Trojan Horse

After watching Pete Carroll at work over the years in the NFL and at USC, I'd say there are two things that his friends and fans can count on. In the first place, Carroll, who is as good-hearted as he is good-natured, would be as effective coaching a pro club as he has been at USC.

Second, however, he could never enjoy the life of an NFL coach, a frustrating life in which the nation's top college players must be shared with the 31 other pro teams. As a USC recruiter, Carroll is so personable and persuasive that he shares the players he wants with nobody.

Sitting at the kitchen table with Mrs. Jones, he rarely loses when he looks in her eyes and says, "Mary, I need your son."

For he only uses this touch when he means it, and the Mary Joneses sense that.

As I said when USC first considered him four years ago, Carroll will win here because he's the best recruiter I'd known in 66 years as a football writer. It's unthinkable that the alumni would let him go. It will be harder to hold onto his quarterback, Matt Leinart, but that can be done too. All Leinart needs is an insurance policy against an injury that would threaten his pro career if he plays another year for the Trojans. What's more, as I first wrote for a 1934 newspaper, to be a USC student with a car of your own has to be the greatest life in the world.

For a Change, Colts Do It Right

THE INDIANPOLIS COLTS came out passing Sunday for the first time this season. In earlier games, their passer, Peyton Manning, had shared the snaps with Edgerrin James, who is almost as efficient in his specialty, running the ball, as Manning is when he throws it. The difference — and it's a huge one — is that good running backs aren't nearly as productive as good passers, as Manning demonstrated Sunday when he routed Denver, 49-24.

James rarely carried the ball against the Broncos in the 35-3 first half, when Manning, throwing on first down most of the time, took the Colts to five of their seven touchdowns.

The Colts hadn't played that way during the regular season, when they lost three times though James experienced three big days running the ball. Hence, they must play their next playoff game on an outdoor ice rink in frozen New England Sunday instead of their indoor stadium in Indianapolis.

The NFL awards postseason game sites to teams winning the most regular-season starts. And Manning wasted so much time faking handoffs or handing off to James in losses to Kansas City, Jacksonville and New England that he faked himself out of the home-field advantage in the playoffs.

It may sound unreal that a quarterback who passes for an all-time record 49 touchdowns, as Manning did this season, didn't pass often enough — but that's it, precisely. The truth is that James, except as a decoy, is all but irrelevant to the Manning offense, which works just as well with backup runners. The Colts only need James on second and long or other sure passing situations when the defensive focus is on Manning. Instead they've co-featured him in every game this season until last week against Denver, when, as Manning finally opened up, the rout was the payoff.

Brady or Manning? The Field Will Tell

THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS are a passing team too, or have been, or can be, and Patriot passer Tom Brady will have two advantages on Manning. He will be playing at home, and he's had more practice (and more success) passing in winter weather. He even wins in driving snowstorms.

The field will dictate what happens, but on any kind of field, the Brady-Manning showdown will be the big game of the pro season so far, by far — although it could be eclipsed a week later by either Brady or Manning at Pittsburgh.

If the Manning circus train instead of the Edgerrin James freight train unpacks in Foxboro, it is by no means a sure thing that it will be derailed by an off track. The principal unanswerable question of the week is what kind of off track it turns out to be. Supposing the referees can keep the football dry, and supposing there isn't too much wind, Manning and his three gifted little receivers should be able to navigate — even in freezing weather — much as they do on their indoor field in Indiana. For passing teams, a freeze is passable. Indeed, the Colts figure on a clear, cold day.

On a sloppy field or in a New England windstorm, Brady will have the advantage in part because his receivers are a bit bigger than Manning's and because his offensive line is considerably bigger. What's more, the Patriots can be expected to attack aggressively with their good pass offense. By contrast, despite Manning's skills with a thrown ball, he usually wants to set up his passes with handoffs to James. Against a wily team like New England's, that will cost him.

The final pre-game unanswered question is what difference it will make to the Patriots to have so many of their good defensive players out with injuries. The Patriot coach, Bill Belichick, has been the NFL's most successful over the years in the science of plugging up injury-related holes — but plugging up against Manning is something else.

Chargers Lose to Their Own Play-Callers

THE SAN DIEGO CHARGERS, with the NFL's fourth or fifth best team, are out of the playoffs in large part because of their players' unfamiliarity with the pressures of the postseason, in which the demand is for the right mix of coolness and emotion. When they lost to the New York Jets on wild-card Saturday, 20-17, the Chargers played their game much of the time, but started tense and finished tense, and that finished them.

Quarterback Drew Brees, throwing often to converted basketball player Antonio Gates, brought the Chargers from 10 points down to 17-17 at the end of regulation. Then after their defensive team stopped the Jets in overtime, Brees, skillfully manipulating offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's plays, passed the Chargers down the field again — as far as the Jet 32. But he never threw another pass.

The Chargers' last six offensive plays of the 2004-05 season were all runs, which is the way the good NFL teams did it a half century ago, maybe, but not now. What's more, their last three plays, in the tensions of a fifth-quarter tie, were all power plays by LaDainian Tomlinson, a speed-and-moves expert who isn't a power runner. Nor in the gathering tension could his blocking line give him much help. In such circumstances, the best blockers in the world, whoever they might be, can't be relied on to blast a hole in an eight-man line.

It's unclear whether Cameron or Coach Marty Schottenheimer made those fated final decisions, for the San Diego head coach doesn't wear a headset. But it's just the way Schottenheimer would have run the game at the end, had he been the play-caller, and it beat him. It was a rare rainy day in the Southland, and the kicker he's hired is a rookie, who predictably, on the slick field, missed from 40 yards.

That made the other quarterback, Chad Pennington, the winner, Pennington doing it with the accurately thrown long passes he's capable of. Though the Big Apple media seems to have declared war on him, Pennington, when injury-free, ranks with the best there are in his profession.

A Warmup Game for Philadelphia

THE MINNESOTA VIKINGS have one thing in common with the Green Bay Packers, whom they walloped the other day, 31-17, to advance to next Sunday's second-round game in Philadelphia. If you combined Minnesota's best defensive players with the best of Green Bay's, you'd have the NFL's 25th or 26th best defensive team.

Thus if the Eagles still have Super Bowl pretensions minus their injured ace, Terrell Owens, their meeting with Minnesota appears to give them a splendid warmup occasion. It's been a month or more since most of the Eagles have played in a counting game, and they could need some adjustment time.

They need fear only a shootout, in which Daunte Culpepper of Minnesota might outshoot Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb. A bigger version of Ben Roethlisberger, Culpepper is still throwing to the Viking equivalent of Owens, handy Randy Moss. After the Packer game, Moss probably had the best explanation for why his team played so tension-free and skillfully that day. The media, he believes, by focusing on Moss' antics, took the pressure off the rest of the Vikings.

For the Eagles, McNabb doesn't have much to throw to now, but the rest of his team remains the NFC's most solid.

Rams Match Up Well With Vick

THE ST. LOUIS RAMS, after taking care of Seattle again in Saturday's NFC wild-card game, 27-20, are surprisingly on pace, following an 8-8 regular season, to make the Super Bowl and conceivably even win it. There's still one key if. They can keep rolling on if, in Atlanta Saturday night and thereafter, early and often, they attack with their best players, who are also the NFL's best pass-offense players.

On defense, emphasizing speed, the Rams match up well with the Falcons, whose quarterback, Michael Vick, can be the most exciting player in any tournament. In recent weeks, the Rams have shown that they're mastering their new gap defense — in which they can use their superior speed to charge between blockers and attack Falcon ballcarriers while simultaneously rushing Vick. In their secondary at the same time, the Rams, favoring zone defense, are amply experienced in the right coverages for Vick. The problem with man-for-man defenses in an Atlanta game is that in such alignments, pass-defense players have to turn their backs on Vick to cover his receivers. And with their backs turned, they don't see him darting away from collapsing pockets and tearing off — when he is the most dangerous.

As a football organization, the Rams might not be solid enough to overwhelm Atlanta except on offense. They still own the NFL's most formidable offensive team when Marc Bulger is throwing to Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce or Marshall Faulk or the young threats from Shaun McDonald and Kevin Curtis to Dane Looker and Mike Furrey — provided only that Coach Mike Martz is calling pass plays. If Martz uses Faulk on first-down power plays, Vick wins going away.