FOXBOROUGH - All week the message was clear. “You have to slow him down,” said the experts. “You have to get him out of his rhythm.” The Patriots went one better - they stopped Peyton Manning cold.
Maybe the signs and the chants were a little harsh during New England’s 20-3 pounding of the Colts and Manning yesterday, which punched New England’s ticket to the AFC Championship game Sunday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
“After the game you will get your ring - suffer-ring,” read one. The crowd was yelling “Cut that meat! Cut that meat!” in reference to Manning’s ad campaign in which he cheers for the common folk while they’re performing their jobs.
The NFL MVP was just that yesterday - common. Manning, (27 of 42, 238 yards, 1 interception) was unable to lead his vaunted offense to the end zone, and his longest completion was 18 yards.
The Patriots, who were without Pro Bowl defenders Ty Law and Richard Seymour, played it the way some experts thought they would - jamming receivers at the line, rushing three, occasionally sending a blitzing linebacker to knock Manning off his rhythm, and covering well. They never allowed the Colt receivers to get free downfield. They disguised their defense by sometimes dropping eight men in coverage and sometimes going with as few as four defensive backs.
The Colts coaching staff had no answer.
It also had no answer to the steady snow that fell throughout the game accompanied by a swirling wind.
The Patriots also adopted another much talked about suggestion - they controlled the clock for 37:43 with three massive scoring drives of 16, 15, and 14 plays which ate up 24:47. Two of the lengthy drives came in the second half when the Patriots completely took over.
Corey Dillon carried 23 times for 144 yards, while Tom Brady played a mistake-free game, completing 18 of 27 passes for 144 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions.
The Patriots seemed buoyed by Mike Vanderjagt’s “ripe for the picking” comment earlier in the week. They were buoyed by the media members who dismissed their chances of stopping the Colts.
“I guess the panel of experts were wrong, huh?” said Matt Light, who shrugged off an early illegal motion penalty on a fourth and goal at the 1-yard line, which nullified a Corey Dillon touchdown and ultimately cost the Patriots 4 points after they settled for Adam Vinatieri’s 24-yard field goal.
“Nobody picked us to win,” said Patriots receiver/defensive back/punt returner Troy Brown, who said he was so tired at one point he could feel his hamstrings pop. “There was no pressure on us. We just went out and played. People just refuse to give us any credit. That’s fine. That’s how we like it.”
The Patriots converted 53 percent (8 for 15) on third down, including 6 of 8 in the second half. As has been their trademark, the Patriots made big plays at big times.
None was bigger than Tedy Bruschi’s strip of Dominic Rhodes at the Patriots 39-yard line with 3:18 remaining in the second quarter. Bruschi wrestled the ball away after Rhodes caught a Manning pass for a 2-yard loss.
“What a huge play for us,” said Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson. “We have a lot of people here who take a lot of pride in their work. Tedy makes big plays all year for us. That was huge.”
The Patriots easily could have gone into the half trailing, 7-6, but the defense forced the Colts to settle for Vanderjagt’s 23-yard field goal as time expired. It was the one time Manning had been able to sustain a long drive. Manning connected on passes of 13, 16, 11, and 10 yards during the 11-play, 67-yard drive, which nearly ended on an interception but the ball slipped through Eugene Wilson’s hands in the end zone.
“We would have liked to have gotten a touchdown there,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “We felt good coming into the locker room. We moved the ball pretty well the last two times we had it and it was going to be a matter of stopping them a couple of times.”
Holding the Colts to a field goal over the first 30 minutes was amazing enough. The Patriots did it with Asante Samuel blanketing Marvin Harrison, Randall Gay shadowing Reggie Wayne, and Brown covering Brandon Stokley.
The linebackers took turns on tight end Dallas Clark. Elder statesman Roman Phifer, not known for his coverage skills, did an admirable job.
“We heard all week we couldn’t cover all of their guys, but I think we did a good job,” said Samuel, who did a solid job filling in for Law, holding Harrison to five catches and 44 yards. “They’re a challenge. No doubt about it. But we were up for it.”
Both teams had futile series to open the second half, but the Patriots settled in and played what Bill Belichick called “our best 30 minutes of football.” Beginning a drive at their 13, the Patriots steadily used Dillon and Kevin Faulk to move down the field. They got a big 14-yard pass play from Brady to Patrick Pass on a third-and-3, which advanced it to the Indianapolis 24. And then it was Faulk and Dillon to the 5, where Brady hit David Givens for the first touchdown of the game. The drive took 8:16 off the clock.
The touchdown fired up the crowd as the snow started falling harder and the field started getting more slippery. Their defense stopped Indy on the ensuing series. New England got the ball back and again methodically moved down the field, further exhausting a Colts defense that was getting punch drunk.
Pinned back at their 6, the Patriots made a key first down on an 11-yard pass to Faulk. And from there, Charlie Weis’s creativity took over. He had the Colts on the ropes and he knew it. He mixed the run in with a Deion Branch reverse, a pass to tight end Daniel Graham for 10 yards, and a 9-yard pass to Dillon to the Colts 33. The back-breaker was Dillon exploding for a 27-yard gain to the 1. Brady did the rest, sneaking over from there.
“Everyone doubted us,” said Patriots defensive end Jarvis Green, who filled in so admirably for Seymour. “They said we couldn’t do it. It was very emotional for us. The last two years have been great. We won 28 games and lost only four.”