Foxborough, Mass. - Even before they take the field for Sunday's AFC Divisional playoff game, it has been difficult for the New England Patriots defense to stop the Indianapolis Colts. Everywhere they read, view or listen, the undeniable truths of the Colts' prolific offensive attack is not only present, but nearly unstoppable. If the game were played on paper, or the airwaves, or the court of public opinion, the Patriots defense would already be overwhelmed.
It has been the most talked about storyline heading into Sunday's game at Gillette Stadium. If the game is to be played out as scripted, it will be the high-scoring and record setting offense of the Colts with NFL MVP Peyton Manning versus the injury depleted secondary of the Patriots, a group who is often referred to as nothing more than "patchwork" because of the number of players who have suited up this season.
No one - especially the Patriots - will deny the superiority of the Colts' attack. Many of the Patriots defenders have given due diligence to praising and respecting the Colts this week, reaching the point where there isn't much left to say. The Patriots defense respects the Colts. But in the same breath, many veterans on the defense exude confidence in a unit that finished tied for second in the NFL this season in scoring defense.
"Of course we're confident," Linebacker Willie McGinest said. "Why wouldn't we be? We're not going to hold our head down and put our tail between our legs. We're going to come out confident. We're going to be ready to play. We're not going to bow down to anybody."
For the Patriots, it's not so much about stopping the Indianapolis juggernaut offense as it is about slowing it down. If recent history is any indication, stopping Indianapolis - at least enough to win, which is all that matters - is entirely possible.
"Well, I think we can," Linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "I think that we've proven that we've been able to win the games. I don't think that you're going to limit them to 250 yards total offense. I just don't think that's really in the books. But there's things you can do well and there's things that you can try to take away."
The Patriots recent success against Manning and the Colts is well documented. The Patriots have won five straight and six of the last seven meetings since the start of the 2000 season, relying on big plays and turnovers to turn games. In last year's AFC Championship Game, it was Manning's four interceptions - including three by cornerback Ty Law - and another fumble that derailed the Colts. Flash back to this season's opener and it was the same story, as the Colts turned the ball over three times inside the Patriots 22-yard line, with two fumbles by Edgerrin James and a terrific goal line interception of Manning by linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
The success has taught the veteran defense they can be fully aware of the Colts' potency, yet remain confident.
"There's no question [if we're confident]," Linebacker Ted Johnson said. "You're certainly cautiously optimistic. I think we're confident in what we've done. There might be a perception that we're not as good, or whatever, but I think our team has [given] a valiant effort considering the injuries we've had in the secondary and the guys who have filled in have done a great job. Their roles have expanded unexpectedly, and I think the guys who have stepped in have done a great job. I expect the same effort this week."
Most of the questions regarding the Patriots ability to stop - err, slow down - the Colts' offense starts in the defensive secondary.
The Patriots are without starting cornerbacks Law and Tyrone Poole, both on the injured reserve. They've played much of the season with second-year player Asante Samuel - who started the season as the nickel back - and undrafted rookie Randall Gay starting at cornerback, but injuries took their toll on the reserves as well. Samuel (three) and Gay (one) both missed time with injuries, forcing starting safety Eugene Wilson to make three starts at cornerback himself before sitting out the season finale with a thigh injury. Reserve Earthwind Moreland, signed off the practice squad in early November, and rookie safety Deter Reid have both seen more playing time than most expected, while receiver Troy Brown has played the second half of the season at nickel back and linebacker Don Davis has started two games at safety.
The Patriots even went out and signed street free agents Antwan Harris and Hank Poteat this week over practice squad defensive back Omare Lowe because of their playoff experience.
Rodney Harrison has been the one constant this season, starting 16 games at safety and tying a career-high with 138 tackles to lead the team for the second straight season. Much of what the Patriots have done in the secondary is relying on untested players to execute the game plan, and to this point it's worked. The secondary, which Harrison says has grown up over the course of the season, won't be asked to do anything they haven't done in recent weeks.
"No question [they've grown up], because of so many injuries and so many questions about 'How will the Patriots make it? How could they get to the next level?'" Harrison said. "These guys have done a great job now, considering some games - like Cincinnati - we gave up a bunch of yards. But it's not always our fault. It's a total defensive effort. But we take responsibility. We go out there and just keep playing."
Part of what the Patriots mindset is stepping in for injured players not missing a beat. The Patriots are confident they can duplicate their succes, precisely because they've done it before. One Patriots players said the defense had its best week of practice this season preparing for what is likely its biggest challenge in the Colts.
"We have guys who are in there now who aren't normal starters, but like we always say, that's the NFL," McGinest said. "We have a lot of confidence in the guys that are in there. Hopefully they can play up to the level that the other guys were. They've been prepared. They've been tested all year long. We think they can do the job. Everything will prove itself out on Sunday."
It was even difficult for Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy to dance around the topic this week. What no one wants to say is the Patriots are better defense with Law and Poole on the field. He warned his team this week about taking the Patriots lightly.
"Obviously, if you're going to ask me would I rather play these guys without Ty Law and Tyrone Poole in the game, or the next two corners, the politically correct answer would be, 'Oh yeah, we want to beat them with their best guys in there.' But if you can take a Pro Bowl player out of the game, obviously, the other guys aren't going to play as well.
"But I think the thing New England has shown, is that the object is to win games. Whatever they have come up with to win, 'Hey, we can still win without Ty Law. We can still win without Tyrone Poole.' And those guys have proven that they can. That's one thing I warned our guys against. Don't think, 'Oh well, they have this injury and that injury and Seymour may play and he may not, but they're going to be banged up, so that's going to be the reason we're going to win.' If we win, it's going to be because we go up there and outplay them."
Clearly, an advantage for the Patriots defense is they've played - and won - without Law and Poole for much of the season. Despite appearing optimistic he would return before the end of the regular season, Law missed the final nine games of the season after breaking his foot against Pittsburgh on Oct. 31. Other than playing the first half against Seattle on Oct. 17 and handful of plays against Cincinnati in Week 14, Poole hasn't seen significant action since the third game of the season against Buffalo.
The numbers say the Patriots have gone 8-1 since the injury to Law. And while they've surrendered a number of big plays and large chunks of yardage, the end result on all but one occasion has been a win. The Patriots two most formidable opponents during that span were Kansas City and Cincinnati, neither offense quite the caliber of Indianapolis. The Chiefs rolled to 417 total yards on offense, including a season-worst 353 yards passing allowed to Trent Green, but the Patriots hung on for a 27-19 win. Three weeks later against Cincinnati at home, the Bengals finished with 328 yards passing and 478 total yards, but fell short, losing 25-28 without quarterback Carson Palmer in the second half.
The Patriots acknowledge the Colts' offense represents a different level of challenge. The difficulties for the Patriots will be matching up with arguably the best trio of wide receivers in the NFL - Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley - without Law and Poole, who both played in the Patriots 27-24 win in Week 1. The Colts will also put pressure on Wilson, Harrison and the linebackers in the middle of the field with tight ends Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard.
The Patriots will have to cover the entire field against the Colts, and will miss Law, one of the few NFL cornerbacks able to match up one-on-one against Harrison. Gay, who openly admits he's a target for any opposing quarterback because he's a rookie, may start opposite Samuel, while Wilson could also see significant time at corner. All three - along with Moreland in reserve - will at some point be defending Harrison and Wayne in man coverage, while it remains to be seen how much action Troy Brown will see in the slot against Stokley. They key to the Patriots success in past meetings has been putting pressure on Manning and offsetting his timing without having to blitz aggressively, while giving a combination of coverage looks in both zone and man schemes. The question is how successful the defense can be at giving Manning different looks on Sunday without the same personnel.
The Patriots may not have the luxury of presenting the Colts with as many looks in man-to-man coverage without Law and Poole, meaning the pressure will be squarely on Belichick and Crennel to concoct another game plan to throw off the timing between Manning and his receivers.
"It's going to take a lot for us to step up [with] our best game to slow these guys down," Harrison said. "You can't stop them. You can only contain them."
To be sure, the Patriots understand the unprecedented challenge in front of them.
"It's certainly a huge challenge for us," Vrabel said. "It's a great challenge. It's one that we've tried to embrace this week and really practice hard and try to study and learn. Certainly, every player is going to go out there with the intent of playing their best and trying to apply what we've done this week onto the game field."
"I don't know how you get much tougher," agreed Johnson. "There are some great offenses out there, but this is certainly an offense that hasn't been slowed down. You haven't really seen anybody slow them down. Is it out biggest challenge? Without a doubt, it's a huge challenge for us."