Improved Patriots are still a threat to Colts

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Here is the worst possible scenario for the Indianapolis Colts: The New England Patriots, getting healthier, win their first-round playoff game and arrive at the RCA Dome primed to do just what they've done for the past two seasons -- bounce the Colts out of the playoffs.

Coming off this weekend's results, it seems more than possible.

It might even be a pretty good bet.

Say the Colts cruise through the last two games -- win, lose, who cares? -- as Jim Sorgi, Dominic Rhodes, Aaron Moorehead and some even lesser-known guys play a lot against Seattle and Arizona. The starters see enough action to keep their edge and wounded guys heal up. That's the reward they get for starting 13-0 and getting home-field advantage in the postseason.

Now think about their likely playoff opponents.

The Colts have dispatched Denver from the playoffs the last two seasons 41-10 and 49-24, so they probably won't mind seeing the Broncos too much. Pittsburgh isn't the same team it was last year and lost 26-7 in the dome on Nov. 28. And Cincinnati, a 45-37 loser to the Colts at home on Nov. 20, has almost no one with playoff experience. Cincy seems a little too young and brash to get by the Colts on the road.

But think about a second-round matchup between the Patriots and the host Colts. Because when/if they meet, the Colts won't be playing the same New England team they beat 40-21 in Foxborough on Nov. 7.

"I think we've gotten a little better in the last month," an understated Bill Belichick said after his team beat on Tampa Bay, an NFC playoff contender, 28-0 on Saturday.

Beyond that, New England, though only 9-5, will get some rest, too. It has already clinched what is arguably the NFL's worst division and has no chance of getting a first-round bye. So the wounded players who haven't fully healed yet, can continue to work into shape.

The way the seedings break down right now, the Patriots will get their first game at home against warm-weather Jacksonville, hardly a fearsome opponent after stumbling to a 10-9 win over San Francisco on Sunday.

If the Patriots win that game? They have a good shot at meeting Indy in the second round. It's not guaranteed because the NFL re-seeds after the first round, and if the sixth seed -- New England would be No. 4 -- wins in the first round (Pittsburgh, perhaps), it would go to Indianapolis and the Pats would play the second-seeded team, either Denver or Cincinnati.

But the Patriots and Colts still could meet in the AFC title game.

And whenever they play, think about this: New England plays a 3-4 defense similar to the Chargers' 3-4 that was in Peyton Manning's face all day Sunday.

New England has far more experience and playoff savvy. Now that Tedy Bruschi has rounded into form, Richard Seymour has returned from injury and Mike Vrabel has moved to inside linebacker, it has to have one of the most experienced and skilled front sevens in football.

Think Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren (plus Jarvis Green) up front with Willie McGinest, Bruschi, Vrabel and a rejuvenated Rosevelt Colvin at linebacker. They shut down Carnell "Cadillac" Williams on Saturday and sacked Chris Simms seven times, ensuring that Simms couldn't exploit the improved but still shaky secondary.

Even with a 13-0 start, the Colts have won nothing yet. The Patriots have won three titles in four seasons and have their own history to sh¼oot for, trying to become the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls. With all due respect to Tony Dungy (career record 106-64), he is 5-7 in the postseason to Belichick's 10-1. And with all due respect to Manning (with his records and MVP trophies), Tom Brady has three rings and he has none.

Yes, the Colts will rebound from Sunday's loss. But their prospects of reaching the ultimate goal will improve markedly if someone -- anyone -- knocks off the Patriots before they get to Indy.

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