Sometimes it's painfully obvious when one player is overwhelmingly at fault for losing a football game. It was that obvious Sunday. Peyton Manning, so close to perfect for two weeks, lost the AFC championship game for the Indianapolis Colts and he pretty much knew it. The Colts' only chance to beat a team that had won 13 straight coming in, a team with the best defense in the playoffs, was for their quarterback to play the way he had most of the season, and he didn't. Manning didn't come close. He threw four interceptions, completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes. His passer rating suggests Manning was about 20 percent as efficient as he had been in destroying the Broncos and Chiefs.
"I didn't play the way I wanted to play," he said. "Any time you throw interceptions, that's on the QB. I made some bad throws and some bad decisions. All four of them were combinations of bad decisions and bad throws."
The lasting impression of Sunday's AFC championship game is Manning being sacked, frustrated and intercepted by a Patriots defense that every single week appears to be superior in personnel and coaching. If the names Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel aren't well-known it's only because the face of the New England Patriots is still Tom Brady, the golden boy. Look, Brady played fine Sunday; Brady plays fine every single week, it seems. He's patient and efficient, brash and quite the gunslinger when he needs to be. All he does is win just about every game after the first of November the past three seasons. But, even so, the Patriots' offense scored one touchdown against a less-than-average defense.
The golden boy ought to buy a round for the defense sometime in the two weeks before the start of Super Bowl XXXVIII because if Manning is anywhere close to "on" the way he was against the Broncos and/or Chiefs, the outcome could have been reversed. (It would be okay if he blows a kiss to the zebras, too, for failing to throw a flag in the final two minutes twice when it was obvious to everybody outside of greater New England that the Patriots were holding or making illegal contact with Colts receivers in a seven-point game.)
Manning knew coming in that the Patriots' "D" isn't anything like that of the Chiefs or Broncos. But he didn't have to be perfect Sunday, nowhere near it. All he had to be was good and he wasn't anywhere close to that either. The Patriots didn't blitz. They sent inside linebacker Roman Phifer a couple of times, but even Manning said the Patriots, "did nothing super special" in terms of rushing him. They simply shadowed every single move Marvin Harrison made, sent the four down linemen up the field after Manning, daring him to make plays he normally makes.
And Manning didn't do it. "Frustrating, disappointing, all of the above," he said of his performance.
The only solace for the Colts and their followers was that Manning, in clearly the toughest moment of his career, handled his beat down like a leader. He didn't have to be pressed or hounded into the conclusion that he played miserably. He volunteered it. "I didn't do my part," he said. "I've done my part this season well enough for us to this point. I needed to do my part well today, I think, for us to win this game and I just didn't do it. So yes, I certainly feel I'm personally responsible and accountable. I would like to have done my job better today and I'm disappointed that I didn't."
It was a stunning reversal, 180 degrees in fact, from the way Manning played against the Broncos and Chiefs, when he completed 44 of 56 passes for nearly 700 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions. The last quarterback to be that hot in the playoffs was probably Joe Montana in 1989. But here was Manning, after a somewhat stunning failure, not because the Colts lost but because he never found a groove. "That's the way it works," he said of the reversal of fortune. "A lot of nice things were said about me the past couple of weeks and obviously it's going to be the total opposite now. You know, I won't dodge this. It's not a fair game always, and it never has been."
It is fair in this way: The Patriots are a better team and deserve to go to the Super Bowl. Defense is their strength, but the offense is efficient and low-risk. The whole thing is so smartly put together by Bill Belichick. And his staff includes an offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis, and a defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel, who ought to be head coaches in the NFL somewhere next season but apparently won't be since six of the seven NFL openings have been filled. How in the world do the Bears, Bills and Falcons hire coaches without waiting as long as necessary to talk to Crennel and Weis? Year after year, NFL teams look dumb and dumber when it comes to hiring head coaches.
So Crennel and Weis, unless either wants to roll the dice with the Raiders, will just have to settle for being low-profile coordinators on a team of starless (other than Brady) players who, in an age of selfishness, have redefined team. They don't shimmy after tackles, don't worry about who goes or doesn't go to the Pro Bowl. They get the game plan from their coaches Wednesday morning, learn it to perfection through Saturday, then execute it with fabulous precision on Sunday, particularly on defense.
The lasting lesson from their victory Sunday is this: never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever take a great offense in a game of consequence against a great defense, especially when that defense is playing at home and outdoors against a dome team. Those of us who thought Manning would stay in his zone against the Patriots were, well, stupid. Write it on a sheet of notebook paper 100 times: great defense beats great offense. Tampa Bay reminded us of that against Oakland in last year's Super Bowl. Nothing's changed in the grand scheme of playoff football since then.
Bruschi, the Patriots' inside linebacker who talks like he plays, had the right take on this game afterward. Actually, he probably had it right before the game, too. "I thought Peyton deserved the credit," he said, "But we looked at the film and said to ourselves, 'That's not happening this week.' We felt, 'Hit them when they had the ball, and hit them when they didn't have the ball.' To think they were going to come in here and run up and down the field on us was foolish."