Of those four prior games against New England, Clark's only statistical standout came in the 2006 AFC Championship game, which safety Rodney Harrison(notes) missed with a knee injury. Clark caught six passes for 137 yards in the game that finally game the Colts a one-up on their great rivals. Harrison was matched up against Clark in each of the other three games, and Clark totaled eight receptions for 120 yards. Clearly, with Harrison retired, the Pats will have to find a favorable safety coverage scheme to counter Clark.
Fortunately, they have one in the person of Brandon McGowan(notes). The fifth-year player and former Chicago Bear is impressing in his first season with the Pats, especially against marquee tight ends. When he covered Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez(notes), the future Hall-of-Famer caught one pass for 16 yards. When matched up with Tampa Bay's Kellen Winslow(notes), Winslow caught two passes for nine yards. He's the main reason New England is giving up only 5.9 catches, and 35.9 yards per game against tight ends. Whether the Colts release Clark into more of a flex role or keep him inside, this will be McGowan's toughest test to date. When asked about Clark this week, Bill Belichick acknowledged the challenge.
"Tight ends are usually hard to match up against: the (defensive backs) don't have the size and the linebackers can't usually match their speed and quickness. Clark runs well; he runs like he's a receiver. When he gets down the field, he's a vertical guy, but he has good quickness and can win underneath."
If McGowan can keep with Clark and prevent Manning from using his absence up top as an excuse to exploit other defenders with the deep pass, the Patriots will take a big step forward to winning this always-compelling game.