OpinionJanuary 18, 2007


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AFC Championship Game Spotlight

By Matt Blevins

Peyton Manning is finally going to the Super Bowl! Sorry, got a little ahead of myself there. Those will be the words I’ll be saying following the Patriots/Colts game this weekend.

As unlikely as it may have seemed at the start of the playoffs given their seeding, in the back of your mind you always knew it would come down to these teams in the AFC. This year’s matchup, however, has a much different feel than in recent years when the Colts traveled to New England to play in the bitter cold and snow.

These teams matched up in both the 2003 and 2004 playoffs, games that New England won decisively, with both games played in New England. In fact the last 5 games played between them have been in Foxboro. This week’s game in Indianapolis marks the first time the Patriots have traveled to the RCA Dome since week 13 of the 2003 season. So what is going to make the result of this game different than the past matchups in the playoffs between these two rivals?

Peyton Manning

As in past games, all eyes will be on Peyton Manning, asking the question is he able to win the big game, or not? Unlike past playoff games played between the Colts and Pats, this game will be played indoors, away from the elements that have plagued the Colts prolific passing game in years past. Manning has struggled in previous games against the Pats, but his numbers in the last game against them at home? 29-48 for 278 yards, 4 TDs and 1 INT in a 38-34 loss. The scary thing about Manning so far this postseason is that he’s yet to have a great game but the Colts are winning anyway. The biggest change from years past to this year? Manning does not have to play perfect for the Colts to win.

Defense

Can the Colts defense really do it again? No matter how well they have played the past two weeks, there are still those who make excuses as to why their defense was able to shut down both Kansas City and Baltimore the past two weeks to the tune of a combined total of 14 points allowed. They have given up an average of 185 total yards per game in the past two weeks (63.5 rushing yards per game) while forcing seven turnovers. Could it be that KC and Baltimore’s offenses are just that bad? Maybe, but one must also accept the possibility that the Indianapolis defense is simply playing much better now. Playing indoors, on a fast track, away from the elements really gives an advantage to the speedy Colts defense in this one.

New England has the daunting task of stopping the Colts passing game (and surprising running game which is averaging 144 yards/game) this week with a secondary once again depleted by injuries. It could be a long day if safety Rodney Harrison is unable to play this week, but with this defense having just held the league’s top scoring offense to only 21 points in a huge win at San Diego, one would be foolish to underestimate how effective the New England Defense can be.

X-Factors

I have chosen six X-Factors for this game (1 offense, 1 defense, and 1 special teamer from each team) that will likely end up making all the difference this week:

Dallas Clark (TE – Ind)

You might be thinking: What about Peyton Manning??? Like I said above, Manning does not have to play perfect to win this game, and personally, I think Dallas Clark will be the single most important piece of the puzzle this week for Indy. He leads the Colts in receiving in the postseason with 11 receptions for 144 yards in 2 games. Clark is the down the middle threat that allows the Colts to take advantage of teams that become too concerned about Harrison and Wayne on the outside. His performance this week could end up making the difference between the Colts offense clicking or falling apart.

Bob Sanders (S – Ind)

Is it any coincidence that the miraculous change in the Indy defense has coincided with the return of Bob Sanders at safety for the Colts? I think not. His presence both in run support and wreaking havoc in the passing game has given this defense a huge boost and all of the Indy defenders have picked up their game accordingly. If he is able to continue his high energy play this week, the Colts’ defense could end up repeating it’s performances from the past two weeks.

Laurence Maroney (RB – NE)

This guy has the speed to rip through the Indianapolis defense if he is given enough opportunities and could cause a relapse to the last ranked run defense we saw from the Colts during the season. If he is able to break free for some big runs and keep the Indy offense off the field, then the Patriots have a great chance of winning this game.

Ellis Hobbs (CB – NE)

The game could hinge on if Hobbs (and the rest of the NE CBs) are able to defend Reggie Wayne opposite Asante Samuel defending Marvin Harrison. We have seen Manning pick on the #2 DB many times this year when Harrison had a good corner on him. If Peyton is able to do the same this week then New England will be hard pressed to stop the Colts’ offense at all.

Adam Vinatieri (K – Ind)

Perhaps the biggest change from the Colts teams in years past to this year is the addition of kicker Adam Vinatieri, who left New England in the off-season. He didn’t leave his clutch postseason kicking behind in New England however, as he was able to score all 15 points for the Colts last week in their win on the road against Baltimore. This guy has made every important kick he’s attempted in the playoffs, and if given the chance this week, he would be more than happy to knock his old team out with a game winning field goal.

Stephen Gostkowski (K – NE)

The rookie replacement for Vinatieri will face his biggest pressure situation yet this week, as all eyes will be on him, expecting him to replace the man now kicking for the opposition. He came up big last week with some huge kicks and showed that he could make big kicks in the playoffs, but will he be able to do the same this week? Only time will tell.

My prediction: In a twist of pure irony, Vinatieri makes a FG to put Indianapolis up 3 and Gostkowski fails to match with the pressure of the NE season and AFC title on the line. Colts win 27-24.

 
Matt Blevins is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. You can catch up with Matt in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of mattb47.
 
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