American Football: Brady's leadership reinforces Patriots' aura of invincibility

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The Independent Online

They will never win awards for flair and excitement, and their head coach makes Sven Goran Eriksson seem positively dynamic, but there is no doubt that the New England Patriots are the decade's most dominant force.

Much like Arsenal of old, the Patriots grind opponents down with a combination of a sound game plan, superior execution, and the ability to eliminate errors.

Those ingredients have helped the Massachusetts franchise to claim three of the last five Super Bowls, and a fourth will be in their grasp should they prevail in tomorrow night's AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts.

Under the shrewd tutelage of their drab but devastatingly successful coach Bill Belichick, and their quarterback Tom Brady, who is already being compared with some of the game's greatest field leaders, New England have prevailed in 12 of the 13 post-season matches they have engaged in. It seems that when January comes around, the Patriots find another level.

Indeed, it is this aura of invincibility that the Colts' head coach, Tony Dungy, has spent much of the last week attempting to dispel. "You have to play them and not their mystique, and that's hard to do," he said.

The difference could be the two quarterbacks. Even when playing poorly by his standards, Brady remains capable of making the big play at the perfect time. Last week, in San Diego, he threw three interceptions, yet still led his side to a pair of scoring drives in the final five minutes, New England fighting back to win 24-21.

It was hardly a surprise. Brady has performed similar heroics in two of his team's Super Bowl victories, and his calm under pressure reminds many of Joe Montana, the legendary former San Francisco 49ers playmaker.

In contrast, Peyton Manning tends to thrive in the regular season, only to wilt in the cauldron of the playoffs. Manning has yet to appear in the Super Bowl and his form in his two previous play-off matches against Kansas City and Baltimore - five interceptions against one touchdown - bodes ill for tomorrow. Memories of Manning struggling in two play-off reverses against New England in 2003 and 2004 remain fresh, and the belief persists that Belichick, a master psychologist, knows how to unsettle him.

Two factors favour the Colts this time. First, they will enjoy home advantage, and more significantly, they have the kicking prowess of Adam Vinatieri should things be close late on.

Vinatieri played for the Patriots until this season, kicking two Super Bowl-winning field goals during his time there. At the Colts he has continued to embellish his reputation as a performer for the big occasion.

Since arriving in Indiana, Vinatieri has converted 25 of 28 kicks, while in the post-season he has been perfect, eight for eight. The fairy-tale finish calls for Vinatieri to convert a last-second game winner tomorrow, but he remains typically pragmatic. "I figured that if we kept winning, our paths would meet eventually," he said.

The winners will play either the Chicago Bears or the New Orleans Saints in next month's Super Bowl. The Saints are an emotional favourite, but the Bears have home advantage at chilly Soldier Field, and may have enough defensive edge to reach their first championship game since 1985.