By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
Inexperienced backups are sure to be tested by Colts QB Peyton Manning.
A lot of things went right for the Patriots against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game last January.
Inclement weather in Foxboro. Inefficient offense by the Colts. Inept interpretation of the rules by the officials.
But the big reason for the Patriots' 24-14 win was that their defensive backs, led by veteran cornerback Ty Law, were absolutely unbeatable.
They spent the day mashing the Colts' receivers in a performance so physical that it forced coach Tony Dungy to complain to the league that officials were not honoring the spirit of the pass interference rule. The league agreed and told officials to be more aware of down-field contact this season.
Now, the reigning Super Bowl champs find themselves in somewhat of a bind. The Colts are back and they are better.
And the same Patriots secondary that did all the mauling has lost some of its teeth.
Law, who picked off Peyton Manning three times in that game, is out for the season. Tyrone Poole, the other starting cornerback, is also on injured reserve. Second-year cornerback Eugene Wilson has a banged-up thigh, but will be used at safety and corner.
The Patriots likely will start second-year player Asante Samuel and rookie Randall Gay at cornerbacks. They also could use third-year player Earthwind Moreland and rookie safety Dexter Reid.
Considering the pedigree of the Colts receivers, relying on inexperienced defensive backs will be risky.
"We've been playing good ball without Ty," Wilson said in Foxboro. "Unfortunately, he's not going to be there with us, so we have to get that out of our minds right now and move forward. We've got to play our best. We're going to get the game plan and execute it to our best ability. That's what we try to do every week. It's going to be a very challenging game, just like all of them are."
But this is not like any other game. Manning threw an NFL record 49 touchdowns. Receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley each had at least 10 touchdowns and 1,000 yards receiving. They have a superb running back in Edgerrin James, and two solid tight ends in Dallas Clark, who didn't play in the championship game, and Marcus Pollard, who was hurt.
For Samuel, the task is formidable, but not insurmountable.
"I think I got better, more confident, (from) last year, being a rookie and not knowing what to expect," Samuel said. "But this year, I know what to expect and I am more confident. No matter who it is, you have to go out there and be confident. If you don't, you're going to play your worst."
At one point this season, receiver Troy Brown and linebacker Don Davis were used as defensive backs and performed well.
A sign of desperation came with the last-minute signing Monday of journeyman cornerback Hank Poteat.
"I think you have to do whatever you need to do defensively to be competitive and to try to stop what they are doing," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said at a news conference. "I think you are going to have to do everything eventually in a game - play man, play zone, pressure. You are going to have to stop the run. You are going to have to stop the pass."
That task seems daunting. Against the Broncos on Sunday, Manning passed for 457 yards and four touchdowns.
"You are talking about the most productive quarterback in the league," Belichick said. "It isn't like he can't look out there and see who is covering who. It isn't like you can't take the guy and flip him from one corner to the other corner and run it 50 yards across the field wherever you are. That's why they do it that way. They spread out. They make you defend their formation and they see where you are, and then they decide what they want to do."
The Patriots face an obvious matchup challenge. In the championship game, Law shut down Harrison, while Wayne and Stokley were rendered relatively quiet. Picking out the No. 1 receiver won't be that easy this week. While Harrison was held to four catches for 50 yards against the Broncos, Wayne stepped up with 10 catches for a career-high 221 yards and two touchdowns.
"To me, the No. 1 receiver is the guy who is open, and that is who he usually gets the ball to," Belichick said. "So, whichever guy is open, that is where it is going. Whatever guy has the best matchup, then that is who he is looking to throw the ball to."
With such an inexperienced secondary, the Patriots are likely to play less physical than they did last year. Where Law and company were jamming the Colts at the line of scrimmage, the new starters are likely to drop back a bit to keep the Colts in front of them.
"The closer you get to the line of scrimmage, the more the ball is going up over your head," Belichick said. "It is going to be a lot bigger chunks and big plays than if you play on top of them and make them throw the ball in front of you. There is going to be less yards per catch, if you make the tackle, and they are going to have to run more plays.
"It doesn't mean that they aren't going to move the ball and it doesn't mean that they aren't going to score, but maybe they don't get it all on one play."
But as depleted as the Patriots secondary may be, Belichick cautioned those reserving seats on the Colts bandwagon.
"In the end, it's going to be how our football team plays against their football team," Belichick said. "Their offense is one-third of it, their special teams is one-third of it and their defense is one-third of it. And vice versa. Everyone is going to have to play a role in this game, it's going to have to be a complementary game. I don't think it will be decided by any one aspect of it. It will be a combination of all three of them.
"In the end, it will be whichever team can collectively play better with all of them combined. I don't think any one phase is either going to win it or lose it."
Information from other news sources was used in this report.