Patriots, Panthers prevail

FOXBORO, MASS. — FOXBORO, Mass. - Amid the mud and snow at Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots delivered an exquisite dissertation on defense yesterday.

Placing the game's hottest quarterback on the hot seat, the Patriots hammered Peyton Manning and punched their ticket to Super Bowl XXXVIII with a 24-14 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game.


New England turned the playoffs' poster boy into a portrait of frustration, forcing five turnovers - which included three interceptions by Ty Law - and registering four sacks.

Manning, who went virtually untouched in compiling a near-perfect quarterback rating the previous two weeks, had nowhere to run and nowhere to throw against New England.


When the pass rush wasn't pushing Manning out of the pocket, the Patriots' defensive backs were jamming the receivers out of the pattern. When New England's defensive front wasn't hurrying Manning into an off-balance throw, its secondary was knocking wide-outs off their feet.

As nasty as the weather, the overbearing attitude of the New England defense overcame the shortcomings of the Patriots' offense, which had one touchdown in seven red-zone trips. Five field goals by Adam Vinatieri and a safety off special teams were all the points the Patriots (16-2) needed over the final three quarters to advance to their second Super Bowl in three years, where they'll meet the Carolina Panthers on Feb. 1.

"You can try to confuse people, but it comes down to physical play and that's what we preached the whole week," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. "When you saw their receivers on film scoring all these touchdowns, it's because they were untouched. No one would really play physical, and our aim was to hit these guys in the mouth."

The Patriots' 14th straight victory - the second-longest single-season streak in NFL history - fittingly came down to the league's stingiest defense.

After the Colts narrowed their deficit to 21-14 late in the fourth quarter, New England recovered the onside kick yet couldn't produce a first down. With one more shot to tie the game, Manning took over at the Patriots' 20-yard line with 2:01 left in the game.

Instead of magic, the Pro Bowl quarterback produced more misery. Manning, who had 11 incompletions in two playoff wins, misfired badly on four throws to hand the ball back to New England and seal a personal 0-5 record at Foxboro.

The Colts, however, insinuated the Patriots were too physical on the last two passes, which featured some questionable grabbing of tight end Marcus Pollard.

Asked about the no-calls by the officials, Colts coach Tony Dungy said, "You guys [the media] saw the game, so I will leave it at that."


All that remained were the fragments of a once-unstoppable offense.

Indianapolis had scored on 13 of 17 postseason drives, including 10 touchdowns. That run came to an abrupt end as the Patriots shut out the Colts on nine of 11 series.

The Patriots' defense placed its stamp on the game early, and it was as evident as the snow covering the field.

After New England took an early 7-0 lead, Indianapolis marched to the Patriots' 5. But with Marvin Harrison covered by Law and pressure coming from the middle, Manning forced a throw off his back foot into the end zone, where Rodney Harrison leapt for the interception.

It was the first of four picks, which tied a career worst for Manning and marked the most he had thrown since Nov. 25, 2001.

"I just made some bad throws, some bad decisions," said Manning, who finished 23-for-47 for 237 yards and a season-low 35.5 quarterback rating. "Every time you throw interceptions, that's the quarterback."


The blame can't all be placed on Manning.

On the Colts' first punt attempt of the playoffs, the snap sailed over the head of Hunter Smith, who caught up to the ball at the 3 and kicked it out of the end zone. The safety staked the Patriots to a 15-0 lead with 4:08 left in the first half.

"We made some miscues," Dungy said, "and New England is a good enough team to take advantage of that."

The ringleader for causing miscues was Law.

Blanketing Manning's favorite target, Law caught as many passes from him (three interceptions) as Harrison did.

"This is probably the most simple game plan that we had," Law said. "It was just go out there and stick them and beat them up at the line of scrimmage."


Much of the hype last week centered on Manning going against New England coach Bill Belichick, who is known for making good quarterbacks look bad with shrewd defensive schemes.

But yesterday, it was more muscle than mind games. In addition to the sacks, three of which were made by Jarvis Green, the Patriots pressured Manning 10 times and knocked down two of his passes at the line of scrimmage.

"I don't like to say chess match because that's finesse," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "For us, it's rock 'em, sock 'em. It all about being physical."

The Patriots' physical play left Manning battered, confused and humbled.

Now, after witnessing what it had done to the playoffs' top quarterback, the league's hottest team has its mind on the future and not the past.

"To win 14 in a row is great," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "But it means nothing if you don't get the 15th."


Manning handled

The Patriots cut into Peyton Manning's numbers in their victory yesterday. Comparing some of his passing statistics for the first two playoff games with yesterday's: ............................... Comp. ..........Yds. per

.................................. pct. ........... comp.

vs. Dencer/K.C. ....... 78.6 ..........15.5 .........................0

vs. New Enlgand ....... 48.9 ..........10.3 ........................4