Brendan: Eric, my psychological preparations for this weekend's game have consisted of a single activity: endlessly watching and rewatching this video of Marvin Harrison's dazzling touchdown catch in Foxborough last November. It's not the one-handed grab that impresses so much as the post-score festivities—Harrison uncharacteristically spikes the ball with authority, and the pigskin accidentally smacks Pats linebacker Mike Vrabel in the facemask. Vrabel whines to the nearest official, then starts jawing at Harrison. The normally mild-mannered Harrison doesn't appear to reply, but he shoots Vrabel a gloating stare for a microsecond before being engulfed in a celebratory swarm.
Never before had I seen Harrison so flush with rage; his usual post-TD modus operandi is to flip the ball to the ref and saunter off the field. It was at that moment that I realized the 2006 Colts were a special team, destined to exorcise the demons that had kept both Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning ringless for so many years. Loud-mouthed jerk that he might have been, erstwhile Colts place-kicker Mike Vanderjagt (aka "our idiot kicker") had a point when he popped off on Canadian radio a few years back: The Colts used to lack a certain fire in the belly, an ability to gut out victories when their offense wasn't hitting on all cylinders. Harrison's celebration signaled the end of the bad ol' days—from that point forward, the Colts were a team to be feared, not just admired. When my Colts were down 18 points in the first half of last season's AFC Championship game, I didn't despair. I just remembered The Spike and thought, It isn't meant to end like this. (Though, granted, the five Yuenglings I consumed before halftime helped boost my confidence.)
Despite our hoisting of the Lombardi Trophy last February, however, it's the Pats who are the league's showcase story this season—though not always for the most salubrious of reasons. It's one thing to be smashing fools on the gridiron, quite another to be running up the score on poor Joe Gibbs (whose forehead veins came close to bursting when the Pats' offense hit the half-century mark). Then you've got Rodney Harrison's confessed dalliance with human growth hormone, followed by the Spygate imbroglio. And what have the Colts been up to this season, aside from quietly dominating the AFC South? Nothing more scintillating than doing cheesy United Way commercials, I'm proud to say; the guys are even nice enough to leave the strip-club shenanigans to the Pacers.
Honestly, though, I don't think the Pats are at risk of angering the football gods—the spying strikes me as a second-rate offense, and judging by the number of melted skulls I see on Sundays, HGH use isn't confined to the New England locker room. If the Patriots are tempting fate, it's on account of the long-forgotten case of concussion-addled Ted Johnson. Bill Belichick comes off like a major creep in that tale, sending an obviously shaky Johnson back into the full-contact fray despite a trainer's warnings. As a result, I've come to regard him as the NFL's version of Cobra Kai sensei John "Sweep the Leg" Kreese, a heartless rogue with seriously out-of-whack priorities. While I can't quite agree with ESPN.com columnist Gregg Easterbrook that Belichick is a paragon of evil—I refuse to equate tacking on an extra score against the Dolphins with, say, the Cambodian genocide—he certainly exhibits some nasty traits. No other coach pursues victory with such robotic joylessness, nor seems less aware of how blessed he is to be earning millions of dollars doing something he supposedly loves.
Belichick's irritating ultracompetitive act would be more tolerable if it didn't rub off on his players. But, sheesh, the Sweat-Shirted Mastermind has turned even Randy Moss into a pass-catching automaton. What I wouldn't give to see Moss fake-moon a crowd once more or court even the smallest bit of controversy. But no—Moss is now just another cog in Belichick's win-at-all-costs juggernaut. Rooting for the Patriots is like rooting for the nameless bullies in Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown.
I'm assuming that you have similarly frosty feelings about my Colts, perhaps involving Manning's ubiquity as a pitchman or the air-conditioned austerity of the RCA Dome. Do your worst—having survived the dark Art Schlichter years, not to mention the midnight sneak out of Baltimore, we die-hard Colts fans are a resilient lot.
Eric: Brendan, you better hope and pray the Indianapolis Colts are doing more to prepare themselves psychologically than you are. You've been watching Marvin Harrison spike a football while Chamillionaire's "Ridin' " plays in the background? Really? That gets your football spots all tingly? Hey man, whatever gets you off.
But thanks for sending along that video. You say he's "flush with rage"? Marvin Harrison? The human dial tone? Brendan, he's not angry. This is a man with so little practice celebrating that he spazzed out and accidentally doinked the ball off a Patriot. (Watch the tape. Harrison pulls a Hideki Okajima—he has no idea where that ball is going. He could have easily hit the ref, or Dallas Clark.) But I love the narrative you've got going there: picked-on, shy nerd gets revenge. It dovetails nicely with the saturation coverage we're getting right now. For years, those nice, sweet boys from the Midwest, the ones who dress like milkmen, got killed by the cold, calculating, team-first New England Patriots. But then they finally struck back, winning the series' last three games. And this Sunday, for the future of professional football, for the sake of Gregg Easterbrook's fragile psyche, to defend the virtues of fair play and good sportsmanship and mom and apple pie and Jesus H. Christ wrapped in an American flag kicking a football through the goal posts of heaven, Peyton and co. must secure a win. I'm paraphrasing Stephen A. Smith there, but you get the point.
You are right about last year, though. That AFC Championship game matchup changed everything for the NFL, marking the beginning of the Patriots' epic "heel turn." Since then, Tom Brady has knocked up and abandoned his famous girlfriend, then fell into the arms of the world's hottest underwear model. Then the franchise "unfairly" dominated the free-agent market, leading people to compare the Patriots to the Yankees, thereby ignoring the obvious fact that NFL teams have a salary cap and baseball teams do not. And there was all that other stuff you mentioned. Rodney Harrison getting caught using HGH. Spygate. Runningupthescoregate.
Smash-cut to right now. We're the bad guys, and you're the good guys with an edge, the maniacs who could snap and bounce a football into a helmet at a second's notice. That's the story line. But there's a small problem here. The Colts aren't ready for this Patriots team. For a very long time, the Patriots have relied on Belichick's magic, using smoke and mirrors to keep games close. Now, it's amazing to think back on a time when the Pats had to use Troy Brown—a man whom I respect, admire, and cherish—as both a go-to wide reciever and a cornerback. Last year, in the regular season and again in the playoffs, the Pats held it together for as they could. But as my English professor once said, "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link!"
This year, there is no need for magic. This Patriots team has finally achieved its Belichickian destiny. It is a joyless, soulless machine that seeks total domination for the sake of the team, not the individual. I guess that's why Ted Johnson, like hundreds of football players before him, was forced to play with a concussion. You're absolutely right—Belichick comes off like a creep in that story. But as a liberal-minded Northerner, I'm equally creeped out by Tony Dungy's stance against gay marriage. I'm not a fan of the NFL's retirement situation or the fact that football players invariably die young. But playing hurt has always been a big part of football mythology, for better or worse. Ask yourself, Brendan: What would Vince Lombardi do? He'd tell Johnson to rub some dirt on it, take a lap, and get in the game. Does that mean the football gods hate Lombardi, too?
But back to the game. The idea that the Colts are going to try and stop this year's Pats has got me really pumped up. Sadly, I'm not getting any help from the teams this week. None of the players is willing to talk any trash. I just got done watching the Pats and Colts tongue-bathe each other during Wednesday's press conferences, refusing to show any "disrespect" for fear of providing a psychological edge. (If this sports-world conceit were true in real life, we'd be seeing McDonald's employees rising up like the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.) Of the Patriots, Bob Sanders fawned, "I would say they're the best team in football right now." Of the Colts, Tom Brady effused, "They're a clutch team. We've got to play a great game."
I DVR-ed the whole SportsCenter segment. I'm planning to use it to help me get to sleep this evening.
Brendan: Considering that Lombardi lived in the pre-CAT scan era, of course he'd have sent Johnson back onto the field. But medical science has advanced since Bart Starr's heyday, and I'd like to think the coaching profession's ethical guidelines have evolved to match. The real killer in that story, though, is the insinuation that Belichick treated Johnson so poorly because of some ill-will stemming from a contract dispute. And, seriously, can you see Dungy doing the same? He often rocks the sweater vest, so you know he's a sensitive guy.
That said, I totally agree about the ridiculousness of the Colts-Pats love fest that's going on right now. I mean, you've even got Belichick—the Dark Lord himself!—singing the Colts' praises and insisting that his team will have to "play an absolutely almost perfect game just to compete against them." Does he really believe that? Yeah, probably to some extent—a smart general respects his adversaries, no matter how bitter the feud. (If they had press conferences during the Roman Empire, I'm sure Flavius Aetius would've felt compelled to say something along the lines of, "We really have to execute our testudo formation flawlessly this weekend to have any chance against Attila.") But Belichick has to like his odds, especially with Marvin Harrison nicked up and our linebacking corps being held together with duct tape.
You alluded to New England's talent edge, which I'll concede—at least on the defensive side of the ball. Even minus Harrison, our receiving corps ain't too shabby—Reggie Wayne has established a true mind meld with Manning, and Dallas Clark is virtually uncoverable coming out of the slot. (Though I constantly fear that he's one bone-shattering hit away from having his arms fall off, a la the Soviet powerlifter from the All Drug Olympics.) And don't underestimate the passing-game contributions of Joseph Addai, who survived an early-season injury scare to become the AFC's latest offensive player of the week.
While your 3-4 defense is pretty outstanding, Manning has made a career out of shredding supposedly impermeable defenses; no one in the NFL is better at finding a seam. And while the Manning of three or four years ago might've been rattled by Belichick's constant shifts and feints, that's no longer the case. As long as our offensive line does a good job of picking up the Pats' blitzes—a big challenge for rookie left tackle Tony Ugoh—Manning should be able to go about his lethal business.
The Pats, meanwhile, will have to find a better way to account for Bob Sanders, who's finally receiving the credit he deserves. (You know you've hit the big time when Peter King lists you as a top-five MVP candidate.) Sanders is to the Colts what Troy Polamalu was to the Steelers during their Super Bowl run—an unpredictable disruptor who makes it risky for teams to stretch the field. I'd love to see Dungy blitz Sanders early and often, giving the Pats' offensive line something to think about other than Dwight Freeney's ultraquick first step. Yeah, that'll expose our secondary, but keep an eye on linebacker Freddy Keiaho—he's adept at dropping back into coverage and punishing receivers running slant routes. (Let that be a warning to you, Wes Welker.)
Like our pals in Vegas and the Cayman Islands, I'm expecting a fairly high-scoring game—such is life on the RCA Dome turf, where it's a lot easier to sprint forward than backpedal. And I'm also expecting the Pats to strike first; in big games, the Colts always seem to start with a three-and-out for some odd reason. But once Manning gets in the flow and the Colts D registers some critical third-and-short stops—eat some space, Raheem Brock!—things should tilt our way. And that'll make it four in a row versus the reviled Pats, forever banishing memories of our Foxborough frustrations.
No doubt your prediction will be rather different, Eric. So, c'mon, enlighten me—how, exactly, is the Pats' secondary going to keep the red-hot Wayne from doing his patented, dice-throwing touchdown dance? And, perhaps more importantly, why is it that Brady was named the world's best-dressed man by Esquire when that honor clearly belongs to the Colts' dreadlocked, sunglasses-loving Sanders?
Eric: I seriously hope you're kidding. Bob Sanders looks like the lost Ying Yang Twin in that picture. And besides, this game doesn't come down to sartorial splendor—if it did, the Newsies-inspired ensemble Brady had on last week is far superior to any 42-button, candy-colored zoot suit Sanders would wear. Advantage: Pats.
This game will come down to defense. And whenever people start playing the whole offense vs. defense matchup game, I always ask myself: Which side would win in a knife fight? Brendan, I don't think the Colts have a chance in hell in a knife fight against the Patriots on either side of the ball. Rodney Harrison looks like he could murder at least six people all by himself. And he's joined by Adalius Thomas, Asante Samuel, Rosevelt Colvin, Junior Seau, Tedy Bruschi, and, most recently, five-time Pro Bowler Richard Seymour. I'm pretty sure one of those dudes will be able to slow down the "uncoverable" Dallas Clark.
With so much talent on the defensive side of the ball, Belichick won't be deploying the kinds of trickery he needed to pull when Troy Brown was going both ways. Like any good bully, he's going to try to destroy everyone: beat the holy crap out of the Colts, and the Colts receivers, and the Colts cheerleaders, and anyone wearing Colts merchandise until Bill Polian whines to the commissioner's office again. It won't be easy to stop Peyton—the few times the Patriots have been in trouble this year have been when the other team goes no-huddle and speeds up the tempo, a Peyton Manning special. A combination of blitzes, hurries, and run-stuffs will generate a few three-and-outs on Sunday, which is all the Pats offense will need to win.
That's because I don't think the Indy D could beat the New England O in a knife fight. Kyle Brady is a tough, 280-pounder who will help max-protect and catch enough passes to keep Freeney and co. honest. Your secondary is going to have to make some agonizing choices: If they double-cover both Donte Stallworth and Randy Moss like the Redskins did last week, they'll get torched by Wes Welker underneath, or by Laurence Maroney running between the tackles. This isn't the 2006 Patriots receiving corps, which was constructed like a fifth-grade diorama: a Little Tikes figurine holding down the slot, a broken G.I. Joe guy slung out wide, and glitter-soaked cotton balls used to create "atmosphere." The 2007 Pats receivers are a thermonuclear weapon with a seven-second timer. There are three colorful wires coming out of that bomb: Welker, Stallworth, and Moss. It's like an action film: Can the Colts clip all three of those wires or get to the quarterback before the timer runs out? I don't think so.
At the very least, you're gonna need more than Bob Sanders. (He might get Peter King's MVP endorsement, but consider the source—King said the same thing about Jake "The Snake" Plummer.) You're going to need Brock to stuff the lanes and Keiaho to have the game of his life, because while the entire world thinks this is going to be a scoring fest, I'm not convinced.
I think Chairman Belichick has been running up the score all this time for two reasons. The first is purely psychological. It's scary to face a team that puts up 40 points a game, routinely wins by 30, and never, ever shows any mercy. The second is that old Belichick standby: Take away the one thing the other team does best. I think he's setting up a trap. I wouldn't be surprised to see Belichick surprise the Colts by using the well-rested Laurence "Predator Larry" Maroney to eat up the clock. And when the Colts start to stack the line, Brady will throw over the top to Moss. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Brendan: All your talk of knives got me thinking about a terrible moment in Colts history: the night that cornerback Nick Harper's wife stabbed him in the knee. There was no long-term damage, but we Colts fans will forever wonder if the injury slowed Harper just enough to allow Ben Roethlisberger to tackle him in that 2006 division playoff game.
But Harper's gone now (to the Titans), and so is the tired stereotype you're dredging up about the Colts being (ugh) a "finesse" team. Yes, our defense is built small and fast so it can play a Cover 2 scheme, but we love to flat-out brutalize opponents—you should try asking Jaguars quarterback Quinn Gray for his opinion on the matter, as I believe a snarling Dwight Freeney shall be sprinting through his nightmares for the next quarter-century. As for Dallas Clark, I can only recommend that you put a corner on him; Adalius Thomas may be a great player, but I doubt he can cover No. 44 all the way down the field.
You're right about Maroney being a pivotal figure in this game, though. As you might recall, Predator Larry was the back that Bill Polian truly coveted in the 2006 draft. But New England scooped him up, and we had to settle for a consolation prize: Joseph Addai, who you might remember leaping into the RCA Dome crowd last January.
Look for similar exultation from our featured back this Sunday. We take this one 29-24, after being down a touchdown at halftime. A classic Manning comeback.
See you in the playoffs, Eric—provided you can survive the divisional round. I bet the Chargers will be awfully motivated should they have to travel to Foxborough in January.
Eric: Like the Colts on Sunday, your Nick Harper story falls just short. See, 20 years earlier, Patriot Irving Fryar's wife slashed his hand before an even bigger contest—the AFC Championship—forcing him to miss that game entirely. (That said, unlike you, I don't blame Fryar's injury situation for the outcome of the next game. Those '85 Bears were awesome.)
I understand that Indy's new cornerbacks, Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson, make the Colts a far more physical team than last year's championship model. But just because the Colts love to brutalize opponents doesn't mean they'll be able to. You want to get physical? Great idea. The Patriots are in full-on, Tupac Shakur, middle-fingers-to-the-sky mode right now. They'll turn this thing into a prison-yard battle royal and end up stabbing Dallas Clark with the yardage marker.
As I've been saying, wild-eyed rage is New England's secret weapon. Eric Mangini pushed. Bill Belichick snapped. And now the rest of the National Football League is going to pay for it. Indianapolis is just too good to allow the Patriots to destroy their will, so instead of a track meet, we'll see a slugfest. The Pats will keep the crowd out of the game with a few long, controlled drives at key moments. On Monday, sportswriters will credit the Colts with a moral victory, keeping the game close deep into the fourth quarter, when New England will ultimately prevail, 28-20.
Brendan, if by some miracle the Patriots play the Chargers in the divisional round, I can't wait to see the brat attack that B.L.T. (Baby LaDainian Tomlinson) pulls after he gets humiliated. No matter how angry they are, we both know the Chargers wouldn't win in Foxborough—and neither would the Colts. You better pray for a win this weekend so Indy gets home-field advantage.