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Colts' defense needs to Manning up against Pats

It's all about Super Bowl XLI 1/2 today, so let's dive right into the analysis of the NFL's Showdown for the Ages in Indianapolis.

*I'll take the Colts with five points, even though New England looks like the better team. It's incredible -- and unprecedented -- to have an undefeated, defending Super Bowl champion be a five-point underdog at home.

Las Vegas, of course, knows what it's doing. However, Indianapolis has played a tougher schedule than the Patriots this year. The run of New England blowouts is amazing, and the Pats toyed with a very good Dallas defense in Dallas. Still, the Pats' margins of victory look a little misleading. The Colts' defense is markedly tougher at home, with the benefit of the crowd noise helping its speed pass rushers.

This isn't to say the Colts can stop New England. Peyton Manning may have to put up 30 points to win. Manning might be the most valuable player for the Colts' defense. Why? He controls the clock so well. In last year's AFC title game, Manning mounted scoring drives of 15, 14 and 14 plays on the Pats' defense. Manning has the ability to limit the Pats to just 10 possessions, a couple less than normal. The Pats had 11 possessions in their regular-season loss to Indy last year. If the Colts' defense can just get two or three stops in the first half -- meaning keeping the Pats out of the end zone -- then the game probably will go down to the wire.

This isn't to say the Colts can stop New England. Peyton Manning may have to put up 30 points to win. Manning might be the most valuable player for the Colts' defense. Why? He controls the clock so well. In last year's AFC title game, Manning mounted scoring drives of 15, 14 and 14 plays on the Pats' defense. Manning has the ability to limit the Pats to just 10 possessions, a couple less than normal. The Pats had 11 possessions in their regular-season loss to Indy last year. If the Colts' defense can just get two or three stops in the first half -- meaning keeping the Pats out of the end zone -- then the game probably will go down to the wire.

The biggest worry for the Colts is how corners Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson will hold up against Randy Moss. Hayden and Jackson have played great so far this year. But the problem against Moss is the Colts can have the perfect defense called and be in good coverage and still give up a touchdown. That's what has happened on at least four of Moss' 11 TDs this year.

The Vrabel Factor. The Patriots' defense is almost the same as last year. The one big difference is the addition of linebacker Adalius Thomas from Baltimore has rejuvenated linebacker Mike Vrabel. Thomas played outside 'backer and rover for the Ravens. The Pats have put him inside in the 3-4 defense, which isn't necessarily his best spot. Vrabel was forced to play inside each of the last two seasons -- due to Ted Johnson's unexpected retirement in 2005 and an injury to Junior Seau late in 2006. The presence of Thomas allows Vrabel to go back outside, and he already has made 7 1/2 sacks. He had a giant game against the Redskins last week. Vrabel, in his 11th season, hardly comes off the field. While Thomas has not been making many big plays, his impact on Vrabel has made the Pats' defense better.

Trash the record book. The Pats are on pace to blow away a ton of records. Here is the category and current pace, followed by the NFL record: Points 662 (556, '98 Vikings); points per game 41.4 (38.8, '50 Rams); Tom Brady, 60 TD passes (Manning, 48, '04); Brady, 136.2 passer rating (Manning, 121.1, '04); Brady, 73.6 completion percentage (Ken Anderson, 70.55, '82).

Which player has received the most game balls from the New England coaching staff through eight games? Brady? Moss? No and no. It's guard Logan Mankins, a former first-round pick who has become a nasty dominator in his third season. Look for Mankins to make his first Pro Bowl this year. The Bills gnashed their teeth when Mankins went off the draft board to Foxborough in 2005.

If the Pats win today, the race for home-field advantage will be all but over. The Colts still must play at San Diego, home versus Jacksonville and home versus Tennessee, which plays them tough. Even if the Colts win today, the Pats have a good shot at getting the home-field edge. New England has one brutal game left, against Pittsburgh. The Pats' last game is at the Giants. It would be hard to see the Colts winning in Foxborough in late January.
The Patriots have scored a combined total of 149 points in their last three games, marking the highest three-game point total by an NFL team since 1950. The last team to score 149 or more points over a three-game span was the 1950 Los Angeles Rams, who totaled 163 points from Oct. 22 to Nov. 5, 1950.

Big-deal Tony1
Give Cowboys owner Jerry Jones credit for locking up quarterback Tony Romo with a big contract. Romo gets a six-year deal worth $67 million. He will earn a guaranteed $30 million over the next three years, including an $11.5 million signing bonus. That makes him roughly the third highest-paid QB in the league. Peyton Manning is tops with an average of $14.17 million. Carson Palmer is making $13.9 million a year.

Considering how much the salary cap has gone up the last two years, it's a reasonable deal for the Cowboys. St. Louis' Marc Bulger just last month signed for $65 million and better than $10 million a season, and he's getting $27 million guaranteed. Romo has far more upside than Bulger. Jones' drafting ability is questionable. But as a businessman, he is all-world.

Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger had to love the Romo deal. His accomplishments far exceed Romo's, and he is due for a contract extension after this year. Big Ben could get a $14 million average.

Onside kicks1

Showdown Lite: The Packers and Cowboys could be 10-1 when they meet Nov. 29. The Packers need to beat the Chiefs, Vikings, Carolina and Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. Dallas needs to beat the Eagles, Giants, Redskins and Jets. Western New York cable subscribers won't see that good game because it's on the NFL Network.

Post-Vick hangover: The Falcons' game against San Francisco will be blacked out in Atlanta because the team came several thousand tickets short of a sellout by the TV deadline. It's the first game since 2001 that will be blacked out in Atlanta.

Rams disaster: St. Louis started the season with middle-of-the-pack talent, but the Rams' season has devolved into an injury nightmare. The offensive line is a mess. Guard Richie Incognito might be out for the year after suffering a dislocation of his right kneecap last week. He may join two other O-line starters on injured reserve -- tackle Orlando Pace and guard Mark Setterstrom. Incognito already had missed four games with a high-ankle sprain. Only three of nine O-linemen who started the season for the Rams have avoided injury.
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mgaughan@buffnews.com1

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