The entire NFL season has been, in a way, a buildup to this weekend's rematch between the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots in an AFC semifinal game.
The Colts' complaints about some apparent defensive-holding infractions that went uncalled in the final minutes of their loss at New England in last season's AFC title game were a catalyst to the offseason directive by the league's competition committee for officials to crack down on clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive backs. And the stricter rules enforcement that resulted played a major role in this season's league-wide offensive exploits, which included quarterback Peyton Manning breaking Dan Marino's 20-year-old NFL single-season record for touchdown passes.
The Colts' Marvin Harrison was held in check by Ty Law in the Patriots' 24-14 AFC championship game win Jan. 18, but the NFL since has restricted clutch-and-grab tactics.
(Jim Rogash -- AP)
It was one of the central story lines of this season, and it had its roots in the Patriots' 24-14 triumph on Jan. 18 over the Colts in Foxboro, Mass. That victory sent New England to its second Super Bowl appearance -- and title -- in three years. The trickle-down effect of that game changed the way the sport was played this season.
"There's no doubt about it; it's had a tremendous effect," said Ron Jaworski, a former NFL quarterback turned ESPN commentator. "I certainly wouldn't want to be a cornerback or a safety in this league right now. In the next five years, every single passing record in this league won't just be broken, they'll all be shattered."
It is against that backdrop that the Colts and Patriots meet Sunday at Gillette Stadium, with a trip to the AFC championship game on the line. Manning won his second straight NFL most valuable player award yesterday, and he'll face an injury-depleted Patriots secondary that is missing starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole. But Manning is winless in six games in Foxboro, where he has thrown 16 interceptions -- to go with only nine touchdown passes. This is a time of the year that has been much kinder to Coach Bill Belichick's Patriots than to Manning, who has yet to reach a Super Bowl, and New England is coming off a first-round playoff bye thanks to its regular season record of 14-2.
"They're in disarray enough to win 14 games,'' Colts Coach Tony Dungy said of the Patriots during his news conference yesterday. "They've got good players, and they're well coached. They're not going to be concerned about us. We came in there pretty hot last year, and they shut us down."
Manning threw four interceptions, one by safety Rodney Harrison and three by Law, in last season's AFC championship game. But the Colts nonetheless had a chance to win in the late stages, and were left fuming about calls the officials didn't make against the Patriots in key moments down the stretch. Colts President Bill Polian clearly was seething after the game. He's a member of the competition committee, and committee members said that Polian and St. Louis Rams Coach Mike Martz -- a member of the coaches' subcommittee who still was upset that his receivers allegedly had been held regularly by Patriots defenders in his Super Bowl loss to New England to end the 2001 season -- pushed through the directive.
The committee didn't change any rules but instructed officials to closely enforce the existing rule prohibiting defenders from impeding receivers more than five yards downfield. Officials made 191 defensive illegal contact calls during the regular season this year, up from 79 last season. And the competition committee got the results it wanted: Scoring and passing yards per game were up league-wide, although not to a ridiculous extent. Scoring was up about 1.3 points per game over last season, and passing yards per game rose by about 20.
"In the games I saw, things went the way we hoped they'd go," said Houston Texans General Manager Charley Casserly, a member of the competition committee. "The things we saw on tape were things that, under the rules, should have been called. All we said was, 'Hey, let's go back and enforce the rules the way they're supposed to be enforced,' and I think that's what happened. I thought the officials did an excellent job of enforcement."
League-wide, quarterbacks had the highest completion percentage (59.8) and the highest passer rating (82.8) in NFL history. And no one used the change more to his advantage than Manning, who threw 49 touchdown passes and set a single-season record with a passer rating of 121.1. His previous single-season bests were 33 touchdown passes and a 99.0 rating. Still, he didn't win in Foxboro as the Colts lost to the Patriots in the NFL's season-opening game, 27-24.
After a 49-24 victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday in a first-round playoff game in which he threw for 457 yards and four touchdowns, Manning blamed his poor performance in last season's AFC title game on his own play, not the Patriots' tactics or the officiating. "I played like an absolute dog -- no ifs, ands or buts about it," he said. "I'd like to play better this time around, and hopefully we can get a win."
Circumstances clearly have shifted in the Colts' favor. The rules are working for them now, and the Patriots have Law and Poole on the injured reserve list. Law was to return by the playoffs from the broken bone in his foot that caused him to miss the final nine games of the regular season, but the Patriots decided Friday to end his season.
They were 8-1 without Law during the season, using veteran wide receiver Troy Brown to bolster a cornerback corps of Asante Samuel, Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland. Belichick is as creative a defensive strategist as they come, but he must devise a way to try to cover Colts wide receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley while attempting to pressure Manning with the Patriots' best defensive lineman, Richard Seymour, slowed or sidelined by a knee injury. Jaworski said he thinks the advantage goes to Indianapolis.
"I don't think it's necessarily because of the enforcement of the rule," Jaworski said by telephone. "I went back through the tape of that [AFC championship] game when I was preparing for the Week 1 matchup, and there were only two plays in that entire game that were really gray areas. The Patriots just did an outstanding job jamming the receivers legally in that initial five-yard area. In spite of the perception, I don't think any different enforcement of the rule would have changed the outcome of that game. But the Patriots not having Ty Law and Tyrone Poole is what changes things now. When you look at their coverages now, without them, they're just much more predictable."