bears game). Realize though that the Pats were still experimenting with who was catching balls for them, but now it seems that they have found some legitament receivers (basically all from Florida with Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, Chad Jackson, and Kelvin Kight...yeah I don't know about Kight either). The running attack was successful for the most part, gaining 148 yards and accounting for the two TDs. However, the biggest play of the game came on Corey Dillon's fumble, which was recovered by Brock and returned for a TD. Again, Dillon may prove to be ineffective in this game because of his speed (18 yards last week against the same style defense). Maroney didn't get nearly enough looks last week (5) as the Pats turned in a dreadful performance on the ground, managing only 51 yards (anytime Kevin Faulk is your leading rusher, and everyone is healthy, you know you had problems). Look for the Pats to try and set up the run with the pass. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see New England come out in a no huddle, five receiver set. This play call works nearly every time. You keep the defense on their toes and exploit their below-average corners. Whether this happens or not remains to be seen, but I can almost guarantee the Pats will be in no hurry to start out giving the Colts any momentum by running Corey Dillon. Again, I expect Caldwell and Gaffney to have huge games. If you look at this defense, it resembles San Diego as far as their general defensive strategy, but as far as personnel goes, the teams aren't even close. Brady will be looking to spread the ball around as he's done so effectively in his career. The tight ends need to play a bigger role in not only the passing game, but in the blocking game. The line, on a whole, did a good job as far as pass-blocking, allowing the always-blitzing Chargers to just two sacks in the game. I anticipate that mistakes will be made, allowing potential rushers to charge in. Brady needs to realize that him making a play will not change the outcome of the game. If he forces anything under duress, that will change the outcome of the game. Turnovers have to be kept to a minimum. The Colts have played well on defense, but when you consider what they've been up against (KC was good, but the play-calling was some of the worst I have ever seen, and Baltimore has absolutely no receivers and was playing with a hobbling Johnathan Ogden), then you can tell that they will be put under the microscope by Belichick early and often.

When the Pats line up on defense, they have to realize one thing: Any time Manning has tried to go deep in the postseason, it either hasn't hit its mark, or it's been picked off. Therefore, Manning will be looking to go over the middle to try and exploit the one conceivable weakness the Pats have: their safeties. It's still uncertain whether or not Rodney will play (listed as doubtful), but for the sake of arguement, let's assume he's not. This will put a lot of pressure on the D-line and the linebackers to make sure Manning does not have too much time, or have too many open looks when he steps back to pass. The aggressive Raven defense only got to Manning once last week, again holding up the Colts' reputation for having one of the most under-appreciated offensive lines in the history of the game. In their first contest, the Pats managed three sacks, all of which were accounted for by the linebackers (Colvin 1.5, Seau 1, Vrabel 0.5). Too many teams have become overly conservative when it comes to playing the Colts. They feel like if they don't have eight men in coverage, then Manning will pick them apart. Well guess what? When they drop all those guys back, he still picks them apart! The only way to stop this offense is to come up with cleaver blitzing techniques that involve pressure from all directions and all positions. The front seven will also be tested as far as stopping the run. Addai and Rhodes were shut down in the first game (61 yards combined), but they have been showing improvement as of late (95 combined against Baltimore last week). Belichick seems to understand the flow of the Colts' offense as the game progresses. Unfortunately, there have been many mistakes made in the last two contests that have come back to haunt the Pats. Things like picking up men in coverage, capitalizing on Manning mistakes, and controlling the line of scrimmage. Addai seems like he runs a lot of "north-south," so Vince Wilfork will definitely be called upon to step up in this game. Because the Pats run a 3-4 defense, they are going to be forced to run blitz a lot. This is where Manning will try and take advantage, using play action and other play fakes to catch the defense off balance. The key, again, will be the middle of the field. I feel that Asante Samuel (who may be playing his last game as a Patriot...hopefully not) and Ellis Hobbs are good enough to defend against a big play to Wayne or Harrison. The X-Factor will be the effectiveness of Dallas Clark, Addai, and Rhodes catching balls over the middle. If the Pats are able to stop them early, I think it will force Manning into some bad situations later on in the game. Maybe forcing balls into places that they simply shouldn't have been thrown to. "Red Zone" defense will also be critical. Do anything and everything to keep them out and gladly let Vinatieri put up a 3-spot. This will be critical, as the Colts really haven't looked great inside the 20 in their two other playoff games. They have to keep this game managable. I'm expecting that this will be a low-scoring game, so stopping drives outside of scoring territory is a must.

This is like two freight trains from hell about to collide with each other. The Colts seemingly have a ton going for them. It's almost like they're "due" to go to a Super Bowl, much like the Eagles were due to go two years ago. The difference will be Bill Belichick and how he schemes Peyton Manning. Manning has never looked right against the Pats in the playoffs. However, his recent two-game winning streak over the Pats will probably boost his confidence some. If Belichick is able to confuse Manning early, then New England has a great chance of pulling this off. Sometimes, like last year, you kind of wonder how much longer the Pats can keep their postseason winning ways going. Last year, in a game against clearly an inferior opponent (see last year's AFC Championship game), and with a chance to host the AFC title game, they turned in arguably their worst performance in the Brady-Belichick era. Execution is going to have to be there. If the Pats come out looking sloppy, they are going to put themselves behind the eight ball early. They need to come out and quiet that Colts crowd. If you let them build momentum, and put up a sizable lead early, then you might as well just call it a day. There is no reason the Pats should not win this game. Harrison being out is huge, but great teams do not fold up because of one guy not being there. That's why they are great teams. They do not rely on one individual. Rather, they go out as a unit and do their jobs. They don't try to do anything over the top or anything to get attention. The Colts run on one man. This is why they have had a great deal of success in the regualar season, but very limited success in the postseason. The Colts need to become a unit. Obviously, if we didn't have Tom Brady, we wouldn't look too hot, but think if the Colts didn't have Manning. That team would be in disarray. See if opposing teams know the one piece that makes a team run, then they are going to go after it, almost like in ancient war-time, when one side knew who the leader was of their enemy, and did everything to try and eliminate his presence, because they realized once he was gone, the enemy would not have its driving force and its leader to rally them and to charge them up. The Pats have always been good at getting to Manning, but they are going to need a huge effort on Sunday. They need to keep coming after Peyton. Look at what the Ravens did last week. They kept blitzing him over and over, and he threw for exactly zero touchdowns. I'm not saying that we have as good of a defense as Baltimore, but we're not too far off. If we are able to neutralize the crowd, force Manning into mistakes, capitalize on those mistakes, and have an efficient, turnover-free offense, then there is no reason the Pats don't win this. I go back to my original predictions and look at how every AFC game up until right now has gone the way I thought it would, so I hope I keep the streak alive.

Patriots 24, Colts 14

And the NFC Championship, why not pull for a rematch? Too much Bears defense, and not enough stopping of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson.

Bears 28, Saints 21

Alright, hopefully I will be writing about the Super Bowl next week...I mean I will anyway, but hopefully I'm real happy when I'm doing it. Take care everyone. Have a great weekend. Peace.


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