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True test awaits Manning, Colts
The long-range weather report for Foxboro, Mass., next Sunday is partly cloudy with temperatures from 20 to 30 degrees. Not exactly the RCA Dome this week: no wind and 72.
Yes, Peyton Manning is great, the best active NFL quarterback and moving up the list of the best ever.
But beating a flawed Denver team 49-24 at home in the first round of the playoffs Sunday is not the same as going into frigid Foxboro against the winner of two of the last three Super Bowls.
So far road teams have fared well in the playoffs -- better than ever before in fact. Three of the four winners in the wild-card round were road teams. The Colts were the only home team to win and they'll be the best of the second-round road teams.
They will need all the skill they can muster -- they have lost to the Patriots five straight times, including in last year's AFC championship game and on the opening night of this season, both times in Foxboro.
Indianapolis-New England will be the final game of next weekend's Super Bowl quarterfinals, which will begin with the other AFC semifinal, the New York Jets at Pittsburgh on Saturday. The Patriots are favored by 3 points; the Steelers by 9.
In the NFC, Minnesota will be at Philadelphia early Sunday after upsetting Green Bay 31-17, joining St. Louis as the first 8-8 teams to advance in the playoffs. The Rams, who beat Seattle 27-20 on Saturday, now go to Atlanta for a Saturday night game.
As with the AFC games, these are rematches. Philadelphia beat the Vikings 27-16 in the second week of the season, a day after Atlanta beat St. Louis 34-17 in the Georgia Dome.The Eagles are favored by 9 points, the Falcons by 7.
The most interesting game will be in Foxboro, matching Manning and the other record breakers in the Colts' offense against the defending champs.
They also have the home weather advantage.
Of Manning's record 49 touchdown passes, 32 were indoors -- 26 at home and six more at Detroit's Ford Field.
And in the five losses to New England dating to 2001, Manning has thrown just nine TD passes along with nine interceptions. Once again, he will be facing Tom Brady, who doesn't have Manning's numbers but has the title -- two, actually -- that Manning lacks.
So Foxboro will be a different story, though it probably will be more like this season's opener, a 27-24 New England victory, than last season's title game, a 24-14 Patriots win that wasn't really that close.
Manning threw four interceptions in the title game. He had just one in this season's matchup -- in the end zone by the Patriots' Tedy Bruschi on a pass thrown from the New England 6 on the Colts' first possession.
The end of that game was also indicative of why the Patriots have won those two Super Bowls, had a 21-game winning streak over two seasons, and are just the third team with back-to-back 14-2 regular seasons. With the Colts in position for a game-tying field goal, Manning was sacked by Willie McGinest for a 13-yard loss, a typical big play by one of the many big-play guys for the Patriots.
Mike Vanderjagt, forced to kick from 48 yards after the sack, missed a field goal and New England won.
But the Colts seem confident they can keep their prolific offense going -- even in Foxboro in January.
"When the playoffs come around, you definitely want be hitting on all cylinders," said second-year tight end Dallas Clark, who had six catches for 112 yards on Sunday. "I think we are, and the team keeps getting better every game."
Next weekend's other AFC game is also a rematch. The Steelers beat the Jets 17-6 in Chad Pennington's second game back from a bruised rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. Pennington's passes fluttered in that game and he threw three interceptions.
He was a lot more confident in New York's dramatic 20-17 overtime upset Saturday night in San Diego, and his arm looked a lot stronger, notably on a perfect 47-yard pass that hit Santana Moss in stride for a touchdown.
"Obviously I didn't play well the last time we played Pittsburgh, so those questions will be asked again," Pennington said Sunday.
Most of Pittsburgh's starters will have had two weeks off going into the game; the subs actually played well enough in the finale to knock Buffalo out of the playoffs.
So Ben Roethlisberger, who became the first quarterback ever to be voted NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, will have rested his bruised ribs, and Plaxico Burress and other banged-up Steelers will be healthier.
Rested teams sometimes get rusty, though.
Probably not the Steelers -- coach Bill Cowher won't allow it: He had the backups playing hard in Buffalo, and the starters surely will come out strong against the Jets.
Philadelphia, which started 13-1 before tanking its last two games, should be the prohibitive favorite in the NFC. But they will be without Terrell Owens and may have lost momentum resting most of their key players in those last two losses.
The Vikings have the offensive weapons to cause problems for the Eagles, although Randy Moss, who had two touchdown catches, was limping throughout the 31-17 win in Green Bay. But while their defense played well in Green Bay, it's inconsistent at best. Even without Owens, Philadelphia should move the ball.
St. Louis will have what it likes in Atlanta -- an indoor stadium and a fast track. But the track also benefits Michael Vick, who ran for 109 yards and was 14-of-19 for 179 yards in the first meeting.
Moreover, the Rams are a bad road team -- 3-6 now, with two wins in Seattle and the third over San Francisco, the NFL's worst team this season.
Maybe in the next round the home teams will actually have an advantage.