Russ Spence

Commercial Pressure Wash Expert and PWI Admin
When the Colts play longtime adversary New England on Sunday, they will face a different test against the league's most resilient postseason quarterback.

Tom Brady already owns three Super Bowl rings and masterfully rallied the Patriots (14-4) to a 24-21 victory at San Diego on Sunday to advance to the conference title game. His next challenge is a Colts defense buoyed by the return of former Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders.

Sanders was limited to four-regular season games but one of them was the Colts' 27-20 win at New England in November. Indianapolis held the Patriots to 349 yards and intercepted Brady four times in the victory.

Sanders played in his second straight game Saturday, the first time he has been in consecutive games since the first two weeks of the season - before he needed arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.

"I don't know what it is, all I do is go out and do what I do," Sanders said. "Since I've been back, it seems like the guys have a lot more energy, but we're in the playoffs, so that may be it, too."

These old division rivals have met seven times since Indianapolis moved from the AFC East in 2002. New England won the first four, including two home playoff games, and the Colts have won the last two - both regular-season games at New England.

Indianapolis' suddenly sturdy defense could be the key in this one.

Coach Tony Dungy insisted all season that his team's biggest problems were fixable. Many thought it was impossible after a season during which the Colts (14-4) surrendered a league-high 173 yards rushing per game, even giving up a hefty 375 yards to Jacksonville in December.

Yet Dungy never lost faith in his system or his players, and they've responded.

"We're playing better," Dungy said. "We're tackling a little bit better. We've always had a pretty good rush in the long-yardage situations, but in the third-and-5, third-and-6, we've tackled the underneath throws a little bit better."

The Colts blew what many considered their best Super Bowl chance last season with a shocking home loss to Pittsburgh. This season, they stumbled into the playoffs with four losses in six weeks, and conventional wisdom suggested the Colts would make another quick postseason exit.

Instead, a defense long considered the greatest impediment to a Super Bowl run, has played more like the '85 Chicago Bears than the '06 Colts for two straight weeks.

"I think we're playing consistently well for 60 minutes, and we're playing with an intensity that's been unmatched," former Pro Bowl linebacker Cato June said. "We're having fun doing it, and showing that all the stuff in the regular season doesn't matter."

Kansas City managed 126 total yards in a 23-8 wild-card loss and Larry Johnson carried only 13 times for 32 yards.

At Baltimore on Saturday, the Colts were more impressive. While the Ravens produced 244 yards in offense, Jamal Lewis ran for just 53 yards and Indy beat the NFL's top-ranked defense at its own game in a 15-6 victory - keeping the Ravens out of the end zone.

Whatever the explanation, the improved defense has been able to get off the field quickly and played well enough to overcome two sub-par games from two-time MVP Peyton Manning.

Kansas City and Baltimore were a combined 3-of-22 on third-down conversions.

"It's not the 3-4, it's not the people, it's not the scheme," Dungy said. "It's doing your job on every play, and I thought that we did. The one thing that we've done well in this postseason is that we've played well on third down."

Russ Spence

Commercial Pressure Wash Expert and PWI Admin
Hostile territory is where New Orleans established its identity as the new America's Team, one season after Hurricane Katrina forced the Saints to play a nomadic 2005 season entirely away from their home city.

They play one more road game at Chicago on Sunday - this time with a chance to reach their first Super Bowl since the franchise's inception in 1967.

New Orleans has never won a playoff game on the road, going 0-2, but this time could be different.

While the Saints (11-6) were 5-4 in the rebuilt Louisiana Superdome this season, including last Saturday night's narrow playoff victory over Philadelphia, they are 6-2 on the road, having won several games by big margins.

In a Sunday night game at Dallas in early December, fullback Mike Karney scored the first three touchdowns of his career, seldom used receiver Jamaal Jones caught his first touchdown pass and Reggie Bush had one of his longest, most spectacular scoring plays of the season after hauling in a short swing pass.

The loudest cheers in Texas Stadium where those of New Orleans fans as the Saints routed the Cowboys 42-17.

Later came a Christmas Eve game in New York - a game the Giants were desperate to win as they fought to stay in the playoff race. The Saints took that one 30-7.

In November, New Orleans won 31-14 at Tampa Bay, then 31-13 at Atlanta.

Why so much better away from the Superdome?

"That's a good question. You try to look at your itineraries and I tried to study a lot maybe what we were doing differently at home," Saints coach Sean Payton said Monday. "I don't know specifically if I could tell you why we finished 6-2 in the regular season on the road. We played some good teams on the road and played them well."

The Saints' other road victories came at Cleveland and Green Bay. Even their two road losses, 21-18 at Carolina and 38-31 at Pittsburgh, were games that the Saints had a shot to win in the final minutes.

Payton smiles at the thought of playing in Chicago, perhaps because it's the closest thing to a home-away-from-home game the coach could get.

He spent much of his young life there, going to junior high and high school in nearby Naperville, Ill.

"Home for me is Chicago," Payton said. "I have a lot of friends there and family there. It's a great sports town and always has been. There are a lot of good memories for me in that city. ... It's a great place to call home. I would consider myself a Midwesterner and I think that's a good thing."

The Saints are not accustomed to playing in cold weather, or on grass. They played on grass only five times all season, going 3-2.

Payton said he noticed some players losing their footing in Chicago, where some sod has recently been replaced, when the Bears hosted Seattle last weekend. Yet he said he wasn't sure whether he'd prefer to have the Saints practice on their outdoor grass fields or on their full-length, artificial indoor field.

"At this time of year there's no perfect grass field," Payton said. "You've just got to make sure you've got the right shoes on. ... You test them out, you go play and you don't let it be a reason" for struggling.

New Orleans has played nearly all warm-weather games this season. They played in Cleveland and Green Bay on sunny September days. The weather was unseasonably mild, 52 degrees, during that late December game in New York. Their coldest game was 39 degrees in Pittsburgh on Nov. 12.

Still, Payton showed little concern over forecasts of temperatures in the mid-20s in Chicago this weekend.

"You know going in that there's going to be different environments. You become adjusted and get used to the footing and the noise you have to deal with. You go over all the ways to stay warm," Payton said.

"The conditions are obviously important to get adjusted to in terms of how you play, so that you're not slipping or falling. Outside of that, I think you become acclimated quickly."