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Pass or Fail

The Colts' Manning is one victory away from his first Super Bowl, but Brady and the Patriots are again standing in the way

January 21, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Flapping his arms and stomping his feet, Peyton Manning barks instructions as if he's guiding people out of a burning house. He checks the defense and sends a receiver in motion. Checks again and drops into the shotgun.

Manning isn't just the star quarterback of the offense-heavy Indianapolis Colts, he's the man at the center of a three-ring circus.

Only his Colts don't have any rings.

Those three glittering baubles belong to the New England Patriots, who have won three Super Bowls since 2001, twice trampling Indianapolis along the Lombardi Trophy trail.

That's why Colts Coach Tony Dungy doesn't look at today's AFC championship matchup as much of a rivalry -- yet. His team is more like a talented but underachieving sparring partner for the NFL's heavyweight champ.

"We have to win one," said Dungy, whose team plays host to the Patriots today in the AFC championship game. "We've got to win this game, and then I think it will be [a rivalry] that really goes on and maybe continues to escalate.... So far, these guys have beaten us when it really counted."

It counted in January 2004, when the Patriots intercepted four Manning passes to beat the visiting Colts, 24-14, in the AFC title game. And it counted a year later, when the high-flying Colts could muster nothing more than a field goal in a 20-3 divisional loss, again at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.

So what should Indianapolis players make of their consecutive regular-season victories over New England?

"We want to ignore it all," Dungy said. "I've told the team, and I really believe it, that none of that matters. It is really a one-game season, and what happens [today] will determine who moves on and who goes home."

Lopsided as it has been, the Colts-Patriots matchup is one no football fan can ignore. It's Manning vs. Tom Brady, Dungy vs. Bill Belichick, and, in a new twist, it's kicker Adam Vinatieri -- now Mr. Clutch for the Colts -- vs. his old team.

New England and Indianapolis are unlikely rivals, and their history of playing each other is sparse in comparison to classic matchups such as Red Sox-Yankees, Lakers-Celtics or Redskins-Cowboys. But the bitter seeds have been sown.

"These games have counted for a lot, and this one is just as big as all the rest," Brady said. "So it's quite a rivalry."

Today's chapter, Brady said, "should be one of those classic games."

Colts President Bill Polian says the matchup has transcended local interest and, like one of Manning's many commercials, strikes a chord coast to coast.

"You have rivalries with teams in your division and they develop because they are in your division," Polian recently told the Indianapolis Star. "That's most often where you find rivalries. It's rare that you find a non-division rivalry, and the only one I can think of in recent times has been the Cowboys and the 49ers.

"That's exactly what this is. Two really good teams, one of whom has a phenomenal record of success with championships and Super Bowls and another that's striving for that."

The Colts are 9-0 at the RCA Dome this season, including their victory over Kansas City in a wild-card game. Brady, meanwhile, is 10-0 when playing indoors as the starter.

Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, New England is 5-0 in conference championship games. But Brady is 0-2 in his last two games against the Colts, including a four-interception stinker earlier this season. That matched the interception count for his first seven games against Indianapolis.

In their last two games, the Colts' run defense has gone from gelatin to granite. After giving up a league-worst 173 yards rushing a game during the regular season, the Colts shut down Kansas City's Larry Johnson and Baltimore's Jamal Lewis in consecutive weeks, giving up an average of 63.5 yards rushing a playoff game. That's the best regular season-to-postseason improvement since at least 1970.

Safety Bob Sanders said the defensive resurgence was about attitude, passion and "wanting to be the team where we don't have to really rely on our offense."

The Colts might have changed, but the Patriots are still using their hallmark consistency to gnaw away at opponents. They're experts when it comes to mind games, especially in the postseason.

For example, at San Diego last Sunday, they stubbornly stayed in the tunnel despite twice being summoned by the public-address announcer. It wasn't until the Chargers ran onto the field, and the home crowd erupted, that the Patriots jogged on behind them. That left the San Diego fans not knowing whether to cheer or boo.

History indicates that the Patriots are already in Manning's head, at least judging by the quarterback's performance against them in the playoffs as compared to the regular season. In his last four regular-season games against them, Manning had 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. In postseason games against them, he has one touchdown and five interceptions.

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