"Love" isn't quite the word I'd use to describe my attitude toward the Patriots, the team that has caused me more agita over the past several years than the IRS, my wind-chime-loving neighbor, and Jimbo's Hamburger Palace combined. Like Peyton Manning, I'm still prone to waking up in a cold sweat at 3 a.m., in the mistaken belief that former Patriots cornerback Ty Law's cleat is planted on my chest. So, you can understand how cathartic it was to see my beloved Colts pummel the Law-employing Chiefs in the wild-card round. That's one New England-related boogeyman down, at least. Now for the complete Patriots exorcism, to be conducted on the RCA Dome's FieldTurf this Sunday.
Despite my antipathy toward the Lords of Foxborough, I don't really see what the big deal was about the Patriots imitating Merriman's spasmodic sack dance. Certainly there are nicer ways to celebrate—whatever happened to the group prayer on the 50-yard line?—but I can understand why it's difficult to quickly downshift from violent meathead into genteel sportsman. Sports Illustrated's Peter King made a good call about why Merriman bears some of the blame; when the quasi-mohawked Chargers linebacker appeared on the CBS halftime show during the Jets-Pats wild-card game, Merriman predicted the Jets would pull off the upset even though they were already losing by a touchdown. (He also bizarrely lauded the Jets D for holding the Pats to 17 points through two quarters.) Note to Merriman: There's a reason professional athletes resort to clichés in situations like these. Next time, go bland and you're less likely to enrage your opponent. May I suggest the following: "They're both good teams. It's going to be an exciting second half."
The celebration I'm far more interested in, of course, is the revival by Colts defensive end Robert Mathis of Gilbert Brown's legendary undertaker move. He saved it for the penultimate play of the Ravens-Colts tilt, after he sacked Steve McNair, forcing (and recovering!) a nail-in-the-coffin fumble. Then Mathis got down on one knee and started miming the act of digging a grave, a bravura performance that can mean only one thing: The Colts' defense has finally regained its 2005 swagger. Remember that? When DE Dwight Freeney made the cover of Sports Illustrated, with a tagline lauding the Colts' D as one of the league's best? Of course you don't, because the only thing anyone recalls about last season is Ben Roethlisberger tackling Nick Harper in the divisional playoffs. I still think about what might have been if only Harper's wife hadn't stabbed him with a steak knife the previous night.
This year, of course, all the chatter has been about the Colts' softness against the run. But I liked what I saw in last week's win over the Ravens: middle linebacker Rob Morris running sideline to sideline in pursuit of the dink-and-dunk pass, Freeney fighting through double-teams, and, above all, a textbook lesson on Cover 2 execution. The Colts' pint-sized defensive backs did a stellar job of squaring up against the short reception, then putting a hurt on the receiver (except for gargantuan Ravens TE Todd Heap, to whom 5-foot-8 Colts CB Jason David is no more injurious than a gnat). As for the deep ball, McNair's arm just didn't seem to have the necessary oomph, but I also like what I saw from rookie safety Antoine Bethea. Safety help is critical in the Cover 2, and Bethea's a definite ballhawk.
Less encouraging was the Colts' play on the other side of the ball, where they settled for five field goals and nary a touchdown. It's tough to be happy about Manning's sub-40 quarterback rating and his two picks—heck, if Ray Lewis hadn't tipped two misfired Manning throws, the Man of 1,000 Commercials would have registered a disastrous four-interception game. Manning tried to explain this all away in his postgame CBS interview, saying that things had pretty much gone according to plan against a tough Ravens D. I'll buy that to some extent, and I've certainly got to admire the way Manning audibles his way out of trouble; no one's better at setting up an impromptu three-yard dumpoff when he knows a blitz is coming. But I still keep thinking about that overthrow of a wide-open Aaron Moorehead; had Manning finessed that pass just a smidgeon more, it's the game's only touchdown. If he can't hit those opportunities against the Patriots, it's going to be yet another long spring and summer.
I guess I should say something about Adam Vinatieri's brilliance, but I've promised myself to refrain from praising the pride of Yankton, S.D., until he updates his Web site. Seriously, Adam, show some loyalty and throw a Colts photo up there on the front page, won't you? Though if you nail a game-winner against your former comrades this Sunday, I'll think about letting it slide.
As for the NFC matchup, I've been wracking my brain trying to come up with a reason the Saints shouldn't win. The best I can do is guess that the frigid weather will turn their young receiving corps' hands to stone, thereby negating the brilliance of Drew Brees. But come to think of it, there's a simple enough remedy for that: Just bang Deuce McAllister between the tackles 25 times, and swing it out to Reggie Bush once in a while. With DT Tommie Harris on injured reserve, I just don't see the Bears winning a frigid slugfest. Bet that makes you happy, Josh, though I should warn you—I also predicted that the Colts would hang three touchdowns on the Ravens. Good thing I don't gamble.