THERE IS an unfounded belief that when the Patriots meet the Colts, Bill Belichick gets into Peyton Manning's head and confounds him with trickery so diabolical that Manning leaves his game in the locker room. This doesn't begin to tell the story. In their five defining games over the past three seasons, New England won four of the matchups. Belichick often resorted to the bizarre—a two-man line on occasion or an entire front of linebackers—but it was nothing Manning hadn't seen. What changed was the Pats' personnel and how Belichick used it. The constant was the idea that to stay in the game, New England had to reroute the Indianapolis receivers, rough them up a little.
It happened in two straight playoffs. In the AFC Championship Game following the 2003 season, Patriots defensive backs pushed the bump rules to the max, and Walt Coleman's officiating crew took a liberal view of the physical play. Four interceptions, three by Ty Law, unhinged the Colts' attack, and New England won 24--14. The next spring the memo went out that the the five-yard bump rule would be more strictly enforced. It didn't help the Colts, who lost 20--3 in the divisional playoff. Patriots defenders were still locking onto the receivers, who dropped four balls.
Their regular-season games those two years were closer. In '03 the Colts charged back from a 31--10 deficit to tie the game at 31. It ended 38--34, Patriots, with Edgerrin James stopped a half yard short of the end zone. A year later the story was almost the same, Indy setting up New England for the knockout punch at the end, only to have Manning sacked into uncomfortable field goal range. Mike Vanderjagt blew the 48-yarder.
The Colts had employed an interesting strategy, though. They'd almost beaten the Patriots in the '04 regular season by running the ball for 202 yards. They'd found something soft in a defense specifically geared to stopping Manning's fireworks. Last year, in Indy's 40--21 victory, it hardly mattered because the Colts attacked a crippled defense, and the game was over by mid--third quarter.
I think the lesson of the rushing success Indy once enjoyed will not be forgotten. James is gone, but the Colts have the twin hammers of reliable Dominic Rhodes and tireless rookie Joseph Addai, who was a big part of Indy's win over Denver. Addai is a bundle of energy, a guy who moves the chains, even against a big-league defense such as Denver's.
Well, coming off that dynamic victory over the Broncos, some might think the unbeaten Colts would be going into Foxborough as at least a slight favorite. Nope. On memory New England rates as a one-point choice. The oddsmakers are practically begging people to go for the Colts, but charitable picks have killed me this year. I'm going with New England.
For all their talk of a tougher defense, the Rams are still friendly to a lot of runners, the latest being LaDainian Tomlinson, who creased them for 183 yards. I think Larry Johnson will try to match that number. Chiefs are the choice. Turnovers beat the Saints as much as Baltimore did. I say they right themselves at Tampa Bay, but I still like the Bucs. And just to keep things balanced, Cincinnati upsets the Ravens, Brian Billick's play-calling and all. Here's a weird choice that's only from instinct. Washington to beat Dallas, which is all smiles—at least for this week. Pittsburgh's ranking as a slight favorite over Denver is certainly an attractive invitation to play the underdog. But I've gotten too far away from my old "trap theory" this season, so now I'm coming back. Pittsburgh to win it. In the Monday-nighter it's Seattle over Oakland, but after the Cardinals-Bears game I don't make fun of any matchup anymore.
Last week 3--6 Season 29--33
Dr. Z writes for the Web every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at SI.com/nfl.