The top 10 all-time heavyweight fights features two of the three Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier bouts. Every time those two entered the ring, it was a fierce battle in which even the victor was left with a few scars. If the NFL ranked its top heavyweight clashes, the Peyton Manning-led Colts facing Tom Brady's Patriots would own a few spots. Most of these games were memorable, few did not have playoff implications, and some were played in the postseason with Super Bowl implications.
Who could forget Manning's comeback last year, aided by Patriots coach Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 at his own 29? Or Brady's convincing win on his way to his second Super Bowl? The Colts and Patriots have faced each other 12 times since 2001, three of those 12 in the playoffs and the last four in Indianapolis.
This weekend, the Colts return to Foxborough for the first time since 2006 to face a young Patriots team that has few players left from those historic battles. But does it matter? Does it matter that many of the current Colts have never been to Foxborough, let alone a part of this great rivalry? Not at all, because the two starting quarterbacks have not changed. Changing the cast might be bad for long-running hit television shows, but not if the big star is still there. As long as No. 18 is under center for the Colts and No. 12 is under center for the Patriots, this game will be huge. It will be like another Ali-Frazier fight.
What makes this game so much fun to watch is the battle within the battle. The chess match between Brady and the Colts' defense is always fun to watch, but the real strategic battle centers on what the Patriots defense will do to confuse and frustrate Manning. Added to the intrigue is that now the Colts must play outside and deal with the weather elements along with the field turf of Gillette Stadium -- factors helping the Patriots.
The Colts, 6-3, already have lost three road games this year, making them vulnerable when leaving Indianapolis. They make less big, explosive plays than before, and now instead of leading the league in big-play drives (four plays or less to score), they lead the league in 10-play scoring drives. Manning has been hit more this year than any other year -- although he still is not getting sacked, as the Colts are the best team in the league in protecting their passer. Manning has also thrown the ball away more this year -- even throwing the ball out of bounds -- which, when playing Manning, is like a sack. The Patriots' challenge in this game will be the same as every year: get Manning to throw the ball away, move him out of the pocket, make him throw the ball from different locations, and don't allow him to gain a clear understanding of their coverage from pre-snap alignment.
The Patriots' offense looks more like the Colts when they had tight end Dallas Clark. With two versatile tight ends, the Patriots can force the Colts to play their base defense, and then spread the formation to utilize their passing game. Rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski both allow the Patriots' offense flexibility to be a multiple-attack team without having to substitute -- thus forcing the defense to be vanilla.
The weather will be cold, the ball will be hard and, at times, difficult to catch, and the field conditions should be perfect. This will be a war, and, as we have learned in past games, it does not matter who starts fast. Both teams can mount comebacks, therefore this should be a four-quarter battle and another thriller.
The script: My first 15
1. I know everyone was shocked by the Donovan McNabb contract announcement last Monday night, but what shocked me more was when Panthers coach John Fox announced this week that Brian St. Pierre is his new starting quarterback. St. Pierre was just signed this week to the active roster after rookie starter Jimmy Clausen was ruled out. Instead of playing fellow rookie Tony Pike, who has been in camp all year, the Panthers decided to start a player who has only been with the organization since Nov. 10. Can things get any worse in Carolina? The end of the season is not coming fast enough for everyone in the Panthers organization. I am anxious to see what the 2011 plan is, because their 2010 plan was to do nothing.
2. The season is over for both the Bengals and Bills, as both teams are playing for draft position -- along with finding out which players they want to have on their team next season. Do the Bengals bring back quarterback Carson Palmer? That is the biggest question they must answer, and they must make the right decision. If not, they will be picking in the top 10 in the 2012 draft.
3. The Lions are one of the better two-win teams in the league, as they play every team -- good or bad -- extremely close. But this week, they face the revitalized (maybe for one game) Cowboys. If the 'Boys take the Lions lightly, they will make a huge mistake. Dallas' offensive line played much better last week, even though the Cowboys failed to convert a third down in the first half. They made big plays, which set up their scores and kept their third downs to a minimum.
4. The more I think about the Browns' home loss last week, when they refused to settle for a tie, the more I believe the tie was the best course of action. They would be 3-5-1, and that half-game is better than a loss. This week's game features the slow wideouts of the Browns against the slow secondary of the Jags. The Browns must play their style, which includes being patient with the ball and trying to gain a possession a game.
5. The Chiefs have the Cardinals at home this week, then travel to Seattle -- both winnable games. But the Chiefs must play at their early-season level and not where they have been the last two weeks. They dominated the Raiders and lost, then were dominated by the Broncos. It's critical for the Chiefs to be a balanced team and not get behind early in the game. They must play from in front.
6. The Texans' offense will move the ball on the Jets, they will pass protect the Jets' pressure package, and if they can play any defense, they might have a chance to win the game. But unless their defense takes a huge step, or the Jets get into their turnover mode, the Texans will lose. This Texans defense makes every offense look like the 2000 Rams.
7. Each week I write that the Vikings' defensive line must take over the game, and they never do -- unless you count the last four minutes of the Cardinals game. So, why do I think they will turn it around this week? I don't. Even though they are playing at home with the benefit of crowd noise, I still don't think the Vikings' defensive line can win the game. The Packers blocked them well in Green Bay; they might have a little problem to start, but should be able to make all their throws. Left tackle Chad Clifton has played really well all year.
8. On paper, the Raiders-Steelers game looks like an easy win for Pittsburgh, but the Raiders' defense matches up well with the Steelers' offense. The Raiders can cover man to man on the Steelers' receivers -- with the exception of Mike Wallace, who they need to double -- and their defensive line can dominate the Steelers' line. Mike Tomlin put the Steelers back in pads this week, so he knows there is a sense of urgency for his team to improve. This will be a close game, and a good game, and I think the Steelers win... but it will be close.
9. The Redskins were embarrassed last week, and this week they face an opponent that will be familiar to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. He knows the Titans' defense from his time with the Texans, which should benefit him when designing a game plan. Can Washington's defense show up and handle Chris Johnson? I know I sound like a broken record, but the 'Skins have no business being in a 3-4 defense; they do not have the personnel.
10. Make sure you check out "Playbook" on NFL Network -- the NFC show, where I break down the Saints' expressway package, which allows quarterback Drew Brees to shift the formation and then run a check-with-me passing game at the line of scrimmage. Similar to Peyton Manning, but with Brees handling all the checks.
11. I promise Buccaneers fans, if the Bucs beat the 49ers on the road, then I am going to stop being skeptical and jump on the bandwagon. The 49ers are playing well, and Troy Smith might not look great all the time, but he does have great leadership skills. The 49ers seem to believe in him as a player.
12. Since Mike Smith has been coach of the Falcons, gaining a halftime lead has been nearly insurmountable. His team is 22-1 when leading at the half. The Falcons play best with the lead -- it keeps their run game alive and keeps their defense from having to fight toe to toe. The Rams must play well early and must force the Falcons to become one dimensional, using their quickness to slow down the Falcons' running game.
13. Denver played its best game of the year on both sides of the ball last week. With all the injuries to their defense, the Broncos were forced to play more 4-3 than their base 3-4. Last week, they went back to their 3-4 -- moved Mario Haggan outside and starting Joe Mays inside. Both played well and this week in San Diego, the Broncos need to get outside backer Robert Ayers back into the lineup to help their pass rush.
14. Former Pro Bowl pass rusher Shawne Merriman was hurt in San Diego and now is hurt in Buffalo, and when he becomes a free agent he is in for a rude awakening. No team is going to step up and make a huge offer with all the concerns that have lingered around Merriman since his suspension for steroids use.
15. Eagles quarterback Michael Vick makes the Eagles a legitimate Super Bowl team, and this week against the Giants we all will learn if the Giants' retooling of their secondary can handle the speed of Vick and the Eagles. The Giants allowed 85 points in the two games last year against the Birds, and watching them on tape last week against the Cowboys, the Giants still looked slow. Did you see how Felix Jones just separated from everyone on the field? Or Dez Bryant? The Giants are a good team overall, but might be a mudder. Same as in horse racing, mudders are teams that need to play on a slow, wet field.
The Vick rules
When I was in the league and first saw the amazing play and impact of Michael Vick's unique skills, I decided to develop some personnel rules that -- if I were running a team that faced Vick twice a year -- would be implemented. Even though I was working for the Raiders at the time, and we would only play Vick once every four years, I felt it would be important to develop my own plan in case a team from Vick's conference was looking for a general manager. It is vital in any job to study the competition, and prepare as if you were in charge. As we all know, preparation is the key to being successful.
Keep in mind, this was written in 2001:
1. Cannot draft, sign, or bring into camp anyone on defense that cannot run. Before every signing, you must ask: Can this player help us chase this guy down? You play two games a year against this guy in perfect conditions. The weather and elements are not going to give you any help. Speed is your only solution to this problem.
2. Must raise your standards for speed in the secondary -- especially at safety. Having a 4.7 safety is of no use when dealing with this player. Need to be diligent in demanding speed for the secondary... Size/speed players will be your only answer to help solving this problem. Average measurables of a DS in the league as a starter are 6-foot, 199 pounds, 4.53 in the 40.
3. Might want to consider playing a nickel defense all the time to deal with the speed. If you get beat with the running game, they will score only around 17-20 points -- a manageable game, and it will force the ball out of his hands.
4. You might want to consider playing all ends in the game to give you more speed. They will not be able to drive anyone off the ball no matter what personnel you play inside.
5. Might need to carry more linebackers next year to think about a three-man line, thus allowing you to be able to play with more speed. Might want to create a package to deal with this team. A 3-4 defense does give you better athletic ability on the field, if the LBs can run.
6. You will need more flexibility in your player core to ultimately help solve this problem. Design the scheme, then define the players that you need to fit the scheme, then go get them. Do not worry about what you don't have; figure out what you need and then go find it.
7. Need to keep a copy of all his runs on a reel -- for the entire season, not just three games. Have a log of all runs, separated from when he goes left and when he goes right and when he attacks the middle.
8. Sign a practice squad player that has the size and the speed that would be similar to Vick. Even if the guy was a bad quarterback in college, and all the scouts hate him, he can give you some work in camp and during the season that gives your defense an idea what it is like to chase Vick. Every scout will claim it is a wasted pick, but if it helps you get ready for Vick, then it's a great pick.
A life in football
Here is another reminder to watch NFL Network Friday night for "Bill Parcells: Reflections of a Life in Football." As I wrote last week, NFL Films president Steve Sabol told me this is one of the best things they have done in some time and having watched the advanced copy this week, I would concur. So if you cannot be home on Friday night, make sure to DVR it -- it's well worth the effort.
See you at the game
Follow me on twitter at @michaelombardi