You read my mind regarding the Patriots’ secondary, Seth. Agreed that Asante Samuel has a good shot at containing Marvin Harrison, who’s apparently suffering from a gimpy wrist (on top of his lifelong inability to crack a smile). I could even see Ellis Hobbs limiting Reggie Wayne to, say, four or five receptions for under 100 yards; you can be sure that Belichick is scheming to get Hobbs some safety help on Wayne. But when the Colts line up in their four- and five-receiver sets, watch out. The over-the-middle skills of Dallas Clark have already been well documented, but I’ve also got high hopes for backup wideout Aaron Moorehead and third-string tight end Bryan Fletcher. Peyton Manning trusts both despite their relatively low positions on the Colts depth chart, and the 6-foot-5 Fletcher in particular will pose matchup problems for the Pats nickelbacks.
It was not polite of you to bring up Laurence Maroney’s unadulterated awesomeness, however. You might recall that Bill Polian had an enormous man crush on Maroney prior to last year’s draft. But then the Patriots picked nine spots ahead of the Colts, and they bogarted the University of Minnesota stud for their own nefarious purposes. So, Polian had to settle for LSU running back Joseph Addai, who’s fast around the tackles but perhaps a little butterfingered. Given Tony Dungy’s penchant for going conservative in the playoffs, I’m guessing that the sure-handed Dominic Rhodes gets the bulk of the Colts’ carries on Sunday, as he did in the fourth quarter against the Ravens.
Not a bad decision, necessarily, but I dread Dungy’s penchant for playing scared in the postseason. Few people caught this, but last year against the Steelers, Dungy called for a punt late in the third quarter with the Colts down by 18. I could understand the call if it was a fourth-and-long, but the Colts were facing a fourth and 2. Manning almost had a coronary upon realizing that his coach was basically waving the white flag, and he refused to pull the offense off the field. Dungy relented, and Manning and the offense stayed on the field. Net result: a first down, and almost a miraculous victory. (I’ll reiterate what I said yesterday: Mrs. Nick Harper, did you really have to stab your hubby the night before the biggest game of his life? Couldn’t you have waited to unleash your inner Brutus until mid-February?)
Given the Pats’ suspect secondary, especially if SS Rodney Harrison can’t play (and he’s currently listed as “doubtful”), this Sunday’s definitely not the time for Dungy’s patented playoff conservatism. I mean, could the circumstances be any better for a vulgar display of air power? Yeah, yeah, I know, you have to establish the run in order to make the play-action work. But Tony, my man, come on—live a little. Unless you’re up by more than a touchdown in the fourth quarter, in which case you should feel free to run Rhodes up the gut to your heart’s content.
Seth, you also asked about the Colts’ run defense, a topic of endless fascination for those of us who live and die by the Horseshoe. More telling than the D-line’s stellar stats the past few games might have been the broad smile on defensive tackle Booger McFarland’s face, flashed at the end of the Ravens game as he and Dungy recounted their glory years in Tampa. Cory Simon was supposed to be the run stuffer who’d get us to a Super Bowl, but a mysterious “non-football illness” (rumored to stem from a near-suicidal fondness for jalapeño poppers) landed Simon on IR. And with DT Larry Tripplett lost to free agency in the offseason, the interior defensive line turned gelatinous. Even McFarland couldn’t fix the problem at first, but he finally seems to be adjusting nicely to life sandwiched between Robert Mathis and Raheem Brock. If McFarland keeps his motor running, and run-support maven Cato June can fight through some post-concussion cobwebs, I like our chances for keeping Maroney and Corey Dillon under, say, 125 yards combined.
Josh, you make a convincing case for why I should root for the Saints—Lord knows the citizens of New Orleans deserve some good news. I’ll admit that the Colts aren’t the most lovable franchise around, a personality that stems in part from their utilitarian home stadium, and in part because the team is essentially devoid of larger-than-life characters aside from Manning and his “laser rocket arm.” Harrison, as noted above, is sort of the anti- Chad Johnson—after a circus touchdown grab, number 88 looks as excited as if he’d just completed his 1040EZ form. Dwight Freeney and Reggie Wayne, meanwhile, strike me as football nerds, the kinds of guys who’ll talk your ear off about the nuances of the trips formation or the swim move, but are otherwise no more engaging than Alistair Darling.
If you need a story line to pull for the Colts, the best we have is that Manning is trying to avoid Dan Marino’s ringless fate. If that doesn’t cut it for you, how about this: the redemption of Art Schlichter. Everyone who dismisses Ryan Leaf as the worst-ever first-round pick must have forgotten about poor Art. He was the fourth pick in the 1982 draft, two years before the Baltimore Colts packed up the Mayflower trucks and snuck off to Indiana. Schlichter’s career was cut short by his gambling addiction, and he’s spent years going in and out of prisons on various fraud charges. Now he’s out and, by all accounts, walking the straight and narrow. Maybe having the Colts win it all would somehow seal Schlichter’s recovery. I imagine him at the victory parade in downtown Indianapolis, hugging Colts owner Jim Irsay while the crowd chants, “We love you, Art! We love you, Art!”
Of course, I also dream about flying out to Indy this weekend and scoring seats on the 50-yard line, but that sure ain’t going to happen. Too bad, as there’s a Mexican restaurant near the RCA Dome that serves a first-rate bowl of menudo. Alas, I’m going to be stuck in front of my 17-inch TV at home, eating roast chicken and killing a sixer of Presidente. How about you, Justin—any yen to make the Soldier Field pilgrimage this Sunday?