B Duane Cross
Thursday January 15th, 2004

I'm one of the "what's past is prologue" believers. With that in mind, let's look at Sunday's conference championship games -- rematches of regular-season tilts between Indianapolis-New England and Carolina-Philadelphia -- with an eye on those Week 13 results.

That was then: New England 38, Indianapolis 34

The Patriots led 10-0 after the first quarter and 24-10 at halftime before holding off a furious second-half barrage in which the Colts clawed to within four points. We pick up the action with time winding down in the fourth quarter:• 1:32 -- First-and-10 at the New England 18: Peyton Manning passes to Marvin Harrison for 9 yards.• 0:59 -- Second-and-1 at the New England 9: Edgerrin James up the middle for 7 yards.• 0:40 -- First-and-goal at the New England 2: James off right tackle for 1 yard.• 0:24 -- Second-and-goal at the New England 1: James up the middle for no gain.• 0:18 -- Third-and-goal at the New England 1: Manning pass incomplete to Aaron Moorehead.• 0:14 -- Fourth-and-goal at the New England 1: James up the middle for minus-1 yard.

Indy offensive coordinator Tom Moore took a lot of heat for his red-zone playcalling on that series. Four cracks from the 2-yard line with the offense coming up empty tends to draw the ire of fans and armchair quarterbacks. Call it second-guessing, but running the ball is not the Colts' strong suit. Even with James in tow, Indy's O-line is not the game's most aggressive run-blocking unit. Moore went away from the offense's No. 1 weapon -- the pass -- and even when Manning did put the ball up, it was to Moorehead. Is a rookie receiver the best option in that situation? Maybe if it's Anquan Boldin, but Moorehead had almost as many DNPs (6) as catches (7) entering that game.

This is now: Colts 24, Patriots 21

I can see it now, Bob from Beantown will begin his e-mail with "How can you pick the Patriots to lose -- at home?!" Then follow that up with the likes of New England has won 13 consecutive games. The Pats are only the third team in history to win 12 in row to end the regular season, and the '34 Bears reached the NFL Championship and the '72 Dolphins won Super Bowl VII. New England had a franchise-record 14 regular-season wins and were 8-0 at Gillette. The Patriots allowed only 68 points at home (fewest by a team in a 16-game schedule) and are 18-3 in their past 21 at home, including the playoffs.

All true, Bob, and don't forget that Tom Brady is 26-4 after Nov. 1, including the playoffs, has never lost playoff game (4-0), has not thrown a pick at home in 282 attempts this season (the most attempts without an INT for a season at home since 1970) and he made his first start against the Colts -- and won -- on Sept. 30, 2001.

But here's why the Colts will win: Manning will throw enough to keep New England's linebackers off balance, thus opening running lanes for James to gash the Patriots' front four (or five or six, depending on what Bill Belichick concocts). The key for Indy's offense will not be Manning, Harrison or James; it's center Jeff Saturday, who will have to survey the Pats' defensive look while anticipating any late, pre-snap movement. After that, hello, Marcus Pollard, whose speed against a 'backer will yield big yardage. Defensively, Dwight Freeney must pressure Brady into a bad decision, which is easier said than done. With Patriots guard Damien Woody doubtful with a knee injury, Russ Hochstein become the focus of the Colts' defensive push.

That was then: Philadelphia 25, Carolina 16

In a matchup of two of the game's best kickers, Philly's David Akers kicked four field goals while Carolina's John Kasay missed three field-goal attempts and an extra point. The win was the Eagles' seventh in their nine-game winning streak and it was the Panthers' second loss in their late-season three-game skid.

Kasay's misses came on fourth-and-1 from the Philadelphia 14, fourth-and-8 from the Philadelphia 20 and fourth-and-12 from the Philadelphia 31. Can the Eagles withstand another red-zone barrage by giving up zero points?

Better yet, what did Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning learn from Carolina's final fourth-quarter series, when it trailed 22-16?• 6:07 -- First-and-10 from the Carolina 22: Jake Delhomme pass incomplete to Muhsin Muhammad.• 6:01 -- Second-and-10 from the Carolina 22: Delhomme pass incomplete to Steve Smith.• 5:55 -- Third-and-10 from the Carolina 22: Delhomme pass incomplete to Smith.• 5:49 -- Fourth-and-10 from the Carolina 22: Todd Sauerbrun punts 51 yards to the Philadelphia 27.

Despite gaining 115 yards in that game, Stephen Davis did not touch the ball when Carolina had the chance to drive the field, chew the clock and potentially score the game-winning points. If Henning learned anything from last Sunday's Packers-Eagles NFC Divisional game, it should be run the football. (And don't give me that crap about the Eagles stuffing Ahman Green at the goal line; name me one Philly fan who wanted to see Najeh Davenport in the backfield with 2:30 to play in the fourth quarter and the Packers facing fourth-and-two feet with a 17-14 lead?)

This is now: Panthers 21, Eagles 17

No surprise here, but DeShaun Foster is the man with the bull's-eye on his jersey, not that Philly could tackle him or anything. ... If Davis is limited or cannot play (he's nursing a quadricep), Foster will step into the backfield. And here's the glass-half-full analysis: Foster rushed for a season-high 95 yards last week at St. Louis, so maybe he's coming into his own. But here's the glass-half-empty analysis: Foster has more fumbles (3) than rushing touchdowns (0) in 138 carries this year, including the postseason.

Of course, Penelope from Philly (some of the most vile e-mails after last week's pick of Green Bay over Philadelphia came from women) is going to be quick to point out that her beloved Iggles have won at least 12 games, including the playoffs, for four consecutive seasons and are playing in their third consecutive NFC Championship Game. Not to mention that Donovan McNabb has 11 playoff TD passes (most in franchise history) and is second all-time with a 2.1 INT percentage (six picks in 287 attempts), which trails only Bart Starr (1.4).

Again, all true, but here's what will be the Eagles' undoing: Carolina's special teams will not have three penalties in punt-return coverage, like Green Bay had last week. The Packers did not score on any series after they were flagged for a special teams' penalty, and the last one -- Tony Fisher's hold -- played into the Eagles' hands. Instead of first-and-10 at the Packers' 42, Green Bay started at its own 32 and those 10 yards allowed Philly defensive coordinator Jim Johnson to turn the dogs loose on Brett Favre, who threw the game-turning interception.

Without Brian Westbrook to even the return-game playing field for Philly, the Panthers' Smith becomes the X-factor. Toss in Carolina Pro Bowl punter Todd Sauerbrun -- who led the NFC with a 44.6-yard average, the first punter since 1970 to to lead the conference three years in a row -- and this will be a field-position battle that plays into John Fox's hands. Especially if Julius Peppers can help contain McNabb and prevent a game-turn run.

Last week: 1-3. Overall: 167-97. Have a thought? Drop me an e-mail.

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