The Patriots are coming; the Patriots are coming


In November, the Indianapolis Colts beat the Patriots 27-20 in Foxborough. So, naturally, the Colts are likely to win again in next week’s AFC title game, which will be played in Indy. Right?

Forget it.

New England is a different team in the postseason, as it proved in its improbable 24-21 win in San Diego on Sunday over a team that was vastly superior physically, but somehow managed to lose to Bill Belichick’s lads. It’s why everyone fears the Patriots in the postseason – everyone – despite a cast that on paper is not nearly as good as the teams that won Super Bowls in 2002, 2004 and 2005.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears qualified to play host to New Orleans in the NFC championship game next Sunday by barely managing to beat Seattle. The winner of that conference title probably gets a consolation prize, because the NFC was so obviously inferior this season, it’s hard to see the winner of that game beating either of the AFC contestants.

The New England-Indy game will be the latest in a postseason tradition, one that’s not favorable to the Colts.

They lost 24-14 to the Patriots in the 2004 AFC title game, one in which Peyton Manning threw a career-high four interceptions. They lost again in Foxborough in the AFC semifinals the next season, 20-3. Manning threw just one pick in that game, but was shut down by New England.

Manning and the Colts atoned for that to a point with regular-season wins in Foxborough the last two years. In fact, Tom Brady threw four interceptions in that Nov. 5 game, a match in which Manning threw for 328 yards to “improve” his career record against the Patriots to 4-10.

So maybe the Colts have a chance – a slight one.

Yes, their sieve-like run defense, which allowed a league-worst 173 yards a game this year and surrendered 148 to the Patriots, has improved in playoff wins over Kanas City and Baltimore, allowing just 127 total yards in two games. And Adam Vinatieri, whose five field goals beat the Ravens 15-6, is on their side now, although his replacement, Steven Gostkowski, followed Vinatieri’s postseason example with the winning kick against the Chargers.

But how can anyone pick against the Patriots with their playoff history? Two of their three conference championships were won on the road – in Pittsburgh in 2002 and 2005.

And it’s hard to pick the Colts with their playoff history, which also includes a home loss to Pittsburgh last season, when they had the top seed in the AFC.

Funny, but maybe the defense can do it, a defense that now looks a lot like the one Tony Dungy had when he coached Tampa Bay and almost won a title game on the road in St. Louis, holding “the greatest show on turf” 1999 Rams to almost nothing and losing 11-6.

“Booger McFarland and I were talking about that,” Dungy said after the win in Baltimore, referring to the defensive tackle the Colts acquired in October from the Bucs. “We’re starting to look a lot like Tampa now.”

Yes, things are breaking right for the Colts. But they always break right for the Patriots in the playoffs.

In the NFC, it looks good for the Saints, everyone’s favorite this season because of the travails the city (and the team) went through last year after Hurricane Katrina.

The top-seeded Bears were hardly impressive Sunday against Seattle, winning 27-24 in overtime.

It will be just as hard or harder against New Orleans in the NFC championship game next week. And harder means that Chicago probably won’t be going to the Super Bowl.

The Bears got the mostly good Rex Grossman against Seattle. Yes, there were a couple of turnovers, neither strictly Grossman’s fault, but his 30-yard pass to Rashied Davis set up Robbie Gould’s overtime field goal that gave Chicago its 27-24 win.

And the defense made plays often enough – especially on third-and-short – to keep Seattle at bay in a nail-biting fourth quarter and overtime.

But without Tommie Harris and Mike Brown, it’s not the same Chicago defense that dominated teams in the first half of the season. This defense, playing on a windy and chilly home field in a somewhat warmer version of “Bears weather,” had the lead three times and gave it back three times against a team that for much of this season seemed to be resting on the laurels of its 2005 NFC championship.

In the Saints, it will face a multifaceted offense that can do a lot of things the Seahawks can’t. And it’s also opposing the team that probably played the most consistent football in the weaker NFC this season – its 10-6 regular-season record was achieved against a much tougher schedule than the Bears played in going 13-3.

Give Deuce McAllister the 100-plus yards Shaun Alexander got on the ground against the Bears, then add Reggie Bush to the mix – both as a runner and receiver. And give Drew Brees the time that Matt Hasselbeck got from Chicago and he could pick it apart, especially if the weather is decent.

In fact, the weather is probably the biggest ally the Bears will have in the first conference title game ever for the 40-year-old Saints. New Orleans is an indoor team and indoor teams rarely fare well in the postseason except when they stay indoors for the playoffs, as St. Louis did in 1999-2000, when it became the only dome team to win an NFL title.

If the wind is howling and the temperatures are frigid, Brees may have problems. If the field is slippery – or clunky, as it was Sunday – Bush may have problems, although a straight-ahead runner like McAllister will have less trouble.

But there’s also no guarantee Grossman, erratic all season, will play another decent game next week.

So give the edge to the Bears for being on their home field, but the edge to the Saints for consistency and talent.