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NFL RULE CHANGES HAVE BOOSTED PEYTON MANNING'S ALREADY CONSIDERABLE PROWESS AND PUT HIS COLTS IN A POSITION TO, FINALLY, GET PAST THE SUPER BOWL-CHAMPION PATRIOTS

Manning not only warranted his second straight MVP award but, at just 28 years of age and after only seven years in the league, would deserve entry into the Hall of Fame even if he retired after this season. He is as fine a pure passer as I've ever witnessed in a distinguished career as a couch potato, one that spans every quarterback this side of Otto Graham.

That being said, Manning's record-shattering year--not only the 49 touchdown passes, but the stratospheric quarterback rating--deserves an asterisk almost as prominent as the one that should punctuate Barry Bonds's name in the baseball annals. When the NFL competition committee--with Colts team president Bill Polian a prominent member--chose to neuter defensive backs by changing the rules on pass defense, or at least the enforcement of those rules, the numbers of NFL quarterbacks across the board soared. It's hardly a coincidence that Manning was only one of about 10 NFL starting QBs--including Daunte Culpepper, Donovan McNabb and Tom Brady--who posted career bests in TD passes.

It's easy to dismiss this assessment of Manning's historic achievement as the petty partisanship of a New England Patriots fan. And I am nothing if not petty. So let's forget about Manning for a moment (though I confess that is increasingly hard to do as the Pats-Colts Sunday showdown approaches). Take instead the Denver Broncos' Jake Plummer, who is pretty much the definition of a journeyman NFL starting quarterback, ranking 15th this season among his peers. Yet Plummer threw for 4,089 yards, which happens to be more than John Elway ever managed in 16 Hall of Fame seasons for Denver.

When Plummer tops Elway in anything other than hair length and number of obscene gestures, then something is decidedly askew. It is a puzzlement why the NFL is suddenly taking its cues from Major League Baseball's past decade of home-run frenzy. Pro football didn't need any offensive booster shot. Two of the last three Super Bowls were all-time thrillers, with the Patriots winning twice in the final seconds. And the third, between Tampa Bay and Oakland, saw the two teams ring up 69 points. What reason could there be to transform every contest into a shootout? Passing for 300 yards in a single game used to be a career milestone. Now it's a Sunday afternoon stroll in the stadium. Manning (453 yards against Denver last Sunday) is in a world of his own, but two other quarterbacks tallied more than 300 yards passing last weekend--and both for losing teams.

Manning is simply the most conspicuous beneficiary of the more rigorous policing of defensive backs. When he threw four interceptions in a 24-14 loss to the Pats in last year's AFC Championship--"I was an absolute dog," he says--it was his last subpar performance. Indy was not the first high-powered offense to grouse about the aggressive tactics of New England's defensive backs. ("Aggressive" is, of course, the Pats fan's word of choice; Colts fans and Rams fans prefer to call it mugging.) Colts coach Tony Dungy clearly had this week's rematch in mind when he embraced the rule change following last season. (Dungy was a defensive back as a player and back then would have screamed bloody murder at the new wrinkle in the game.) With the added advantage that both Patriots' starting cornerbacks--Ty Law, who intercepted three Manning passes last year, and Tyrone Poole--are injured and out of the lineup, the Colts would appear to have the Patriots exactly where they want.

Well, not exactly where. The Colts dream scenario went slightly awry in the very first game of this season when the Pats once again upended Indy. That loss ultimately dictated that the Colts would have to leave the comfort of their carpeted RCA Dome, where there are no breezes and the track is always fast, and once again challenge the Patriots in the blustery, subfreezing conditions that are New England in winter. (Somehow the Patriots apparently forgot to cover the field during Wednesday's icy rain.)

The Patriots have already proven, in memorable fashion, that they can run, pass and, perhaps most important of all, kick in the vilest winter conditions. But they have a bit more than the weather on their side. New England also has the extraordinary mystique of its coach, Bill Belichick. No matter how much flattery Belichick can come up with to describe Indy's offensive juggernaut--and the coach has been stretching for every superlative--Manning enters the game as just another in a long line of quarterbacks that Belichick seemingly owns.

The Patriots have already proven, in memorable fashion, that they can run, pass and, perhaps most important of all, kick in the vilest winter conditions. But they have a bit more than the weather on their side. New England also has the extraordinary mystique of its coach, Bill Belichick. No matter how much flattery Belichick can come up with to describe Indy's offensive juggernaut--and the coach has been stretching for every superlative--Manning enters the game as just another in a long line of quarterbacks that Belichick seemingly owns.

Belichick is 6-1 in his career against Manning, 5-0 since he made Tom Brady his starting quarterback back in 2001. Brady's very first start came against the Colts. At the time Indy was 2-0 and highly touted, and the Pats were 0-2 and apparently going nowhere with a young backup subbing for its injured star, Drew Bledsoe. Manning threw three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, and the Patriots routed the Colts 44-13. Three weeks later, just to show it wasn't a fluke, Brady and the Pats whipped Manning's Colts 38-17, this time in the Dome.

I am not one of those Pats fans who Dangerfields that our team--after two Super Bowl wins, after an NFL record winning streak--doesn't get any respect. But the public, even the pundits, are clearly infatuated with Manning and his state-of-the-art offense. The Pats are mere two-point favorites; with home field traditionally regarded as a three-point edge, the Pats are being cast as a virtual underdog. Colts boosters are ignoring a whole lot of history here: that a team that allows as many points as the Colts--almost 22 a game--has never won the championship; that the Patriots haven't lost a game in Foxboro since the 2002 season; that in each of the past four seasons, Manning has posted his worst quarterback rating against the Patriots.

Of course, these days more than ever we New England sports fans recognize the virtues of ignoring, even defying, history. When the Colts ran all over Denver in last season's playoffs, they shed the rap that they couldn't win a meaningful game. Beating Denver in similar fashion again this year didn't advance Indy's cause any further. Manning's name was linked with that of Dan Marino this season as he broke the ex-Miami Dolphins star's record for TD passes. But Marino never won a Super Bowl and Manning would surely prefer his name to be linked with those of Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Elway and, of course, Brady. This would appear to be the year that all the stars are in alignment for him. If Manning again falters in Foxboro, there will, inevitably, be talk of a curse. And we here in New England know better than anyone just how long one of those can haunt a team.