Manning to test Patriots' defense


Published: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Maybe, after all these years, the New England Patriots have allowed Peyton Manning to get into their heads.

Facts

Patriots' Harrison out against Colts

  • BOSTON — New England downgraded safety Rodney Harrison from doubtful to out for the AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts.
Harrison will miss today's game at Indianapolis after straining his right knee in the Patriots' last regular-season game, a 40-23 win over Tennessee, when he was blocked by wide receiver Bobby Wade. The injury sidelined Harrison in the playoffs, including wins over the New York Jets and San Diego Chargers.— The Associated Press

Just the other day, linebacker Mike Vrabel was muttering to himself as he reviewed the tape of Manning's two-touchdown, 326-yard passing performance in the Colts' 27-20 victory over New England in Foxborough in November.

"We looked at that game and you look back and think, 'Well, I didn't rush that bad personally and neither did Rosey (Colvin) or anybody else,'" Vrabel said. "And then you say, 'Well, his numbers were still pretty good.'"

Of course, that was then and this is the postseason — the AFC Championship Game, today at the RCA Dome.

Yes, the Patriots have dropped their last two meetings against Manning, but when it comes to the playoffs, they turn him into a human Jenga game. They methodically remove pieces until Manning simply collapses.

In two postseason games against each other, the Patriots baffled Manning with their pass coverages, limiting him to only one touchdown pass and five interceptions. But in the last two regular-season showdowns, Manning gained the upper hand, with five touchdowns and only two interceptions.

Has he finally figured out the Patriots' ever-changing defensive schemes? The November game should serve as a wake-up call for the Patriots, who rarely lose to the same team twice in one season. Since 2001, they're 7-1 when presented with the opportunity to avenge an earlier defeat.

"You've just got to do more," said Vrabel, his mind still on the November loss. "You've got to get there quicker, whether you're rushing or you're covering."

Unlike Colts cornerback Nick Harper, who tweaked Tom Brady by saying he tends to force balls into tight coverage, the Patriots haven't made any derogatory comments about Manning. But they know he's under enormous pressure to reach the Super Bowl, his Holy Grail.

"He wants this bad, more than any game he's ever played," Patriots nickel back Ray Mickens said.

Said New England cornerback Ellis Hobbs: "I think he knows it's his present. He knows (the media) keep riding him about it. Who wants that legacy, a guy who always gets close but no cigar?"

If Manning carved up the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, where they played on a torn-up grass field, imagine what he could do on the fast track inside the dome. Hobbs said the Colts' offense "kind of reminds me of the St. Louis Rams, The Greatest Show on Turf. They play at a different speed on turf."

Wide receiver Marvin Harrison, in particular, has been tough to handle for the Patriots. In the last game, they couldn't cover him, as he racked up 145 yards on eight catches, including two touchdowns.

In previous seasons, the Patriots slowed Harrison by knocking him around like a pinata, but they might have to change that strategy. Two reasons: Ultra-physical cornerback Ty Law (Chiefs) is gone, and hard-hitting safety Rodney Harrison (knee) is out for today's game. The increased emphasis on illegal contact, a by-product of the Patriots/Colts AFC title game in 2003, also has curtailed New England's ability to use the rough stuff.

This time, cornerback Asante Samuel, who didn't cover Harrison much at all in the previous meeting, will get the assignment. Samuel moved to left corner in late November, which means he'll line up over Harrison about 85 percent of the time.

Samuel has emerged as a shutdown corner. Actually, the entire defense is playing better, not having allowed more than 23 points in a game since the last Colts matchup. In fact, the Patriots set a franchise record for fewest points allowed in a season (237, or 14.8 per game).

Statistically, the current defense is better than the units from their three Super Bowl seasons.

"I think we definitely have a lot of talent," defensive end Richard Seymour said. "But those teams . . . won a championship. Until we win a championship, it remains to be seen."

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