Well, we're finally mere hours away from the most hyped regular season game of my 25 years of existance. The Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots are meeting in Indy in what could determine who gets homefield advantage this postseason. While both quarterbacks are the marquee players in this rivalry, I believe there are 5 other keys to the game, besides our beloved Brady and the stat-padding Manning (hehe, had to throw that in). I also look to Madden for my game prediction.
1. Runningbacks - My guess is that both teams want to keep the opposing offense off the field. In order to do so, they will each try and get their running game going. This is no easy task usually against these defenses (Indy has improved in run defense since last year), but with both geared up to stop the pass, holes may open up that the runningbacks MUST exploit. I feel the team with the best rushing attack will win the game. The Patriots need to take the mittens off and really start using Laurence Maroney. Why else draft him in the first round unless you expect him to step up for games like this?
2. STOP DALLAS CLARK - This tight end is the bane of my existence. In the AFC Championship Game, Manning repeatedly looked to his tight ends, namely Mr. Clark, against the tired New England linebacking core. I believe Dallas Clark was the main reason the Pats signed Adailius Thomas in the offseason, and it will be his job to either stop this guy from catching the ball or plant Manning on his backside.
3. Stop the Out-Route - Manning-to-Wayne on the out near the sideline is something the tandem do quite often. They will hit this pattern repeatedly if the Pats (Ellis Hobbs if Marvin Harrison plays and is occupied by Asante Samuel) allow it. In the playoffs, the Colts resembled the Patriots offense of old: much more of a dink-and-dunk with the occasional big play rather than going for big play after big play. And it worked. Stop the out. That's you Mr. Hobbs and Mr. Samuel.
4. Keep Brady Upright - The offensive line has been stellar giving Brady time this year to check down to his 2nd and 3rd options, or hit Moss for the big play. They must continue to give Brady time and contain Dwight Freeney. That's you Matt Light. If he has the time to make his reads and hit his check-downs, the Patriots win. Conversely...
5. Pressure, Pressure, Pressure - Watching old Pats/Colts games on NFL Network (I love you NFL Network!!), the Pats had the most success when they were able to rattle Manning and throw off his timing. They don't necessarily need to sack Peyton, just rush him to make quick decisions, which will hopefully lead to bad decisions. This is especially important early on in the game, as it affects Manning throughout the rest of the game. New England's secondary is finally as good as it was in the glory years, in my opinion, and they should be able to hold up their coverage long enough as long as there's a good pass rush.
Finally, my prediction for the Game of the Year (until the playoffs). In order to be as accurate as possible, I did what any responsible sports prognosticator would do: consult Madden. No, not John Madden, the jolly, stuttering announcer we all love to hear go ga-ga over Brett Favre. But his electronic alter ego, Madden Football 2007. At the final whistle, the Patriots were victorious, winning 49-0. Brady threw for about 300 yards and 3 TDs, 2 to Wes Welker and 1 to Ben Watson, back from an ankle injury. Peyton Manning was picked twice, both of which were returned for TDs by Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison. Laurence Maroney ran for 2 TDs.
Kidding aside, I obviously do not expect the game to resemble anything close to that (but wouldn't that be great Pats fans?). I feel it will be a shootout, with the Pats coming through in the end. I'm wishy washy on picking the Pats, but I just can't pick against them here.
Final Score: Pats 38, Colts 34
Tom Brady will continue his streak of throwing at least 3 TD passes..
Laurence Maroney rushes for over 100 yards (finally) and one score.
Colts will lead 34-31 in the 4th quarter, Belichick goes for a TD on 4th down instead of kicking a field goal for the tie and is successful, sealing a win.