FOXBOROUGH - There’s your answer, exclamation point included.
Oh, yes. The question. All week we wondered which would give in a clash between one of the more potent offenses in recent memory, that of the Indianapolis Colts, or a New England Patriots defense that can make itself comfortable in any discussion of dominant defenses. We got our answer. It was the Colts who gave in yesterday’s AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium. They gave. And gave. And gave. And gave. And gave.
The Patriots won their fourth conference title yesterday and earned a trip to Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston against the Carolina Panthers by intercepting league co-MVP Peyton Manning four times - three by Ty Law - and forcing five turnovers in a 24-14 victory. Manning came into the game with a postseason rating of 156.9 (a perfect QB rating is 158.3). Manning’s rating yesterday: 35.5.
New England, which allowed only 68 points at home during the regular season (an eight-game record) and 36 in its previous seven home games, ran its record against MVPs this season to 4-0. The Patriots overcame both Manning and co-MVP Steve McNair twice en route to their second Super Bowl in three seasons, third since 1996, and fourth in franchise history.
Indianapolis averaged nearly 40 points in its first two postseason games. New England led, 15-0, at halftime and protected its lead in the second half.
The Patriots ran their winning streak to 14 games and their home record to 10-0. They lived up to their motto. They protected their house.
“I thought Peyton deserved the attention he got. He was just downright hot,” Tedy Bruschi said. “We looked at ourselves and saw some of the things that were being done defensively against them the previous two weeks and we thought, `There’s no way that’s happening when they come in here.’ We know what to do against this team. We’re a physical ball club and they’re finesse, so something had to give.”
Manning gave the ball away to end the Colts’ first two possessions. Rodney Harrison picked him off in the end zone in the first quarter with Indianapolis 5 yards from tying the game at 7, and, in the second quarter, Law made a diving, one-handed catch of a pass intended for Marvin Harrison.
What kind of day was it for the Colts’ offense? One fact says it all. Law and Marvin Harrison each caught the same number of Manning passes: three. The Patriots rushed only four yet sacked Manning four times, three by Jarvis Green. That left seven defenders in coverage.
The Colts never got off and running on the wet, snowy Gillette field. With 4 minutes 13 seconds to go before halftime, Hunter Smith came on to punt for the first time in the postseason. Indianapolis couldn’t even do that right. Long snapper Justin Snow sent it over Smith’s head, and Smith kicked it out of his end zone for a safety and a 15-0 lead.
But the Colts had a chance to get back in it before the end of the half. They recovered Bethel Johnson’s fumble, and drove to New England’s 22-yard line, but Rodney Harrison forced a fumble by Marvin Harrison, and Tyrone Poole recovered.
The play was reminiscent of Antwan Harris’s hit on the Rams’ Ricky Proehl (now a Panther) that forced a fumble in the Super Bowl two years ago. Fitting, considering the Patriots viewed these Colts just as they did those Rams: soft.
“Bloody their nose up a little bit,” Willie McGinest said. “Every play, make contact with the receivers, the tight ends, the backs, whoever.”
“This was probably the most simple game plan that we had - just go out there and stick them and beat them up at the line of scrimmage,” Law said. “If you watch those guys all through the season and postseason when they put up those big numbers, you see a lot of guys run through the secondary. We said we’re not going to let them do that to us, we’re going to challenge them more so than other teams, and may the best man win.
“The only thing that you can beat speed with is power, and that’s what we did.”
The Patriots are a prideful bunch. They didn’t take kindly to all the praise that was heaped upon Manning and Co. all week.
“They were so hot, they were blazing,” Rodney Harrison said. “Coming in, nobody gave us a chance. One guy cannot win a championship. This is the ultimate team sport. It really gave us motivation and it really fueled the fire. We got tired of it. We give him all the credit in the world. He’s a great quarterback. But one guy can’t win it. It takes a team, and that’s what we are.”
Oh, yes. The offense. Antowain Smith gained 100 yards on 22 carries, and MVP runner-up Tom Brady was his usual efficient self, completing 22 of 37 passes for 237 yards, with 1 touchdown and 1 interception (his first at home this season). Adam Vinatieri kicked an AFC title game record-tying five field goals.
The Patriots even outgained the Colts, 349-306. Even New England’s offensive players had had enough of all the talk about how dynamic the Colts were. “I just got sick and tired of hearing about Peyton Manning and the Colts and the offense and they put up this many points,” said Troy Brown (7 catches, 88 yards). “It was driving me nuts. Everybody in this locker room was tired of hearing about the Colts.”
“We have a good offense,” said David Givens, who scored the Patriots’ only touchdown on a 7-yard pass from Brady. “A lot of people don’t respect us, but if you watch the game, you’ll see what we can do. Obviously we didn’t take advantage of our red-zone opportunities, but we can move the ball.”
And so it’s on to the Panthers. Another win would be the Patriots’ 15th in a row, and second championship in three years. As usual after a victory, the Patriots had a bigger objective in mind.
“AFC champs is one thing,” Richard Seymour said, “but NFL champs is what we’re really after.”