Colts' offensive scheme
Despite Peyton Manning's dominant performances, the Colts work best when they have a balanced attack (they have called 62 passes and 55 runs this postseason). They will spread the field often, either with a third receiver or by splitting out tight end Marcus Pollard. If the Patriots go into their nickel package (five defensive backs and six men in the box), there will be bigger running lanes for Edgerrin James, who has averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
If New England stays in its base defense and plays mainly single coverage, Manning will have a better chance to pick on rookie free safety Eugene Wilson and cornerback Tyrone Poole.
The deciding factor is whether a red-hot Manning will have time to throw. In the playoffs, the Colts have allowed just one sack in 62 pass attempts while the Patriots registered four on Tennessee's Steve McNair last week.
Patriots' offensive scheme
The key figure is running back Antowain Smith, not quarterback Tom Brady. Expect the Patriots, whose running game has been average at best, to attack on the ground against a poor-tackling Indianapolis defense that is giving up 171 yards rushing per game and 6.1 yards per carry.
Smith limped out of the divisional game with an ankle injury but is not listed on the injury report. Although Kevin Faulk and Mike Cloud are adequate, Smith's power running style is a bigger mismatch against the Colts' smallish defensive line. If Indianapolis gets sucked in to defend the run, Brady will throw deep, which is his biggest improvement from last season. He has 30 passes of 25-plus yards (fifth best in the NFL).
Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour, a 6-foot-6, 310-pound colossus, is the chief disruptor along the front line of the league's stingiest defense. Cornerback Ty Law has had some big games against the Colts and has four interceptions and two touchdowns in 13 games against Indianapolis.
Inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi is always around the ball, breaking up 16 passes and intercepting three. The one Colts defensive player who must be accounted for is defensive end Dwight Freeney. The undersized speed rusher is more effective on turf, but he still has 24 sacks and 13 forced fumbles in 31 regular-season games.
Although Adam Vinatieri has missed a career-high 10 field-goal attempts for the Patriots this season, no one is better with the game on the line (he has 16 game-winning kicks). The Colts' Mike Vanderjagt has been perfect, hitting all 49 of his field-goal attempts, including 14 from beyond 40 yards.
Hunter Smith, who has yet to punt in two postseason games for the Colts, is far better than the Patriots' Ken Walter, whose average is worst among playoff punters. New England, though, has the edge in the return game. Against the Colts earlier this season, Bethel Johnson ran back one kickoff 62 yards and another 92 yards for a touchdown.
On the sidelines
Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick built their reputations on defense. The Patriots' Belichick is known for disguising looks week to week and keeping offenses off-balance. Although the Colts' defense has improved remarkably during Dungy's two-year tenure, the team is still built around offense. Tom Moore, the 65-year-old offensive coordinator, has been one of the best play-callers in the NFL for 30 years, but he gives considerable leeway to Manning to change plays at the line of scrimmage.
Belichick is looking for his second Super Bowl in three seasons. Dungy is looking to become the first coach to defeat three Super Bowl-winning coaches in the playoffs after beating Denver's Mike Shanahan and Kansas City's Dick Vermeil.
Indianapolis 24, New England 20
Defense usually rules the playoffs, but rules don't apply with Manning these days. He has been on such a tear that not even Belichick can devise a plan to totally stop him. For the 20th anniversary of their move from Baltimore, the Colts will celebrate with their first Super Bowl trip of the Indianapolis era.
-- Jamison HensleyCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun