There was a gift on Mike Shanahan’s doorstep Saturday night-a path to the AFC championship game delivered by the New England Patriots. Shanahan and the Denver Broncos seized the opportunity, capitalizing on four of five Patriot turnovers en route to the franchise’s eighth AFC Championship appearance. The next afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers shocked the world, silencing the RCA Dome crowd and defeating the over-hyped Indianapolis Colts. The fall of the Colts and the two-time defending Super Bowl Champion Patriots may indicate a major change for the league. The league’s two giants could be heading into an off-season in which both teams have to address major issues. It’s unreasonable to expect a team to win three consecutive Super Bowl titles. Patriot fans have been spoilt by constant success and near-flawless football over the past few seasons. Failing in an effort to win three straight championships does not indicate failure for any team. But the Patriots’ loss to Denver revealed the necessity for improvement if the Champions hope to remain competitive next season. We all know injuries are part of football, but for the Patriots they have become a way of life.. In addition to health, New England must improve its running game and acquire at least one young middle linebacker in pursuit of success next season. The Colts’ affair with Edgerrin James seems to be finally coming to an end. It’s likely that another team desperate for a franchise player will overpay for the two-time rushing champion, leaving the Colts without one of the league’s best running backs. It is impossible to replace James’s production, and therefore the Colts, regardless of who plays in the backfield next season, will take a hit in the running game. In addition to free-agent issues, the Colts have an issue with defensive pressure. They were exposed against the Chargers in Week 15, and suffered the rush of the Steelers last weekend. Peyton Manning’s adjustments at the line of scrimmage proved useless. Manning’s constant “happy feet,” anxiety and hopping in the pocket made him look more like he was on a pogo-stick rather than in a divisional playoff game. If the Patriots and Colts do not address their “fatal flaws” this off-season, it could spell the end of the dominant teams and their rivalry. If that is the case, be prepared for a new NFL.
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