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Anyone still not believe in the Patriots?

January 21, 2007|Bob Oates | Special to The Times

The usual suspects -- New England's free-wheeling quarterback Tom Brady and his coach, Bill Belichick -- have taken the Patriots to another AFC title game against a quarterback and coach they traditionally beat, Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy of Indianapolis.

In their march to capture the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the fourth time in six years, the Patriots are coming off a near-perfect divisional playoff performance. They eliminated the San Diego Chargers -- whom many had anointed the "best team in football" -- while Manning unexpectedly took out the Baltimore Ravens, the scariest team in the playoffs.

What's left for New England: beating up on the Colts in a game that has become the traditional lead-in to a Patriots Super Bowl, then schooling the NFC champion, whoever that might be. As noted in this column last week, the Patriots seem a lock to win the Super Bowl again.

The real Super Bowl

As much attention as Brady and Belichick get, their game against San Diego shows they're still underrated.

On defense, Belichick's goal was to contain LaDainian Tomlinson, the Chargers superstar. The Chargers, who hoped to ride Tomlinson through the Patriots, handed him the ball 19 times on first down. Tomlinson gained 123 yards rushing and generated three touchdowns -- but not the 225 yards and four or five touchdowns required.

Belichick slowed Tomlinson just enough to allow Brady to catch him in the end.

On offense, the Patriots adopted the type of extreme game plan for which they are noted. Facing a runner-eating San Diego defense and a wild-man pass rusher in Shawne Merriman, the Patriots abandoned their strong running game and threw from the shotgun on nearly every play. That made Merriman disappear as surely as if they had kidnapped him.

Their strategy: putting a big offensive tackle in his face on every play rather than the tight ends and running backs on whom Merriman usually feasts.

Few coaches have the courage to ignore fans who go on and on about the need for "offensive balance." Few quarterbacks have the bulletproof psychology necessary to throw time after time.

For, with such an all-pass game plan, interceptions will come -- and three came to Brady. Undaunted, he threw and threw some more, completing 27 of 51 passes, finally hitting the big third-down bomb to Reche Caldwell that set up the game-winning field goal.

Such a game is often dubbed "the real Super Bowl" before it is played. That did not happen this time, largely because the 14-2 Chargers were widely expected to win.

But as soon as the final gun went off, and the Patriots could focus on the Colts and then either the Bears or the Saints, it became obvious.

The real Super Bowl had just been played.

Conference title games

* New England versus Indianapolis:

Manning has to learn that he has been letting the opposing coach call his plays for him.

Because Manning is geared to audible against any defensive weakness he sees, Belichick regularly shows him a weakness in the pre-snap look.

Manning's audible is attuned to that weakness, as Belichick knows. Then Belichick changes his formation just before the snap, and takes that play away.

It's easy to stop an offense if you know what is coming. Manning would be better off trying what Brady did against San Diego -- line up in the shotgun on every play.

His receivers are much more nimble than the players in the New England secondary, and the Colts' big front is coached to wear out pass rushers from the first play of the game.

But Manning revels in balance, as do his coaches. And every time Manning hands off, the Colts will die a little.

* Chicago versus New Orleans:

In a contest of diminutive big-play passers, this game will be decided by Chicago's game plan.

The Chicago coaches ruined the middle of Rex Grossman's first full season as quarterback by messing with his footwork. Grossman has adjusted now and played effectively in four of his last five games -- all but the meaningless Green Bay game at the end of the regular season, for which he did not prepare.

Last week against Seattle, Grossman completed two of the most beautiful NFL bombs of the season -- the second on third and long in overtime to set up the winning field goal.

If the Bears realize Grossman is back, and if they call aggressive downfield passes on key early downs -- as they did in the first five weeks of the season -- the Bears can win.

If not, Saints quarterback Drew Brees has too many weapons for the injured Chicago defense to handle. The Saints are going to score. The question is whether the Bears will make it a shootout.

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