The Colts are no longer perfect and the Pats are rounding into form--get ready for an intriguing January in the AFC
Has there ever been a year when a divisional playoff game became the highlight of the NFL postseason? Bigger than the conference championship games, bigger than the Super Bowl? Based on what happened in two games played within a 27-hour span last weekend, this may turn out to be the year.
As of 1 p.m. EST last Saturday, the 13-0 Colts were everyone's Super Bowl lock. But then the Patriots manhandled playoff-contending Tampa Bay, 28-0, in their best performance of the season, and the next afternoon Indianapolis got whacked, 26-17, by an 8-5 San Diego team that allowed only 24 rushing yards and abused quarterback Peyton Manning. By 4 p.m. on Sunday a potential divisional playoff between the Patriots and the Colts on Jan. 14 or 15 at the RCA Dome loomed as one of those Games of the Century.
New England's defense, crippled by injuries early in the season but recharged by middle linebacker Tedy Bruschi's return in Week 8 from a mild stroke, is coming on like gangbusters. The Pats, 9-5 and champs of the AFC East, have crushed their last three foes by a combined 79-10. Meanwhile Indy, the AFC South winner, showed some vulnerability to front-seven pressure in the loss to San Diego. What suddenly makes a Pats-Colts rematch so appealing--New England, the probable fourth seed, would first have to win a wild-card game at Foxborough, most likely against the Jaguars--is that the Chargers copied the defensive strategy that New England had used in winning six straight from Indianapolis before this season.
"When we looked at tape of how New England played them, some of our veterans, like [linebackers] Shaun Phillips and Randall Godfrey, picked up on how physical the Patriots were with the Colts," San Diego rookie defensive lineman Luis Castillo said on Sunday night. "Their theme was, Hit 'em, hit 'em in the mouth, then hit 'em again. I don't think Peyton's been hit that much all season." Indeed, Manning was sacked a season-high four times and was knocked to the ground on numerous other plays.
New England's front seven will have the best shot of any AFC playoff team to do the same thing. With a space-eating nosetackle, 325-pound Vince Wilfork, on the order of the Chargers' All-Pro nose man, Jamal Williams, and a speed rush similar to the one San Diego threw at Manning, the Patriots should be more competitive in a playoff rematch than they were on Nov. 7, when they were clubbed by Indy 40-21.
"New England's back to being the Patriots of old," coach-turned-analyst Jimmy Johnson says. "And you know it, I know it, the Colts know it: The game [in November in which] the Colts got the so-called monkey off their backs--that wasn't the Patriots because they were so beat up. This would be a true test."
He's right. In every game New England played in October and November, the defense allowed more than 390 yards. In each of their first three in December, the Pats allowed fewer than 190. Tampa Bay came in with the second-ranked defense in the league and a bright-eyed quarterback, Chris Simms, playing mistake-free ball. To say the Bucs left in stunned disbelief would not be exaggerating.
Simms was dropped seven times and knocked off his feet on nine other occasions by a voracious pass rush. One knockdown left him doubled over, with a gash above his groin; another sprained his throwing thumb. He also took blind-side hits from defensive end Richard Seymour and outside linebacker Willie McGinest. "That was a good, old-fashioned ass-kicking," Simms said afterward. "They're really good."
With so many injuries to the Patriots, an astounding 46 players have started for New England this season. Some have matured quickly. Rookie cornerback Ellis Hobbs, the 21st defensive back selected last April, was expected to help on special teams and perhaps serve as a sixth defensive back this year. But there he was, starting on Saturday, matched against the Bucs' top receiver, Joey Galloway. Twice Hobbs separated the ball from Galloway with jarring hits, and his deep coverage was so good that Simms didn't once throw long to Galloway.
Yes, Bruschi (11 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble against Tampa Bay) is rounding into 2004 form, and McGinest (six tackles, two sacks, 19-yard fumble return) is as good as ever at age 34. But two other players are coming up huge on the front seven. Outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, finally back to full health after a broken hip suffered in 2003, has four sacks over the last four games. And Wilfork, the 2004 first-rounder out of Miami, has made the transition from a Warren Sapp--type slashing interior rusher to a run-stuffing block of granite. You know he's been a monster when teams featuring backs Curtis Martin (Jets), Willis McGahee (Bills) and Cadillac Williams (Bucs) have rushed for a combined 85 yards and averaged 1.8 yards per carry over the last three weeks.
"As good as the Colts are," Johnson said, "they had to be watching the Patriots [on Saturday] and saying, 'Oh, boy, the Patriots are back.'"
And the Patriots had to be watching on Sunday and thinking, Just give us one more chance at those guys.
THE MVP AWARD
It's Peyton's--For Now
With two weeks left it looks like a five-man race for the NFL's Most Valuable Player award, and Peyton Manning has a shot at winning for the third straight year. The voting is conducted by the Associated Press with ballots from 50 members of the national media due on Jan. 2, the day after the regular season ends. The winner is announced four days later. "This is the toughest year that I remember," says Ira Miller of the San Francisco Chronicle, an NFL beat writer for 29 years.
Last weekend SI polled 12 voters, and five players got votes: Manning, Brady, Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander, Giants running back Tiki Barber and Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer. Miller's preferences (subject to change before Jan. 2): Manning edging Barber, with Palmer following them.
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In 2004 and '05 Tiki Barber has had the two greatest rushing seasons in the Giants' 81-year history. Barber (right) set the team single-season record with 1,518 yards last year, then beat it in 14 games this year. After a career-high 220 rushing yards in a 27-17 win over the Chiefs last Saturday, he had 1,577.... There's gratitude, and then there's what the Browns' Reuben Droughns showed his 13 blockers (nine linemen, two fullbacks, two tight ends) after becoming the first Cleveland running back in 20 years to rush for 1,000 yards: He bought them all diamond-encrusted watches costing between $3,000 and $5,000.... Matt Leinart is no lock to be the draft's highest-rated senior. One team came out of its draft meeting last week with Virginia tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson rated higher than the USC quarterback.
New England's defense has stiffened since the return of Bruschi (making the tackle).
The emergence of Palmer has been key to the Bengals' turnaround.