INDIANAPOLIS -- Good tight ends helped save the seasons of the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots, and the big receiving targets should play a major role in today's AFC Championship Game.
Valuable No. 3 receiver Brandon Stokley missed virtually the entire season with injuries, but the Colts compensated by using Dallas Clark and Ben Utecht in a two-tight end formation. They ranked sixth in the NFL in tight end catches with 81.
New England has played without a true No. 1 wideout all season yet still effectively gets the ball downfield thanks largely to tight ends Ben Watson and Daniel Graham.
The Patriots tied for fourth in the NFL in tight end catches with 85.
"I think both of our tight ends can run, they both can catch, they both can block," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "We use them both in pass protection. We use them both down the field in the passing game. We run at them, we run away from them. We try to stay balanced and give the defense multiple problems and not just let one guy do one thing and another guy do another thing."
"Our tight ends are really good pass receivers," said Colts coach Tony Dungy. "That's the big thing. They're not prototypical tight ends. They're not that big, but they fight at the point of attack. They stay after you and they've been effective blockers for us."
The Colts' Clark plays out of the slot probably more than any other tight end in the league except for San Diego's Antonio Gates.
Clark caught 30 passes for 367 yards but missed 4 1/2 games with a knee injury. He returned for the regular-season finale and caught nine passes for 103 yards in the playoff win over Kansas City.
The Colts went 1-3 without Clark.
"It was a great blessing in the middle of the year when he got hurt because we thought he was going on injured reserve," Dungy said. "But a couple days later they re-examined him and he didn't have a torn ligament. That's been huge for us.
"Dallas makes a difference for us because he's so versatile. We can have him in the lineup and play a three-wide receiver-type game or play a two-tight end game. He can catch the ball and block at the point of attack. He helps us tremendously."
The challenge in defending both teams comes in normal down-and-distance situations. The defense must respect the running game, but with the Colts' Clark or the Pats' Watson in the slot position, it's a dangerous passing formation.
If the defense puts a safety on Clark, that leaves just one safety to help cover the Colts' Pro Bowl wideouts, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.
Putting Watson in the slot spreads the defense a bit and puts added pressure on defending the running of Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney.
Watson caught 49 passes for 643 yards. Graham, who has less downfield speed, caught 21 for 235 yards. Graham sat out the Pats' regular-season loss to the Colts with an injury, and he was missed. He was not there to help in pass protection, and the Colts' pass rushers put heat on Tom Brady.
"They mix up what they do," Dungy said. "Down-and-distance-wise, you're not going to get a read on them formation-wise. Those guys are good blockers, they're tough guys, they can catch the football, they can run deep routes, they throw screens to them and they use the middle of the field very well. They're good players."