Patriots pound Peyton, Colts

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 19, 2004

FOXBORO, Mass. - The New England Patriots are going back to the Super Bowl with a different identity than they had two years ago.

Back then, the Patriots were the upstarts who beat the mighty St. Louis Rams with an unproven quarterback in Tom Brady.

Now, Brady's a star and the upstarts are New England's opponents, the Carolina Panthers and inexperienced quarterback Jake Delhomme.

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One thing that has been a constant for the Patriots since their first Super Bowl win is their stifling defense. Just ask Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, whose perfect postseason was shattered 24-14 on Sunday by New England in an AFC championship game that wasn't as close as the score indicated.

Manning, who had eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in wins over Denver and Kansas City, threw four picks on Sunday - three by Ty Law. He was also sacked four times.

''That was awesome,'' said coach Bill Belichick, who rarely uses superlatives about his own team.

Indeed it was, especially by the defense, which forced five turnovers. That gave New England 14 straight wins, the first team to do that in a single season since the 1972 Dolphins.

The offense was pretty good, too, although it couldn't get into the end zone after Brady's 7-yard TD pass to David Givens on the game's first drive. Brady threw for 237 yards and Antowain Smith carried 22 times for 100 yards.

The rest of the points came on Adam Vinatieri's five field goals and a safety caused by Justin Snow's snap over punter Hunter Smith's head for the Colts, who finished 14-5.

But the defense drove Manning crazy in his first playoff game this season in real weather - slow, steady snow throughout. The Colts' first win was indoors at home over Denver and its second in Kansas City on a sunny day with temperatures in the 50s.

''We got a little pressure and Manning had happy feet,'' Pats linebacker Willie McGinest said.

They had to be happy given the pressure - it started early with McGinest and defensive tackle Richard Seymour pressuring Manning to throw away two passes. It continued with interceptions on consecutive passes by Rodney Harrison and Law.

Law got two more interceptions - the first time in more than two years that Manning had four in a game - Harrison forced a fumble and Jarvis Green had three of New England's four sacks.

It turned out that the Colts' game plan started with winning the coin toss.

''A big part of the plan was for us to have won the toss and try to get a lead,'' said Manning, who was 23-for-47 for 237 yards.

''We have done that in the past. At the same time, 7-0, 15-0, it was a very reasonable score to come back from,'' Manning said. ''We had a chance. We didn't get it done.''

The chance came thanks to New England's problems inside the 20. The Patriots (16-2) led 15-0 at intermission, when Indy did what it wanted to do at the start - drive down the field and score.

But after Edgerrin James' 2-yard TD run on that drive, Brady drove the Patriots on two drives that led to field goals. After the Colts scored again on a 7-yard pass from Manning to Marcus Pollard with 2:27 left, Vinatieri clinched it with a 34-yard field goal.

Now the Patriots get to face Carolina in two weeks with a chance to win their second Super Bowl in three years.

The Panthers, who beat Philadelphia 14-3 Sunday to win the NFC title, are a bit like the Patriots of two seasons ago. Delhomme is a journeyman with 17 NFL starts - one more than Brady had entering his first Super Bowl.

Those Patriots upset St. Louis 20-17 on a late drive and Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal on the final play. They were double-digit underdogs in that one.

This time, New England is favored by seven points, befitting a team that had the best record in the NFL this season against one that was 1-15 two years ago.

After stopping the NFL's co-MVP, they'll enter the game confident.

''He was hot,'' New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi said of Manning. ''But to think he was going to come in here and they were going to go up and down the field on us was foolish.''

Manning recognized that.

''I couldn't find a rhythm. I didn't play the way I wanted to,'' he said. ''I made some bad throws and some bad decisions.''