After the exhilaration and exhaustion of the Indianapolis Colts' wild win over the Kansas City Chiefs, one name brings the laser focus back to the Colts today: Tom Brady.
With no disrespect to Alex Smith, the New England Patriots' Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. And his time is running out. His chances for another Super Bowl ring are dwindling. It's not desperation he'll bring Saturday, it's urgency.
The Colts will play the Patriots in an AFC divisional-round playoff game at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
Fans and media will have a heyday with the idea of Brady vs. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. I'll join in, without shame. The quarterback angle is too much fun to ignore.
But the reality is that the Colts' defense, gouged repeated by the Chiefs, faces its biggest challenge of the season, and will be the key to whether the Colts pull the road upset.
The Colts defense had to wait until the end of the San Diego Chargers' 27-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals today to find out if they would play the Patriots or Denver Broncos, Brady or Peyton Manning. The Chargers will play at Denver in the other AFC game next Sunday.
Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman said the defense knew it would face a huge task, whether Brady or Manning.
“I'm not sure if there is too much of a difference,” Freeman said. “Both of them do a lot of things well. They're legends of the game. Both of them make a lot of checks, do a lot of their own things at the line of scrimmage. They both have some pretty good offenses. It doesn't matter who we play, it's just going to be a tough battle.”
The Colts defense enters the game after a major struggle in their 45-44 win over the Chiefs. They gave up 513 yards. Smith had his way with the Colts' secondary, abusing it with Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery, among others. Colts cornerback Greg Toler is hurt again, although he did not look strong in his limited time Saturday.
And, yet, the Colts defense made some indispensable plays in the win. Three big ones:
* Colts safety Antoine Bethea caught Bowe from behind on a deep pass in the first quarter that ended up forcing the Chiefs into a field goal instead of touchdown, a four-point difference that paid off later.
* Outside linebacker Robert Mathis sacked and stripped Smith from behind, forcing a turnover and giving the Colts life during a near-lifeless point in the game.
* The defense kept Kansas City from a game-winning field goal attempt by pressuring Smith into an intentional grounding and stopping them on a 4th-and-11 pass to Bowe, in which he was forced out of bounds on a sideline catch.
“You've just got to play one play at a time and never get too big in the moment,” Colts defensive end Cory Redding said. “Believe you'll get a stop, and that's what we did.”
The Patriots will bring even more offensive looks and options, relying heavily on the experience and intelligence of Brady and the game-planning of Brady and coach Bill Belichick.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who spoke to the media before the Chargers-Bengals game, addressed the challenges of playing either Brady or Manning in the next round
He knows his secondary will still be banged up, and he knows Brady will seek to exploit it.
“(Manning and Brady) find a way to get themselves, to get their offense, to get their team, in the right play 99 percent of the time,” Pagano said. “They don't allow you to do certain things from a defensive standpoint. They dictate the tempo. They're great game managers. They do it all at the line of scrimmage and there's nothing that they have not seen and been through.
“With a group back there that's 100 percent, it's a huge undertaking. So if guys aren't 100 percent or you're missing some bodies back there, certainly it makes it even more of a challenge.”
The Colts' best defensive advantage is in its demonstrated ability to put its mistakes behind it and continue to strive for big plays. That's a theme of the team as a whole, certainly a characteristic of Luck and the offense.
Mathis, Redding and Freeman, in particular, demonstrate the resilience needed to play poorly and get burned, yet rise in the moment.
“You have to play every play,” Mathis said. “You never know when it's going to come, so you go until you can't.”
The Colts defense will have to “go” like never before to beat Brady on the road.
Here's the good part for the Colts: After the Chiefs game, they know anything is possible.