FOXBORO, Mass. -- One Most Valuable Player down, one to go.
A day after dispatching NFL co-MVP Steve McNair and the Tennessee Titans, the New England Patriots learned that in order to get to the Super Bowl they will have to beat the man who shared the award with him: Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning.
Manning threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Colts to a 38-31 victory over Kansas City on Sunday and earn the right to play the Patriots for the AFC title. But even before the Colts advanced, New England coach Bill Belichick knew he had his work cut out for him.
"I think this game will be tougher, bigger and obviously there is more riding on it than even the last game," he said Sunday. "At this time of year, every time you win, then the next game gets bigger. And that is where we are."
Also Sunday, the NFL announced that Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest was added to the Pro Bowl roster - his second such honor, and his first since New England's Super Bowl season of 1996-97. He replaces Baltimore linebacker Peter Boulware, who missed the Tennessee game with a sprained right knee and is planning to have arthroscopic surgery.
McGinest had 79 total tackles and 5 1/2 sacks this season. He was the AFC's defensive player of the week in Week 16 after recording nine tackles and 1 1/2 sacks in a 21-16 victory over the New York Jets.
No play was bigger than his tackle on running back Frank Wycheck for a loss of 10 yards late in the third quarter on Saturday after Tennessee had scored to tie it 14-all and then recovered a fumble near midfield. Wycheck got the ball on a lateral and was trying to pass it when McGinest guessed right and stopped the play in its tracks.
"You could see trouble coming there," Belichick said. "It was 14-14, they have the ball at midfield and McGinest makes the play on the double pass that Wycheck was going to throw. Willie made a great read on the play.
"Normally, he would be rushing the passer. But he read it on his first step and then flattened out and by the time Wycheck got the ball, he was right on top of him. It was really a great play by McGinest. It made me look like a good coach."
Belichick was not available for comment after Sunday's games, and his players were not made available to reporters a day after the Patriots beat Tennessee 17-14 on Adam Vinatieri's 46-yard field goal with 4:06 left to play. Belichick said there was no point in waiting to discuss his next opponent.
"It doesn't make any difference who (the opponent) is. I can tell you right now, it is going to be a very tough team," Belichick said. "To get to this point, we know what a struggle it was for us to get there and it is going to be a struggle for whoever the other team is that gets there. And the fact that they fought through that competition to get to the AFC Championship game, it is going to be a good football team whichever one of them it is."
The Patriots were given Monday and Tuesday to recover from a game played in a starting temperature of 4 degrees before it dropped to 2 - with a wind chill of 11 below - before it was over. And all that foul-weather gear the Patriots and their fans stocked up on won't go to waste: Weather for the conference title game Sunday is expected to be - you guessed it - cold: High of 28 degrees, low of 6, and partly cloudy.
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