NFL Preview - New England (6-2) at Indianapolis (8-0)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Indianapolis Colts are halfway towards achieving a goal the New England Patriots know a little something about. The AFC South leaders will put their spotless 2009 record on the line when the two conference heavyweights go toe-to-toe this Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in the marquee matchup of the Week 10 slate.
Winners of their first eight games, the Colts are one of two teams still unbeaten at the midway point of this campaign and have an opportunity to join the 2007 Patriots as the only club to complete a 16-game regular-season with a perfect record. Indianapolis has also won an astounding 17 straight non- playoff tests dating back to last year, a streak that began with an 18-15 decision over the Tom Brady-less Pats at Lucas Oil Stadium. The winning points were provided by former New England Super Bowl hero Adam Vinatieri, with the veteran kicker booting a tie-breaking 52-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter.
If Indianapolis is able to knock off the Patriots, who have prevailed in their last three outings and stand atop the AFC East with a 6-2 record, it will have tied the second-longest regular-season win streak in NFL history. That place happens to be held by New England, which ripped off 18 consecutive victories spanning the 2003 and 2004 seasons behind the highly-successful duo of Brady and head coach Bill Belichick.
The Colts had to work for their most recent triumph, utilizing a short touchdown run from running back Joseph Addai in the fourth quarter to best a game Houston squad by a 20-17 score last Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Indianapolis squandered an early 13-0 lead before embarking on an eight-play, 61-yard drive to move back ahead, then survived a Texans comeback bid that came up short when kicker Kris Brown missed a 42-yard field goal try as time expired.
While the Colts come into Sunday's showdown with the glossier record, New England may be the team playing the best football in the AFC at the moment. After obliterating Tennessee and Tampa Bay by a combined 94-7 overall margin to close out October, the Patriots returned from a bye week to post a 27-17 home win over defending AFC East champion Miami this past Sunday.
New England also had to earn its latest victory with a second-half rally. Trailing 17-16 late in the third quarter, the Pats pulled in front on a 71- yard connection from Brady to Randy Moss followed by a successful two-point attempt, then kept the determined Dolphins off the scoreboard in the final period.
This highly-anticipated clash will not only be featuring a pair of division front-runners and probable AFC playoff participants. It will also pit the top two passing offenses and scoring defenses in the NFL at the moment, not to mention the always-intriguing head-to-head battle between two legendary quarterbacks in Brady and the Colts' Peyton Manning.
The future Hall of Famers have opposed one another nine times over the course of this decade, three of which have come in the postseason. Brady's Patriots have come out on top in six of those occasions, but Manning and the Colts have won three of the past four meetings, including a 38-34 verdict in the 2006 AFC Championship.
The Patriots hold a 42-27 edge in their all-time regular season series with the Colts, but as previously mentioned, were 18-15 road losers when they visited Indianapolis in Week 9 of last season. New England won the previous meeting, a 24-20 decision at the RCA Dome in 2007. The teams were a combined 15-0 heading into that matchup.
The Patriots and Colts have met three times in the postseason, with New England taking a 24-14 decision in the 2003 AFC Championship and a 20-3 triumph in a 2004 AFC Divisional Playoff prior to the Colts' 38-34 home win in the 2006 AFC Championship.
The Patriots are 32-13, including playoffs, against Indianapolis since the Colts moved from Baltimore following the 1983 season.
Belichick is 10-7 against the Colts all-time, including 8-5 while with the Patriots. Indianapolis' Jim Caldwell will be meeting both Belichick and New England for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Brady (2364 passing yards, 16 TD, 5 INT) has shaken off some early rust from the serious knee injury that sidelined the three-time Super Bowl champion for nearly all of 2008, as he's thrown for over 300 yards in each of New England's last three victories and heaved six touchdown passes in the team's 59-0 shellacking of Tennessee back in Week 6. The standout signal-caller is backed by one of the league's premier receiving tandems in Moss (49 receptions, 712 yards, 5 TD), who delivered a season-best 147 yards on six grabs against the Dolphins last week, and super slotman Wes Welker (55 receptions, 568 yards, 4 TD). Rookie Julian Edelman (21 receptions) had been developing into a capable third option, but the former college quarterback is out indefinitely with a forearm fracture sustained in the Tennessee game. The Patriots' potent offense has been even tougher to stop lately due to the re-emergence of 2006 first- round pick Laurence Maroney (347 rushing yards, 3 TD, 6 receptions) as an effective running back. The talented 24-year-old has scored in three straight games and is averaging over five yards per carry during that time period. The front line has been without two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light for the last three tilts because of a knee sprain, but youngster Sebastian Vollmer has done a good job filling in. Steady center Dan Koppen left the Miami game with a knee problem of his own, and the always-secretive Pats have been tight- lipped about his availability for Sunday.
The Colts have managed to play solid defense despite a number of key players having been saddled with injuries, but those health issues could be catching up with the team. The Texans' Matt Schaub put up 311 passing yards last week on a secondary that started a pair of rookies, Jerraud Powers (40 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PD) and Jacob Lacey (35 tackles, 1 INT, 6 PD) at the cornerback spots. Top coverman Kelvin Hayden (18 tackles, 1 INT) will miss at least one more week with a sprained knee, while game-changer Bob Sanders lasted just two games before the brittle strong safety was forced to injured reserve with a biceps tear. Indianapolis is at full strength on the defensive line, however, and will do its best to attempt to neutralize New England's dangerous passing attack with the fearsome pass-rush combo of ends Dwight Freeney (19 tackles, 9.5 sacks) and Robert Mathis (26 tackles, 6.5 sacks). The pair has produced 16 of the club's healthy total of 22 sacks, and Freeney has gotten to the quarterback at least once in every game this year.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
It's fair to say the Colts wouldn't have gotten to this point unscathed without the commanding presence of Manning (2545 passing yards, 16 TD, 5 INT), who may be in the midst of the greatest season of a career that's been full of exceptional moments. The perennial All-Pro has eclipsed 300 passing yards in all but one of the team's eight games and is completing an incredible 70.6 percent of his throws, while having taken a mere seven sacks due to his quick release and sharp decision-making skills. He's not the only Indianapolis player having a banner year for the NFL's top-ranked passing offense (315.0 ypg), however. Tight end Dallas Clark (60 receptions, 703 yards, 3 TD) leads the league in catches per game and hauled in a career-best 14 Manning strikes totaling 119 yards in last week's win, while star wideout Reggie Wayne's (59 receptions, 6 TD) 753 receiving yards is the second-highest individual total this season. Youngsters Austin Collie (32 receptions, 4 TD) and Pierre Garcon (23 receptions, 2 TD) have also made notable contributions, with Addai (399 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 7 total TD) serving as a reliable receiver out of the backfield as well. The fourth-year back has had to take on more of the rushing load with rookie Donald Brown (212 rushing yards, 2 TD, 7 receptions) out the last two games with a shoulder contusion, but the 2009 first-round choice is ready to resume his role after practicing without limitations this week.
A revamped New England defense has managed to remain at a high level even after undergoing a host of significant offseason changes. The Pats have yielded the second-fewest points in the league (14.4 ppg) and stand fourth overall versus the pass (179.4 ypg), with opposing quarterbacks having completed only 56 percent of their attempts. The new-look group is headlined by inside linebacker Jerod Mayo (33 tackles), the 2008 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, while ex-Chicago castoff Brandon McGowan (54 tackles, 3 forced fumbles) has made quite an impact upon seizing the starting strong safety job early in September. Veteran corner Leigh Bodden (31 tackles, 1 INT, 7 PD), brought in from Detroit during the spring, has also helped solidify a secondary that should get counterpart Jonathan Wilhite (16 tackles) back in action after the sophomore sat out the Miami game due to illness. Right end Jarvis Green (18 tackles) probably won't return from a recent knee scope this week, but valued reserve Mike Wright (17 tackles), the team's leader with four sacks, is an adequate substitute. The Patriots have only generated 15 sacks through eight games and will be taking on an Indianapolis club that's given up the fewest in the NFL.
Fantasy enthusiasts will have plenty of reasons to tune in for this nationally-televised primetime affair, with both rosters sporting a wealth of high-caliber performers. Manning, Wayne and Clark are every-week starting locks for the Colts, with Brady, Moss and Welker owning the same status on the New England side. The Patriots' Maroney and Indianapolis' Addai have been able to reward their owners in recent weeks, and with the possibility of a high- scoring matchup on tap, there's obvious potential for both backs on Sunday. Keep Donald Brown on the bench for this week, as the rookie will likely be eased in off an injury, but Collie has some upside as a flex player as the third receiver in a pass-heavy offense. Both kickers have value, as New England's Stephen Gostkowski is second in the league in field goals and Indy's Matt Stover has gone 6-for-6 in three-pointers in three games since replacing an injured Vinatieri.
Even though it's never wise to bet against Manning, there are a few factors which could play in the Patriots' favor here. The first regards the shaky depth of an Indianapolis secondary that has gotten surprisingly good play out of a pair of untested rookies, ones who struggled at times against Houston's outstanding duo of Schaub and Andre Johnson last week and have yet to face a trio of the caliber of Brady, Moss and Welker. Secondly, New England has shown better offensive balance among the two teams as of late and should be able to keep Indianapolis' excellent pass rushers from teeing off if it can run the ball as effectively as in past weeks. And finally, there's the law of averages. The Colts are going to lose at some point this season, and they've had to scrape and claw their way past teams that aren't as good as the Patriots on a few occasions this year. In a game that clearly has the chance to live up to its advance billing, New England's advantages on defense and ability to run the football give the visitors an ever-so slight edge.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 27, Colts 24
11/12 17:53:36 ET