Even people who should know better are seduced by the promise of big offense, a promise that rarely delivers against innovative, well-executed, jaw-shattering defense. People who have been around pro football for years, players and coaches, thought Peyton Manning and the Colts were going to come here and pass the Patriots into submission despite decades of evidence to the contrary, overwhelming evidence that great defense beats fancy offense, particularly in the cold, in the playoffs, and when the team playing the defense wears the championship belt.
Manning wasn't going to beat the Patriots here Sunday; it was silly to think so. He'd never won in New England before and he still hasn't won here. His receivers couldn't get open much of the day and when they did find space, they often couldn't catch the ball or they couldn't receive it because Manning was facing a fierce pass rush.
"Peyton Manning is a great player," Patriots veteran linebacker Willie McGinest said, "and I'm not going to sit here and trash the guy. He's the best quarterback in football and you can't devalue what he's been doing. He's one of the best players, not just one of the best quarterbacks, but one of the best players in the league. He's loaded with weapons and it's hard to stop them. But today was our day. It was just our day."
Football people love to talk about schemes and coverages. And the Patriots coaches deservedly are credited for devising game plans that will put their players in advantageous positions. But many a brilliant plan has been undermined by no-talents, or inadequate talents.
"We, right here in this room," McGinest said, "have got talent, physical talent. We've got great guys to scheme, don't get me wrong. But you still have to have the players knock the ball out, to intercept, to tackle, to sack. No scheme alone can do that. We had a little more four-man rush. We got him off his spot more, mixed some coverages, disguised some coverages. And we were rested because our offense had the ball so long. But you have to have people who can physically carry out what the scheme and plan are asking to be done. The Colts [receivers] are fast. They all get off the ball quickly, and they all can catch. It's so hard to stop them."
But the Patriots indeed stopped Manning and Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James and Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley and Marcus Pollard by beating on them physically. New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi once blew up a completed Manning screen pass and in the same motion stole the ball for a fumble recovery. McGinest slammed James to the ground more than once. The Patriots beat up the Colts. This just in: The Patriots have done this to everybody the last two years, and to Manning four times.
"We came up here with high expectations," Colts Coach Tony Dungy said, "and ran into a better team. They were missing some guys [cornerback Ty Law and linebacker Richard Seymour], but it didn't matter to them. They were physical, tough, and smart."
Sunday's AFC rout was clearly more a matter of what the Patriots' defense did rather than what Manning didn't do. He didn't throw deep because his receivers didn't get open deep. Still, quarterbacks are the glamour pusses of professional football and when somebody as prolific as Manning was in the regular season doesn't produce in the playoffs, we examine the quarterback more than we examine the defense.
"I know what's going to be said and written," Dungy said, anticipating the discussion that will now revolve around Manning.
It has followed him that he couldn't beat Florida while at Tennessee. And now he cannot get past the Patriots to the Super Bowl. Never mind that nobody else seems to get past the Patriots either, and that Tom Brady has never lost a playoff game and is a better quarterback -- not a better passer, but a better quarterback.
Forty-nine touchdown passes in the regular season doesn't make Manning a better quarterback any more than winning all those scoring titles made Wilt Chamberlain a better player than Bill Russell. To break through to the Super Bowl, Manning's team is going to have to put together a better defense, one that doesn't allow drives that consume 7 minutes 24 seconds, 8:16 and 9:07. Nevertheless, everybody associated with Manning knows the Dan Marino comparisons are coming, how Marino threw for all those yards and all those touchdowns and never won a championship.
"Being a historian," Dungy said, "I remember when Steve Young, when the same thing was said about him. I remember when [John] Elway couldn't quite win a Super Bowl. He didn't win his until way down the road."
The frustration on Manning's face afterward was easy to identify. He said he didn't feel like getting into the specifics of coverages and schemes, which was just as well. He referred kindly to his receivers' "rare drops" and said he "didn't have the right plays called at the right times" which spoke to how well the Patriots' coaches and players anticipated what he would do and then covered appropriately.
"I feel accountable and responsible," Manning said when asked about his role. And when the conversation rolled around to how this record-breaking but ultimately unsatisfying season will be remembered, he said, "There are so many opinions and experts. I can't really define it myself."
The passing game, no matter how explosive, can't be defined either, especially when the snow is swirling and it's 25 degrees and the Patriots are stinging receivers even worse than the wind-chill. "We feel like eventually," Manning said, "it will be our time." Those who were so certain that time would be Sunday weren't paying close enough attention to history nor to the superior team on the other side of the ball.