Although Pittsburgh won the home-field advantage for this week's AFC title game, the Patriots will be there with the wilier coach, Bill Belichick, and the more mature quarterback, Tom Brady, who each own a 2-0 edge in Super Bowl games won over Pittsburgh's coach, Bill Cowher, and quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
It was no surprise Sunday that the Patriots and Eagles won from the Colts, 20-3, and Vikings, 27-14.
But the football public was stunned that Colt passer Peyton Manning was shut down. The explanation, once more, is that Manning is both a great passer and a bad quarterback. Allowed to call many Colt plays, he shared the snaps with Edgerrin James while the game was on the line, reasoning, incorrectly, that he needed James' runs to set up his passing. Actually, all Manning needed was an occasional James run along with a few fakes and many, many more passes, particularly on first down. Manning, the world's greatest passer, doesn't see that, doesn't get it. His is the football mystery story of the year.
Peyton Plays Into Belichick's Hands
PATRIOT LEADER BELICHICK takes his place now as the NFL's most dominating coach since Bill Walsh (who in the 1980s built the Super Bowl's only five-time winner) and among the three most dominating coaches since Knute Rockne. (The other is 1960s champion Vince Lombardi.)
Belichick, however, couldn't have done it Sunday if Manning hadn't played into his hands with a pathetic, predictable offense.
Although first down is by far the best passing down against Belichick, or any other NFL defensive genius, it was only in the last two minutes of the first half that Manning, directing the Colts' 11-play, 67-yard field-goal drive, threw the ball on every first-down play and, indeed, on every play but one.
In no other series that day did Manning relentlessly move the Colts along, for, on every other series, he kept trying to involve running back James. In all the time before the score rose to 20-3 halfway through the fourth quarter, Manning was a passer on only three of the Colts'14 first-down plays. On 11 of the 14, any junior college quarterback could have done what Manning did: hand the football off. And after all the time Manning wasted stretching out to hand his tailback the ball, James gained a total of 39 yards.
Even more revealing, Manning, in the third quarter, gave his side no chance whatever. As the game slipped away, the Colts, with the NFL's best passing team and one of the best ever, continued to run every time they had a first-down call in the third quarter — four times — and threw it on every second-down play. In other words, Manning blessed Belichick with the most predictable possible offense.
Colts' Game Plan Lacking in Smarts
THE SIGNIFICANCE of first down is that it's the one down when every defensive expert, Belichick included, must be prepared for run and pass both — even when he realizes that one or the other is probable. Thus, first and 10 is the best of times to throw.
On third and five or 10 — as defensive coordinators all know — every man, woman and child in the stadium can predict pass.
Arithmetically, the problem with a first-down run is that even when it gains seven or eight yards, a pass play could have gained 15 or 20 yards or more. That's the root argument in favor of passing over running: A successful pass advances a good offensive team closer to the touchdown line than does a successful run.
When running teams spring a ballcarrier for 100 or 150 yards in one afternoon — as Indianapolis and Pittsburgh so often do — they simply aren't passing often enough to produce the several more touchdowns they could expect with, say, a 300-yard passing day.
Nonetheless, in Foxboro as usual, the Colts' foolish, run-based offense somehow pleased their offensive coordinator Tom Moore. Either that or Moore doesn't have the will or know-how to change it
The Shaughnessy-Belichick Defense
THE CONVENTIONAL explanation for Manning's many defeats in New England is, of course, partially true: In New England, he keeps bumping into the best defensive coach of his time.