AFC Championship game: New England at Indianapolis
Sunday, Jan. 21, 2007 6: 30 p.m. ET
The Colts will win if…
1. Quarterback Peyton Manning keeps throwing the ball between the hashes and up the seams to tight end Dallas Clark, and continues to check down to tailback Joseph Addai. There is no doubt that the studs in the Indianapolis passing attack are wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. But Clark provides the Colts a different dimension and, when he is flexed into the slot, is a difficult matchup for any defense. Because the cornerbacks need help from the safeties to cover the wide receivers, Clark becomes almost impossible to bracket sometimes. In his last three games since returning from a knee injury, Clark has 15 catches for 200 yards. And Addai, with 10 receptions in the playoffs, helps move the chains.
2. Defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis generate sufficient pressure on the pocket to keep New England quarterback Tom Brady from getting into one of his hot-streak rhythms. The Colts have seen Brady at his marksman's best in the past, working out of three- and five-step drops and throwing the ball with uncanny accuracy and timing. If he gets into one of those grooves, all the noise in the RCA Dome won't be enough to disrupt the Pats' timing. Mathis and Freeney, particularly the latter, are big-game players who seem to be at their best when the national spotlight is on them. Freeney had a career-low 5½ sacks during the regular season, but has two sacks and two quarterback strips in the playoffs.
3. Kicker Adam Vinatieri, who provided all the scoring in Saturday's divisional-round upset victory at Baltimore, is on the field, lined up over a potential game-winning field goal in the waning seconds of the AFC Championship game. Some irony, huh, if that's the case? The guy who put two Super Bowl rings on the fingers of Patriots' players with winning field goals in a pair of title games and was part of a third Super Bowl win as well, beating the Patriots. The Colts signed the game's greatest clutch kicker for such an occasion. Vinatieri has nailed all eight field goal attempts in two playoff games this season. He is now 34-for-42, an .810 conversion rate, on field goal tries in the playoffs. The Colts will feel more comfortable with him on the field than they did when Mike Vanderjagt was lined up for the potential game-tying kick in last year's divisional-round loss to Pittsburgh.
The Patriots will win if…
1. Strong safety Rodney Harrison miraculously returns from the sprained medial collateral ligament that has sidelined him the past two weeks and owner Bob Kraft successfully petitions the league to allow him to borrow Kansas City cornerback Ty Law for the game. Both secondary stalwarts are the longtime nemeses, of course, of Peyton Manning. Seriously, the New England secondary is going to need a big game from everyone, including suspect safeties Artrell Hawkins and James Sanders. Cornerback Asante Samuel has played lights-out of late, but he can only handle one of the wide receivers. The Pats have to keep the action in front of them, tackle well and not surrender any game-altering big plays.