Bill Belichick has become a modern version of Francis (Close the Gates of Mercy) Schmidt, the famous Ohio State coach of the 1930s. Like Schmidt, Belichick is running up huge scores. There's a reason why he's doing it, why Tom Brady threw a bomb to Randy Moss with the Patriots leading 38-0 in the fourth quarter on Sunday against Washington. To sow fear. My God, opponents start thinking, we've got to score 40 against them or we're sunk!
So how do the Colts try to fell this modern Goliath when the two unbeatens face each other at the RCA Dome this Sunday? The same way they did in their 38-34 AFC Championship Game victory last January: wear 'em out. Indianapolis ran a no-huddle, hurry-up attack for the entire game. The Colts kept the Patriots' defense on the field for 80 snaps, and when Indy drove 80 yards for the winning touchdown with 1:02 left, New England was exhausted.
But I can't see it happening this year, because I don't think the Pats will let the Colts have the ball that much. New England has a two-speed offense now -- ball control, with running back Laurence Maroney and possession receiver Wes Welker; and the deep strike, with wideouts Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth. The Patriots will open the game by throwing underneath, then switch gears and pound the ball on the ground. At least once or twice New England will max protect with its two blocking tight ends, Kyle Brady and Marcellus Rivers; the latter got significant playing time in the 52-7 victory over the Redskins last week, presumably because he figures into the plan for Indy. Then Moss will go deep. Single, double, even triple coverage -- it doesn't matter, because if Brady has time, Moss will run away from everyone.
If the Colts sit back in their Cover Two defense and try to keep things in front of them, Brady will pick them apart. They have to bring pressure, but in Welker the Patriots have a blitz-control weapon whose greatness grows from week to week. He has an almost uncanny instinct for the hot reads, the quick catches he has to make against the blitz. Washington tried to control Welker by double-covering him with a 245-pound middle linebacker, London Fletcher, who gave Welker a good whack when he caught the ball. He took the blows and bounced back, and even blocked Fletcher on some running plays. Bob Sanders, Indy's quick-striking strong safety, might be a good candidate for blitz duty, or he might even have a go at Welker. But I'll bet they'll have Sanders doubling Moss on occasion, roughing him up.
How will the New England defense cope with the Colts' attack? Marvin Harrison, Indy's All-Pro wideout, killed the Pats (eight catches for 145 yards and two TDs) last November, but his bad knee might keep him out of this one, or at least slow him significantly. He had two good games at the start of the season, but since then he's been nothing more than a 10-yard threat. H-back Dallas Clark and running back Joseph Addai held the offense together until the last two games, when wideout Reggie Wayne bailed out the Colts in some tough spots. I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots assign their best corner, Asante Samuel, to track Wayne all over the field; take their chances with Harrison, if he plays; and handle Clark by combination coverage.
Linebacker Adalius Thomas, New England's highly touted defensive import, was almost invisible against the Redskins, but I've got a feeling the coaches have something special in mind for him against Indy -- maybe heavy man coverage on Clark. You never know who'll get a featured role in the Patriots' defense. Last week linebacker Mike Vrabel was a pass-rushing maniac, coming from the left to make three sacks and force three fumbles, while the other outside 'backer, Rosevelt Colvin, dropped into coverage. But I think the pressure on Manning will come from the inside, which has on occasion been a vulnerable area for Indy. In recent years the Steelers and Broncos have hurt the Colts with gut pressure. Look for Thomas and fellow inside 'backer Tedy Bruschi to cause the Colts problems with their rush.
Last week Indy showed a new wrinkle against Carolina -- a bunch formation with three receivers on one side and Clark on the other. The Colts got two big completions to Wayne out of it, one on a deflection downfield, and it'll give New England's defensive brain trust something to work on during the week.
One thing's for sure: The coaches' communication hookup, which mysteriously went out on the Redskins in Foxborough, won't be a problem for the Colts at home. That's about the only thing that won't be.
THE PICK: Patriots 34, Colts 27
Adalius Thomas vs. Dallas Clark: H-back Clark (44) has become a favorite outlet for Peyton Manning, and versatile linebacker Thomas figures to lock on to Clark when not bringing pass-rush heat in the middle.
A LONG STORY
Randy Moss vs. Bob Sanders: With league-leading totals of 779 receiving yards and 11 TD catches, Moss (81) will put Indy's secondary to the test. Strong safety Sanders is critical to the Colts' blitzes and run support, but he'll also be the last line of defense against the deep strike.
Joseph Addai vs. Vince Wilfork: With Addai (29) getting most of the carries, the Colts are averaging 140.3 rushing yards per game. The Pats, with Wilfork anchoring the middle of the D-line, are yielding only 87.0. Something has to give, and the guess is that Indy will go to the air to pick up yards in larger chunks than Addai will be able to provide.
Reggie Wayne vs. Asante Samuel: Wayne (87) has stepped to the fore of Indy's offense, meaning New England will have to put Samuel, its best cover corner, on him and take a chance with the Colts' other receivers.