Conference Championship Mismatches

Updated: January 16, 2004, 2:07 PM ET
By By Ryan Early | NFL Insider
The game of pro football is predicated on individual match-ups. Coaches seek out a match-up in their favor and devise a game plan to take advantage. Each week we preview one lopsided match-up that should make an impact on the game, either through its exploitation or in changing a team's plans to try to compensate. For the postseason, we highlight three mismatches in each game to give you a more well-rounded view of the entire game.

Colts at Patriots
HC Bill Belichick vs. QB Peyton Manning
Co-MVP Manning may be playing the best football of his career, but it isn't like the Broncos and Chiefs put up much resistance the last two weeks. Both teams ran very basic schemes and were incapable of hiding their defensive play call, allowing Manning to know exactly where he was going with the ball before he even snapped the ball. The Patriots will not be so easy meat. Bill Belichick has always been the one person who could get inside Manning's head, especially away from Indianapolis. Manning has thrown four touchdowns to nine interceptions in the four away games against a Belichick coached defense. The Patriots will purposefully tip their hand as to potential blitzers in order to goad Manning into calling an audible, only to shift just before the snap to put the Colts in a bad play call. Belichick will also throw unusual personnel combinations onto the field to confuse Manning, such as only rushing two and putting nine back in coverage only to follow that up with an eight-man rush the next play. Throw in freezing temperatures and a 40% chance of snow flurries, and it will be that much harder for Manning to continue his hot streak.

QB Tom Brady vs. FS Idrees Bashir

The Colts play a Cover-2 defense partly because of Tony Dungy's defensive philosophy, and partly to hide the weaknesses of an inexperienced secondary. The Patriots will certainly try to run on the Colts 20th ranked run defense, more to take time off the clock and keep Peyton Manning off the field, but 70% of their yards and touchdowns have come through the passing game and this Sunday will be no exception. The Patriots offense revolves entirely around Tom Brady and his ability to distribute the ball to the open man. He has completed passes to 16 different receivers this year, with eight different players averaging at least a catch a game. When they pass, they will bring in extra receivers to force the Colts into nickel personnel and then attack that susceptible secondary with pre-snap formation changes, receiver groupings, and crossing patters all to overwhelm the safeties' thinking processes. Brady will likely utilize short, quick passes until the Colts get frustrated and try a blitz. Then he'll let the ball fly deep knowing that he won't have free safety Idrees Bashir back there to worry about.