I'm picking the Patriots over the Steelers Sunday. I give, I've been won over. I won't pick against the Patriots again until somebody beats them in a playoff game.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me every damn time for four years, well, you know.
How could I have been so dumb? How could all of us who picked the Colts -- and almost everyone who does anything like what I do for a living picked the Colts, though as usual the fans were smarter -- not have seen the customary Indy meltdown in the flurrying snow of Foxboro? It seems so obvious now that one of the best offenses in the history of the league would be rendered impotent by a defense missing three important players, including its starting cornerbacks.
And who didn't know coming in that Peyton Manning, who had destroyed opposing defenses all year partly by throwing downfield, wouldn't try to throw downfield against that patchwork secondary that included a wide receiver, several undrafted free agents and a guy who two weeks ago was unemployed, with no extenuating circumstances?
I don't care if your quarterback is Peyton Manning or Todd Marinovich, how can you play a game in 2004, the Year of the Defensive Holding Penalty, and not uncork some long throws? A lot of them.
This was, after all, a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game, which the Patriots won by mugging the Colts' receivers, and which resulted in the league, at the behest of the Colts, cracking down this year on the rule that forbids defensive players from touching receivers more than five yards past the line of scrimmage.
In that atmosphere, throwing down the field has become the best bet in town. Just sending four or five guys into the pattern gives you pretty good odds that a defensive back is going to look at one of them a little funny and draw a flag.
Instead, Manning spent all day dumping off screens and checkdown passes, which the Patriots' speedy linebackers gobbled up like things that get gobbled up by speedy linebackers.
How could I have not seen that Manning wouldn't do his line-of-scrimmage Watusi, changing the play and imposing his will on the defense time and again? Who didn't know that Manning would merely try to take what the defense gave him, like ordinary mortal quarterbacks do, the kind of guys who have gone 2-26 against New England since Week 5 of 2003?
It should be noted that that 2-26 mark is better than the 0-4 record Manning's Colts have put up against the Patriots in that same stretch, but at least in the first three losses the Colts went down swinging.
Even in last year's title game, the one drilling among the three previous losses, Manning got his butt kicked and had a lousy evening, but at least he was Peyton Manning getting his butt kicked. This time, he didn't get his butt kicked and didn't play that badly. He just got beat while doing a Mark Brunell impersonation.
This can't have been the Colts' thinking: Since the Pats went on their winning streak last fall, Manning couldn't beat them in three tries, while the only teams that beat them were Pittsburgh and Miami, quarterbacked by Ben Roethlisberger, a game manager, and A.J. Feeley, one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. Ergo ...
That can't have been the thinking, can it?
Maybe it was. I wish you'd been sitting next to me Sunday, any of you, because nobody's going to believe this: When the Colts opened the game by handing off to Edgerrin James on the first two plays, gaining one and then five yards, I said to myself, "I backed the wrong horse."
I never wavered from that thought even though the Colts stayed close until late in the third quarter. I might have been right by accident. I didn't go back and check play-by-play reports. I don't know if the Colts routinely start games by running a couple of times.
I just know what I thought: They're, what, trying to establish the running game? They're going to take it slow, probe a little, feel out the defense? They're beaten before they start. This is like being in a duel with Bat Masterson and saying, "You first."
The Colts' third play was a dump-off to Marcus Pollard, who was stopped short of a first down. Three and out on the opening series isn't fatal, but this a telegram that read "Game plan timid. Commence beatdown." Three incomplete bombs would have been fine. This was a team rolling over, exposing its belly and barking, "You're the alpha dog."
I don't know or particularly care where the blame should lie in Indy. Tony Dungy has a reputation, dating back to his days in Tampa, as a coach who doesn't know how to approach the playoffs and therefore doesn't win non-gimme postseason games. On the other hand, Manning usually pretty much calls his own plays. Whoever made the call to go timid, the Colts went down, as so many teams do at this time of year, with arrows in their quiver, unfired bullets in their guns. There's no shame in losing. There's plenty in losing that way.
How can I not have seen it coming?
A few of you wrote me to say you saw it coming, that you thought the Patriots would win easily. My hat's off. As usual, those of you who wrote me after the game to say, "How could you have not seen that coming?" without having spoken up before the game: Lame, folks. Lame.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Don't be fooled [PERMALINK]
Do not be fooled into making your picks in the conference championship games based solely on what happened in the divisional round. I'm picking the Patriots to beat the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game because I'm just going to keep picking the Patriots until someone beats them in the playoffs. But you're not bound to that.
It's easy to look at the way the Patriots whipped the Colts while the Steelers had to get lucky to squeeze by the Jets at home and conclude that Pittsburgh has no chance Sunday. Just don't forget the Steelers beat the Patriots this year by two touchdowns.
Yeah, that game was a little flukey, with Corey Dillon injured, Ty Law going down in the first quarter and the Patriots committing some devastating and un-New Englandesque early mistakes -- two turnovers within a minute -- that put them in a 21-3 hole. But the Steelers forced those mistakes, and capitalized on them. They also won 14 other games in the regular season.
And they had the best defense in the league. Keep in mind that while all anybody's going to remember about Sunday's Colts-Patriots game is how the Pats defense shut down Manning, the Colts' much-maligned defense, which really is no better than middle of the pack, kept the efficient New England offense out of the end zone for the first 43 and a half minutes of the game.
The Steelers have the best defense in the league. Even if they can't move the ball on the Pats any more than the Colts did, that defense can keep them close enough that a single funny bounce could decide the game.
Also don't read too much into the Falcons' 47-17 demolishing of the Rams in the NFC. Atlanta looked unstoppable, but that's only because they were playing a team that couldn't stop them.
I don't like to write too much about the Rams because they're my home team and I root for them, so I don't want to come off as a local crank, but I've been saying this all year: The Rams were horrible this season. They were the worst 8-8 team I've ever seen. They got blown out six times. Seven counting Sunday.
St. Louis got a win when the Seahawks staged a freakish fourth-quarter pratfall and another when the Eagles played the junior varsity in Week 16. They also benefited from getting to play the hideous 49ers twice. It's hard to picture the Rams sweeping two games from any of the other last-place teams in the conference, Washington, Chicago and Tampa Bay. They only split against the Cardinals, after all. Even their win over the Bucs was a little funky: They got outplayed except for the Bucs' steady diet of turnovers.
The Rams were more like a 5-11 or even a 4-12 team. They just got some breaks and stepped up a couple of times. I don't think there was a team in the NFC but not in the West that was worse than the Rams, and I don't think their loss to the Dolphins was an upset.
Before you go thinking that Michael Vick can't be stopped after the way he abused the Rams, remember that the Cardinals, Lions, Chiefs and Bucs stopped him just fine, and all of those teams gave up at least 44 more points this year than the Eagles did. The Chiefs' defense was more than 10 points a game worse than Philadelphia's.
The Eagles only beat the Vikings 27-14 despite a pretty dismal performance by Minnesota. That game was never in doubt and looked like a rout, which it would have been if the Eagles hadn't kept shooting themselves in the foot. That has to be taken into consideration, and I don't think the Falcons over the Eagles is a bad pick at all. I haven't decided for myself yet.
But if you're thinking of picking the Falcons because they crushed one 8-8 team and the Eagles only beat the other by fewer than two touchdowns, I'd advise thinking some more.
Then again, I picked the Colts.
Previous column: Divisional round preview
- - - - - - - - - - - -