The best matchup of the NFL season thus far comes Sunday in Foxboro, Mass., and it's not the Indianapolis Colts against the New England Patriots. Not really. The matchup that matters is Peyton Manning against Bill Belichick.
It's the game's best passer against the sport's master defensive strategist, and it's being played out right now in the Patriots' meeting rooms and on their practice field: What will Belichick, the two-time Super Bowl-winning coach for New England, come up with this time to try to frustrate Manning, the record-breaking quarterback of the Colts who has two NFL most valuable player awards but zero Super Bowl appearances?
On Sunday, it will be played out again when Manning steps to the line of scrimmage and looks over the New England defense: Will he know exactly what he's seeing, or will he be confused? Manning undoubtedly will begin gesturing wildly and yelling to the other Colts offensive players, as he always does, sometimes calling new plays at the line and sometimes merely putting on an elaborate act to see if the defense will fall for it and perhaps reveal its true intentions too soon. Then the ball will be snapped, and all the cards finally will be on the table.
Manning has thrown nine touchdown passes and 16 interceptions while going winless in his six career starts in Foxboro. Four of those defeats have come to Belichick-coached Patriots teams, and Manning's totals in those games are five touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. He threw four interceptions when the Colts lost at New England in last season's AFC championship game. Overall, Manning is 2-9 against the Patriots, including 1-6 since Belichick took over as New England's coach in 2000. Manning's lone win against Belichick's Patriots came in the 2000 season, when New England went 5-11.
But circumstances have swung dramatically in favor of Manning and the Colts since last season's AFC title game. The rules now favor Indianapolis, with the NFL's competition committee having ordered a crackdown by game officials this season on clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive backs -- in part as a reaction to the Colts' complaints after the Jan. 18, 2004, AFC championship game about the apparent defensive-holding infractions by Patriots defenders down the stretch that went uncalled.
The injury situation favors the Colts, with New England's two starting cornerbacks -- Ty Law and Tyrone Poole -- on the injured reserve list and its top defensive lineman -- Richard Seymour -- sidelined or slowed by a knee injury.
Looking for any advantage they possibly can seize, the Patriots left the field at Gillette Stadium uncovered on a rainy day Wednesday. Belichick brushed aside questions by reporters about the matter, saying he isn't the groundskeeper and he's not responsible for pulling weeds. But there's little doubt that he had a hand in the decision. During Manning's tenure, the Colts have a record of 41-25 in games played indoors, but are only 28-25 outdoors (including the postseason). Still, the forecast for Sunday in Foxboro is relatively mild -- temperatures reaching the mid-30s and only a slight chance of precipitation.
So the tasks in front of Belichick and Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel are daunting. They must find a way to cover Colts wide receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley with inexperienced cornerbacks Asante Samuel, Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland. And they must find a way to pressure Manning, probably without a major contribution from Seymour, without leaving themselves too vulnerable to big plays if any blitzes get picked up.
No one is more creative than Belichick. The Patriots have used veteran wide receiver Troy Brown at cornerback this season. They have used linebacker Don Davis at safety. They have had linebacker Mike Vrabel line up at nose tackle, and then drop into pass coverage. This week, Belichick perhaps could use safety Eugene Wilson at cornerback.
In last season's AFC title game, the Patriots had Law usually cover Harrison, with help from safety Rodney Harrison. Law had three of New England's four interceptions, and Rodney Harrison had the other. The problems for the Patriots now are that Law is unavailable and Manning has done a better job this season of spreading the ball around to Wayne and Stokley. The tricky part for Belichick is that if he gets too gimmicky, he sends a message to his players that he doesn't think they can simply line up and beat the Colts, and he runs the risk of his young cornerbacks botching complicated coverages. But if he doesn't come up with enough surprises for Manning, he could be simply outmanned in the Colts' passing game. He must walk a fine line.
Whatever Belichick and Crennel devise, a key for the Patriots defenders will be to disguise what they're doing until the Colts snap the ball.
"It is a cat-and-mouse game," Belichick said during a news conference this week. " . . . Sometimes they [snap the ball] quicker and you try to get too cute and wait too long, and then end up not being where you need to be when the ball is snapped. They are very efficient. They are a very good offensive team. They do all of that stuff. They change the cadence. They change the tempo. They can maneuver easily to the plays they are looking for -- run, pass or play-action -- whether they are on the goal line or their own 1-yard line. They don't make very many mistakes.
"You don't see a lot of blown assignments. You don't see a lot of penalties. You don't see a lot of dropped balls. You don't see a lot of those kinds of things that, really, the defense doesn't have to do anything. Sometimes if you just stand there on defense, the offense will have a bad play. But that is very rarely the case [against] the Colts . . . . That is why they are good."
Sherman Likely to Lose GM Powers
An NFL source this morning confirmed reports that the Green Bay Packers intend to take the general manager title from Coach Mike Sherman and are interested in hiring Ted Thompson, a former Packers executive who now is the Seattle Seahawks' vice president of football operations, as their GM.
Sherman has been the Packers' coach for five seasons and has had the GM title as well for four seasons. He added the GM duties after Ron Wolf's retirement as Green Bay's general manager, but Packers President Bob Harlan apparently wants to go back to dividing the duties between two men.
Thompson was with the Packers, with stints as their director of pro personnel and director of player personnel under Wolf, between 1992 and '99, before joining former Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren in Seattle in January 2000. He previously has worked with Sherman and other Packers decision-makers. His contract with the Seahawks runs through June but league protocol would enable to interview for a job -- like a GM position -- in which he'd have the final say over a team's football operations.
Sherman has one season remaining on his contract and his agent, Bob LaMonte, previously has expressed interest to the club in negotiating an extension. But any talks with Sherman on an extension likely will be put on hold until the Packers get a general manager.
The Atlanta Falcons, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, have come off their first-round playoff bye with near-perfect health by their players. All 53 players on the Falcons' roster practiced Wednesday, and Atlanta didn't list a single player on its official injury report.
"That would be about 20 years," Coach Jim Mora Jr. said when asked during his news conference Wednesday how long it had been since a team he was involved with had such a clean injury report. "It's rare." . . .
Steelers linebackers Joey Porter and Kendrell Bell missed Wednesday's practice because of flu-like symptoms, a day after all of the players on Pittsburgh's roster practiced. . . .
Nate Wayne and Keith Adams probably will split time for Philadelphia this weekend at the outside linebacker spot usually occupied by Mark Simoneau, who's likely to be sidelined by an ankle injury. Simoneau was the Eagles' starter at middle linebacker early in the season, with Wayne starting at outside linebacker, before defensive coordinator Jim Johnson shook up the lineup to try to improve the club's run defense. He benched Wayne, moved Simoneau to outside linebacker and made Jeremiah Trotter the starter at middle linebacker. . . .
The Patriots listed Seymour as questionable on their official injury report. . . . Belichick indicated that Law will not be with the Patriots this week amid indications that the cornerback will undergo surgery for the foot injury that ended his season. . . .
Brooks Bollinger could end up being the New York Jets No. 2 quarterback this weekend, behind Chad Pennington. Bollinger practiced with the starting offense Wednesday, with Pennington home because of what the Jets called a stomach virus and backup Quincy Carter in Georgia to be with his ill mother. Pennington rejoined the team and participated in todays practice, but Carter remained absent.
Jets defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson suffered a bruised knee during Wednesdays practice but is likely to play Saturday at Pittsburgh .....
Wide receiver Randy Moss sat out Minnesotas practice Wednesday because of his sprained ankle but is expected to play Sunday at Philadelphia.
Moss Fined $10,000
According to a league source, the NFL today fined Moss $10,000 for his touchdown celebration last weekend at Lambeau Field in which the receiver pretended to pull down his pants and moon the Green Bay crowd. It was not a major fine, but it was more than the $5,000 that is standard for an obscene gesture directed toward the crowd by a player with no previous fines for such incidents.
Vikings owner Red McCombs requested Wednesday that Fox take play-by-play man Joe Buck off Sundays Minnesota-Philadelphia game after Bucks strong criticism of Mosss touchdown celebration. Fox indicated that Buck will broadcast the game, as scheduled .....
The league today fined Jets linebacker Eric Barton $7,500 for his hit on Chargers quarterback Drew Brees in the final seconds of regulation last weekend in San Diego. Barton hit Brees in the head with a forearm while knocking the quarterback to the ground, drawing a personal foul that enabled the Chargers to send the game into overtime before the Jets prevailed.
. . . .
Millen, Mariucci Say Harrington Staying
After a report Wednesday that the Detroit Lions are contemplating releasing quarterback Joey Harrington in the offseason, Lions President Matt Millen and Coach Steve Mariucci issued a joint statement through the team in which they said: "We have absolutely no intention of releasing Joey Harrington, and there has been no organizational discussion about cutting Joey . . . . Joey had his best season this past year, and we firmly believe that he will continue to improve.'' . . . Cleveland fired Pete Garcia, its vice president of player personnel and football development who was the top aide of former Browns coach Butch Davis. His departure was seen as inevitable after Davis's exit in late November . . . .
Jacksonville hired University of Georgia defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder as its linebackers coach.