His brain, to paraphrase a certain pregame prognosticator, was ripe for the picking--and Bill Belichick did not disappoint. As relaxed as possible for a man in his profession awaiting a playoff test, the New England Patriots' cunning coach was disarmingly candid last Friday evening as he drove home from the team's practice facility in Foxborough, Mass. ¬∂ Speaking of the mammoth challenge that awaited his injury-depleted defense on Sunday--facing record-setting quarterback Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC divisional clash without the help of Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law--Belichick bluntly dismissed that popular storyline. "Look," he said, "one guy can't stop the Colts. That was pretty obvious last week [in Indy's wild-card-round blowout of the Denver Broncos]. Champ Bailey held Marvin Harrison without a catch for almost the entire first half, and they still had 400 yards and 35 points. You think Ty Law could shut them down? No, you have to do it as a team. We've had to go with some untested players in the secondary this season, but we're way past the point of worrying about our guys."
As Belichick grew increasingly expansive (and, perhaps appropriately, downright defensive), it became clear that the game's most successful shutdown strategist of the past two decades wasn't overly worried about the Colts, either. "I mean, look, they're good, O.K.?" he continued. "But we played them last year, and we played the Rams [in the Super Bowl] a few years ago. When I was with the Giants [as defensive coordinator], we faced Joe Montana and the West Coast offense and the Bills with the K-Gun and Joe Gibbs with the Redskins when they scored all those points. They're all good. But that doesn't mean you can't play well enough to contain them."
For all that Belichick's team has accomplished over the past four seasons, including seven consecutive postseason wins and a pair of Super Bowl victories, what the defending champs pulled off on a snowy evening at Gillette Stadium on Sunday may have ranked as the most stunning. In rolling to a 20--3 victory over Indianapolis, New England neutered the Manning-led offense with such efficiency that the quarterback's 49 regular-season touchdown passes seem like a mere footnote to an NFL season that is looking a whole lot like last year's.
As the Patriots head to Pittsburgh for this Sunday's AFC Championship Game showdown with the Steelers, the team that ended their 21-game winning streak on Halloween, it's frightening to think of the ways in which New England's underappreciated defense might mess with rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"Our defense has a bunch of tough guys with a lot of pride, and boy, were they awesome," Pats quarterback Tom Brady marveled after the win over the Colts. "We practiced in pads on Tuesday, and they were out there killing people. I said, 'Uh-oh.'"
Though slightly favored by the oddsmakers, the Patriots worked themselves into a no-one-respects-us froth by drawing on the oft-espoused notion that this time they were vulnerable to Manning's attack, though he was winless in six trips to Foxborough and had lost five consecutive times to New England. True, the Patriots had neutralized Indy in last year's 24--14 conference championship victory at Gillette, but so much seemed to have changed since then: The Colts, who averaged a league-best 32.6 points per game during the regular season, had piled up 446 yards of total offense in a 27--24 loss to the Pats in their 2004 opener; officials were cracking down on defenders making contact with receivers beyond the five-yard zone; and Law, fellow starting cornerback Tyrone Poole and Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour were sidelined with injuries. The sentiment was neatly expressed on an Indianapolis TV station by Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt, whose observation that the Pats were "ripe for the picking" prompted New England strong safety Rodney Harrison to dub him "Vanderjerk."
Following a Saturday-evening walk-through at Gillette, Belichick gathered his players and reminded them of that and other perceived slights. Then he tossed in a doozy: Without revealing names or other specifics, Belichick said he learned from a friend in the Steelers' organization that a Colts representative had contacted a Pittsburgh official to request an additional 1,500 tickets for the AFC Championship Game. "That's where their heads are," Belichick told his players. "I just thought you should know."
Riled by that alleged slight--a Colts spokesman said on Monday that such a request is standard procedure around the league--and inspired by a video presentation highlighting the defense's best moments in last year's AFC title game triumph over Indianapolis, the Patriots showed up on Sunday in a fighting mood. Mixing defensive schemes that discouraged Manning from throwing deep, New England was quicker, tougher and more intense than its frustrated counterpart. "All the other teams who play the Colts don't get real physical with them, but we knew we could," said free safety Eugene Wilson, whose first-quarter hit on slot receiver Brandon Stokley, a shot to the back that resulted in an incompletion, helped set a punishing tone. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi stood out with a pair of fumble recoveries, taking the ball away from Indianapolis running back Dominic Rhodes while making a tackle in the second quarter, then pouncing on a ball that Harrison pried from wideout Reggie Wayne with 6:58 left. But everyone on the New England defense played like a star.
As usual, Belichick saw it coming before anyone else, though earlier in the week even he was taken aback by the Colts' aerial majesty. "Bill was very uptight at first," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said last Friday night. "I think that's because he was focusing very hard on coming up with schemes that would surprise the dickens out of Peyton Manning. Now he seems pretty confident. I mean, we have some key guys out, but this is the best team--team--he's had here."
New England running back Corey Dillon (23 carries, 144 yards) spearheaded a ball-control attack that kept Manning (27 of 42, 238 yards) chilled on the sideline. With his receivers dropping balls and Pats defenders snuffing out screens, he watched a 6--3 halftime deficit mushroom. His only interception--Harrison made the pick in the end zone with four seconds remaining--was the capper to a thorough beating. "It wasn't just the scheme; it was more execution," Stokley said as he trudged off the field after making eight catches for only 64 yards. "They played well. We didn't."
As he left the New England locker room long after the game, Harrison grabbed a copy of the official game statistics and made a point of looking up Manning's numbers. "Check out the long completion [18 yards]," he said. "Check out the rating [69.3, compared with Manning's NFL-record 121.1 this season]." The veteran safety laughed and added, "That's not bad for a bunch of replacements in the secondary."
Harrison's smile quickly vanished as he rolled up the stat sheets and walked out the door, Pittsburgh firmly in his sights.