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It’s the sure-armed QB vs. the dominating ‘D’

WashPost: Colts’ Manning will match wits against New England's Belichick
MANNING STOKLEY
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, left, works out a pass route with receiver Brandon Stokley during practice in Indianapolis on Friday. Manning has been red-hot during the playoffs, but he faces one of the league's best defenses Sunday in the New England Patriots.Michael Conroy / AP
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was greeted Friday by single-digit temperatures and frigid winds, and weather will be only part of the problem when he tries to continue his wondrous postseason passing display and lead his club to the Super Bowl with a win in Sunday's AFC title game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. The other thing waiting for Manning will be the game plan of New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, the sport's master defensive schemer.

Belichick certainly wasn't giving away any secrets as members of both teams participated in news conferences at a harbor-side hotel, saying: "We're not going to reinvent the wheel or anything this week. . . . There's no magic to it. They've got too many weapons and too many players that you can't take one guy away."

Manning, likewise, played down the notion that this AFC championship game is about him, the quarterback who has been nearly perfect in the Colts' two playoff victories, against Belichick, the coach who solved quarterback Kurt Warner and the "Greatest Show on Turf" offense of the St. Louis Rams in the Patriots' Super Bowl upset in February 2002. Manning said he will let his coach, Tony Dungy, and his offensive coordinator, Tom Moore, worry about matching wits with Belichick and Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel while he concerns himself with the New England players.

"That's the thing you get caught up in this week," Manning said. "Coach Belichick and Coach Crennel aren't going to be playing Sunday, I don't think. . . . It's the players on the field who are going to decide it. You put a game plan in, and the players make it work. The reason those guys are good is because of their players. If they stop us on third down, everyone will say they outsmarted us, [but] it probably won't be true. It probably would be because we didn't block them or I didn't make the throw."

Still, people on both sides spent most of their time talking about two things — the weather and the matchup between a special quarterback at the top of his game and the coach who excels at finding and exploiting the weaknesses of supposedly superhuman offensive players. The Patriots have won 13 straight games with a cast of players that is talented but not overwhelming. The locker room overflows with professionalism, however, and Belichick has kept the club on course even while injuries have forced him to patch together lineups weekly.

"It starts from the head coach," Patriots cornerback Ty Law said this week. "He puts together a great game plan, along with his assistants, and we've just got to go out there and run it, and we believe in it. We believe in each other and believe in the system."

Law said Crennel runs the Patriots' defensive meetings during the week and makes the defensive play calls during games. But he added, "Of course, any head coach has the power of attorney."

Belichick helped Bill Parcells to two Super Bowl titles as the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, including a triumph over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. Belichick's defensive game plan from that win is on permanent display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he did acknowledge Friday that this game has a similar feel — in terms of trying to find a way to stop an offense that looks unstoppable.

"The Colts are running through these playoff games like, really, nobody I've ever seen before," Belichick said.

Manning, the league's co-most valuable player with Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, has sizzled during the playoffs, with 44 completions in 56 throws for 681 yards, with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. The Colts have yet to punt in this postseason.

"This is the best team I've been on since I've been playing in the NFL," Manning said.

The biggest problem for Belichick might be Manning's ability to look over a defense and make changes at the line of scrimmage. Manning rejected the notion Friday that he calls his own game but conceded he has earned quite a bit of freedom from Moore. Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne said this week that about half of Manning's audibles at the line are bluffs to throw off the defense but added the Indianapolis offensive players need to be ready for anything.

"Have you ever prepared for the SAT? That's what it's like," Wayne said. "You've got to know your P's and Q's because he can give you something, and if you're not focused and paying attention, then you can miss it and mess up the whole play."

Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi suggested Friday the Patriots might have to blitz Manning less frequently because Manning could make them pay for gambles. But while Belichick's Patriots didn't throw all-out blitzes at the Rams all the time in the Super Bowl, they did undo Warner with well-timed blitzes. Manning is 0-4 in New England during his career, and the Patriots are 9-0 at home this season. They had three shutouts and surrendered only 68 points at home during the regular season.

The Colts, who are 8-1 on the road this season, are attempting to become the first club that plays its home games in a domed stadium to win a conference title game outdoors on the road. They could get a bit of a break if the weather forecast holds up: temperatures are predicted to "soar" into the 20s and perhaps low 30s Sunday.

Said Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison, recalling his college days at Syracuse: "My philosophy is, if you say you're cold, you're just not ready to play."