Manning vs. Patriots looms large in playoffs

Posted: Friday, January 14, 2005

Is there any NFL playoff game this weekend other than the one in New England?

You wouldn't know it from the buzz surrounding Sunday's contest in Foxboro featuring MVP Peyton Manning and the Colts against the Patriots, winners of two of the last three Super Bowls and five straight games over the record-breaking quarterback.

Yes, there are eight teams left in the playoffs and three other games this weekend. They are outside the spotlight, though.

''We just worry about us,'' says Atlanta coach Jim Mora, whose Falcons (11-5) are the NFC's second-seeded team and face visiting St. Louis on Saturday.

''Eventually we will be a blip on the radar screen. We certainly want to make sure we're on the radar screen for the right reasons if we ever do get above ground.''

True enough. If there's a second game gaining attention, it's not for the right reasons. It's because Randy Moss pretended to moon Green Bay fans after scoring a touchdown last week for the Vikings, who play at Philadelphia in Sunday's early game.

Even Pittsburgh - which had the NFL's best record at 15-1 and unveiled the most successful rookie quarterback ever in Ben Roethlisberger - has been carrying a low profile as it waits for the Jets in the opening game of the weekend.

Those games build up to late Sunday afternoon for Colts-Patriots.

The rematch of last year's AFC title game pits Manning, who broke Dan Marino's single-season record for touchdown passes with 49, against Tom Brady, who doesn't have great statistics but has two Super Bowl rings.

The comparisons: Manning is Marino, who set tons records but never won a Super Bowl. Brady is Joe Montana, who was so cool and collected and won four championships.

But that's a bit deceptive - Manning is only 28 and has plenty of time to accumulate hardware.

''I still consider myself to be a young quarterback, believe it or not, even though quarterback years are kind of like dog years,'' he says. ''I'm in my seventh year and I'm known as kind of an old man as far as quarterbacks go in the NFL.''

All four quarterfinals are rematches of regular-season games, and all are at the same venue as the first contests.

AFC

Indianapolis (13-4) at New England (14-2)

Manning threw 32 of his 49 TD passes indoors - 26 at home in the RCA Dome and six more at Detroit's Ford Field. The temperature in Foxboro on Sunday is likely to be in the 20s.

''People make a big deal of that,'' he says. ''I think it just depends on who plays the best, whether you're at home or away in a dome or in weather or whatnot.''

''Whatnot'' in this case might be the Patriots' crowd and New England's 19-game winning streak in Foxboro. The Pats also are one of only three teams to finish 14-2 for two straight seasons.

The crowd? Manning calls more plays at the line of scrimmage than any quarterback in the NFL.

''It's always a huge advantage for us playing at home,'' Brady says. ''I know going on the road, it's real tough when it's loud. From an opposing team's view, it's awfully tough when the other crowd is very loud - and our fans are loud.''

Previous meeting: Patriots 27-24, Sept. 9.

New York Jets (11-6) at Pittsburgh (15-1)

Like the Falcons, the Steelers seem content to be ignored. And Roethlisberger, 13-0 as a starting quarterback in the NFL, seems content to let Manning, Brady, Daunte Culpepper, Donovan McNabb and the other high-profile quarterbacks take the spotlight.

''There's a little bit of pressure out there, obviously, because you lose, you go home,'' he said after some relaxed horseplay in the locker room this week. ''But I don't want to go out there and have too much pressure and stress on me.''

The Jets' Chad Pennington, whose sore shoulder seemed healed in last week's overtime win in San Diego, had a virus infection this week. Coach Herman Edwards, who had a touch of the same, looked at that as a potential positive.

''Generally when guys get sick they have good games,'' Edwards said. ''I thought one time Michael Jordan got sick and he had, what, 100 points or something like that? Maybe that's a good sign when guys get sick.''

Previous meeting: Steelers 17-6, Dec. 12.

NFC

St. Louis (9-8) at Atlanta (11-5)

The Rams were the first 8-8 team to advance in the playoffs, and the Vikings became the second the next day, demonstrating how weak the NFC is this season.

The Falcons also are a bit of a question mark, although with Michael Vick back from injury and Mora as the coach, they have reversed last season's record. They also had wins over two AFC playoff teams, San Diego and Denver, and Vick on a fast track makes them extremely dangerous from anywhere on the field.

The Rams, of course, love an artificial indoor surface, although they would prefer to be in their own dome.

They also have won three straight games and believe they are returning to the elite status they enjoyed for most of the last five years. Coach Mike Martz now says Marc Bulger might be better than Kurt Warner was from 1999-01, when he won two MVP awards.

The defense is coming on, helped by the emergence of tackle Jimmy Kennedy, who played little as a first-round draft choice last season, then missed seven games with a broken foot this season.

''Jimmy has just amazed me,'' Martz says. ''What he did quietly while he was away is pretty remarkable.''

Previous meeting: Falcons 34-17, Sept. 19.

Minnesota (9-8) at Philadelphia (13-3)

The Eagles are also a bit out of the spotlight, in part because they tanked their last two games after clinching home-field advantage, and in part because they were off last week while Moss shared top billing with Manning and the Colts.

Philadelphia also has been downgraded because Terrell Owens is out with a leg injury and won't be back unless the Eagles make the Super Bowl - and maybe not even then.

But they do have Brian Westbrook, the other playmaker, whose absence from the playoffs last season was probably why they lost their third straight NFC title game.

Moss, whose two touchdown catches in Green Bay were overshadowed by his antics, was limping this week on a sprained ankle after being hobbled for much of the season by hamstring problems. But he will play.

Even Minnesota owner Red McCombs got into the act by demanding that Fox Sports remove play-by-play announcer Joe Buck from the telecast for denouncing Moss' antics.

Fox declined.

Previous meeting: Eagles 27-16, Sept. 20.



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