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Offense alone won't do the trick for Colts

GARY SHELTON
Published January 18, 2004

BOSTON - Everybody wants to be the race car. Nobody wants to be the stop sign.

Everybody wants speed and sizzle. Everybody wants to screech around the turns and roar down the straightaway. Everybody wants to leave skid marks.

Nobody wants to be the caution flag.

That's the way life is. Everybody wants to be the party; nobody wants to be the curfew. Everybody wants shortcuts; nobody wants "no trespassing" signs. Everybody wants glory; nobody wants grunt work.

Also, in this matchup of the century that seems to come along every year, we tend to value offense over defense.

Except for this: Defense usually wins.

Here we are again, readying for today's AFC Championship Game, and all the talk is on the heat of the Colts offense instead of the rougher elements that await it, such as the cold and Patriots defense.

It is always this way. Everybody watches fireworks. Nobody watches jackhammers. Offense thrills us, amazes us, takes our breath away. Defense is heavy lifting.

Ah, but coaches know better. Ask Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, who has spent most of his career on the defensive side of such matches. This time, it's his offense that has the sharp teeth; it's the opposition that specializes in filing them down and leaving them blunt.

"People love offense," Dungy said. "That's just the way it is. Offense is more tangible. You get 35 points. You get 38 points. Defense is more subjective."

Subjectively, then, Dungy admits to this: His offense needs some help today, or the Super Bowl will remain beyond his grasp.

As hot as Peyton Manning has been, as much as he has stirred the memories of Montana and Marino ... it isn't enough.

As powerful as Edgerrin James has run, as much as he resembles a bulldozer sliding down a cliff ... it isn't enough.

As elusive as Marvin Harrison has been ... it isn't enough.

"For us to win, we can't be one-dimensional," Dungy said. "We have to play very well on defense and very well on special teams. That's the great thing about playoff football. You never know how it's going to go. Every game has a different flavor.

"I think our offense against their defense is going to be a good matchup, but I think our defense against their offense is going to be good, also."

In other words, Dwight Freeney has to stop with the invisibility. Chad Bratzke has to make a play. Somebody has to take somebody else. As for punter Hunter Smith, well, he has to do something besides linger on the sideline, making S'Mores for his teammates.

Look, a lot of things are stacked against the Colts today. The Patriots have won 13 consecutive games. They're 9-0 at home. It's going to be cold. It's going to be loud. Oh, and evidently, the Patriots are upset at Marcus Pollard's talk, so they're really, really going to try.

For the Colts to win, they probably will have to hold the Patriots to fewer than 20 points. They'll have to win third down. They'll probably have to make a key stop in the fourth quarter.

Oh, and they'll have to score.

With the Colts, all you hear is how they move toward the end zone so easily you want to count the yard stripes to make sure there wasn't a mistake. It's all pretty impressive, right? So impressive, maybe you don't even notice the shadow fighters that are the Patriots defense.

The Patriots, too, are pretty good. They shift around a lot, and they disguise their plays, and they are coldly efficient, just like Manning. Only you couldn't pick them out of a lineup.

They are Tedy Bruschi and Ty Law and Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison and Roman Phifer and the rest.

They play a little defense.

"They have tremendously smart players," Dungy said. "They have guys who understand football. They play so well as a unit. They can play a lot of different styles depending on who they play against. It's fun to watch them. As a defensive coach, I appreciate what they are doing."

Defense always has been the key to Bill Belichick's Patriots. Oh, the yardage numbers were just okay - fifth in the AFC. But the Patriots protect their end zone with the ferocity of guard dogs.

In their last four regular-season home games, the Patriots shut out three opponents. In their last six regular-season home games, they gave up only 22 points. If you're looking for a reason why the Patriots have won 13 games in a row, start there.

At the heart of this defense, of course, is Belichick, whose defenses always have been this adapting, deceptive bunch of bruisers who leave opponents beaten and bewildered.

Remember Super Bowl XXV, when the offense everyone was talking about was the Bills' fast-breaking, no-huddle attack? Belichick, the defensive coordinator for the Giants at the time, peeled a defensive lineman away, inserted another defensive back, and the Giants won in an upset.

Remember two years ago, in Super Bowl XXXVII, when the Patriots put the brakes on the Greatest Show on Turf, a Rams team no one thought could be stopped? The Patriots found a way.

It always seems to work that way. Great defenses seem to find a way to stop great offenses. The 49ers vs. the Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX. The Bucs vs. the Rams in the 2000 NFC title game. The Bucs vs. the Raiders in last year's Super Bowl. Ali vs. Foreman. The English clipper ships vs. the Spanish Armada. Paper vs. rock.

For the Patriots defense, this is the ultimate test. Even if it gets to the Super Bowl against either the Eagles or Panthers, it won't face an offense such as this one.

Offensively, the Colts are a wonder. They're an impressive, turbo-charged machine.

If they're going to survive today, they're going to need a little help.

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