Home-field advantage

One play in November determined two teams' destinies


Running back Edgerrin James is stopped by New England's Mike Vrabel, top right, on the 1-yard line in the final seconds of the Nov. 30 game in Indianapolis. The Colts failed to score from the 2-yard line on four attempts and turned over the ball to the Patriots, who won 38-34.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: Sunday, January 18, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 18, 2004 at 12:47 a.m.
FOXBORO, Mass - Edgerrin James slashed off tackle on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with 14 seconds left. Willie McGinest dumped him, and Peyton Manning slapped the turf at the RCA Dome in disgust.
Who says one play can't impact a season? Especially when that play gave the Patriots a 38-34 win over the Colts on Nov. 30, setting up today's AFC championship game in windy Foxboro instead of indoors at the RCA Dome.
"It was good that we stopped them and that we won, but it could have gone either way," McGinest said. "They've been on fire since then. It's a new season, and they've been on top of the world. We've got a lot of other stuff to concentrate on than just that play."
True, the Colts are hot - they have not punted in two playoff games leading up to this one and have scored 41 and 38 points in the two.
But playing the Colts in Foxboro, where Manning is 0-4 in his career, is certainly more preferable for the Patriots than playing them in Indy, which might have been the case had McGinest not made his play. Temperatures today are expected to be in the high 20s or low 30s with a chance for snow after a week around zero with subzero wind chill.
The Patriots have certainly earned the right to play there.
They have won 13 straight and can become the first team since the unbeaten 1972 Dolphins to win 14 games in a row in one season. They're 9-0 in Foxboro after beating Tennessee 17-14 last week and have allowed just 82 points in those nine games, going the final six home games of the regular season yielding just one meaningless touchdown.
But they still perceive a certain lack of respect. They do not have many players with big national reputations other than quarterback Tom Brady and kicker Adam Vinatieri, who combined to lead them to an upset Super Bowl victory over St. Louis two years ago.
Their only Pro Bowlers are defensive lineman Richard Seymour, cornerback Ty Law and McGinest, who was added this week as an injury replacement at linebacker.
"We pride ourselves on being unselfish," says coach Bill Belichick, who was voted coach of the year for posting the NFL's best record despite an early spate of injuries that required him to plug in new starters weekly - including a half-dozen rookies. "We don't have anyone who is looking for individual glory."
Colts coach Tony Dungy has noticed the same thing.
"They don't care how they win," Dungy says. "They are a team that utilizes everyone on their roster, a team that plays as a team, not just as individuals."
The Colts are loaded with high-profile stars, especially on offense, where Manning, James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison have been one of the league's best trios for a half-decade.
In beating Denver and Kansas City, Manning has thrown for eight touchdowns with no interceptions and has a passer rating of 156.9, just 1.4 points short of perfect. But that was with good field conditions against lesser defenses.
Still, he has new options to play with - Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley give him new reliable targets, especially Stokley, who has three TD catches in the two playoff games and is averaging 25.3 yards per catch.
Nor do they fear Foxboro. The Colts are 8-1 on the road and have shown the ability to win big games from behind, even when they are away.
The most spectacular was a victory on a Monday night in Tampa, where they set an NFL record by coming back from 21 points down with four minutes left to tie the game, then win in overtime. They also beat the Titans in Nashville, a difficult task in any season, and the Dolphins in Miami.
But they haven't won outside in bad weather - it was in the 50s in Kansas City last week and their 17-14 victory in Buffalo in late November was played in uncharacteristic balmy temperatures for that time of the year.
They get that chance today. "It's the wind as much the cold that can bother you," Brady said.
Brady also has what Manning doesn't - a Super Bowl ring and Super Bowl MVP trophy from the Patriots' victory over St. Louis. And he's turned into a top-tier quarterback in his own right - third this season in the MVP voting behind co-winners Manning and Tennessee's Steve McNair.
Still, this game could come down to locale - and thus to that final play in Indy.
"We know playing New England is tough enough," Manning said. "Playing them at their place, where they are undefeated this year and haven't given up a lot of points, is going to make it even tougher, but it's nice to have the opportunity."

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