Patriots stand tall

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 3:30 PM ET

When they weren't trying to knock Peyton Manning and the NFL's best offence silly, Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi snuck a peak into their eyes and liked what they saw.

Most times it was frustration, other times fear.

And at the end of the 20-3 slapping the New England Patriots put on the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC divisional playoff game here in Foxboro, Mass., yesterday, it was pure resignation.

Manning, the puffed-up league MVP, looked like the kid who wanted to take his ball and go home.

The Patriots looked like the schoolyard bullies who play not to set records but to win, wound pride and inflict pain.

"You could see it in their faces," linebacker Vrabel said. "We stood up to them and they didn't like it."

Nor could they deal with it. The Colts offence, which had averaged a league-high 32.7 points per game, was held to one measly field goal by Oakville native Mike Vanderjagt.

The lead may have been just 6-3 at halftime, but with the 68,756 at Gillette Stadium gleefully singing Let it Snow, the humiliation of the Colts was well under way.

"If I was on their offence, I know I would be frustrated," Bruschi said. "Of course we heard all the talk. We just gritted our teeth and said, 'You are not going to do that here.' "

Not with a Manning who bore little resemblance to the player who threw an NFL-record 49 touchdown passes in the regular season. And not with a worn-out defence that turned to mush.

By the snowy kickoff yesterday, the Colts actually had moved from a 2 1/2-point underdog in Las Vegas to a one-point favourite. The buildup of Manning was such that some Patriots defenders had worked themselves into a frenzy.

A team that now has won seven consecutive playoff games and 20 in a row overall at home, looked to the defence to impose its will and at the same time break that of the Colts.

"There was so much hype this week that it felt like the Super Bowl," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. "It just ticked us off. It was just so frustrating to get disrespected like that."

By halftime, it was Manning who was the picture of frustration. He whined at officials. He waved his arms at receivers who didn't make plays. And he suffered another playoff loss as fans serenaded him with a jeering chant of "M-V-P, M-V-P."

WIN OR LOSE

"It knew it was Colts versus the Patriots," said Manning, rejecting the notion that it was his game to win or lose. "But I wanted to do my job and I just didn't do it well enough."

The Patriots may not have Manning and his records but they have a quarterback bent on establishing a dynasty. And justified or not, Manning is getting the reputation of being a "me" guy while Tom Brady is the consummate team player.

As a result, the defending champs are focussed on a third Super Bowl win in four years as they prepare for the AFC championship game in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Even though the Steelers had a 15-1 season and defeated the New York Jets in overtime in the divisional final, they opened as a three-point home underdog for the title game.

But who would bet against the Patriots now? They have won 30 of their past 32 games.

As dominant as the Patriots were on defence, they were stifling on offence as well. Three of their scoring drives chewed up 24 minutes 47 seconds.

Not that they needed to worry about Manning, as it turned out, but keeping him off the field added to the deep freeze.

"The pressure will build and people will continue to talk about it," Colts coach Tony Dungy said of his quarterback's failure to get to a Super Bowl. "But I think Peyton will handle it well."


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