Dime Package: Patriots and Colts Renew NFL's Best Rivalry
The NFL knows this, which is why the league has, yet again, scheduled the AFC showdown for November sweeps. Time to look at the big questions concerning this year's matchup.
10. Before we begin, exactly why is this rivalry the best in football right now?
The strength of a rivalry depends on the strength of the teams involved. There are rivalries like the Bears-Packers and Cowboys-Giants that have historical significance, but the games aren't always exciting because one or both teams involved either lack star power, have a boring style of play, or just plain stink.
This is the first reason the Colts and Patriots have such exciting matchups. Both teams have a style of play that fans enjoy. Both teams like to throw the ball around.
Another reason the games have appeal is because of who is actually throwing the ball around. Depending on who you ask, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are typically the best and second-best quarterbacks in some order in the league.
Only Drew Brees has any merit to enter in a discussion of best quarterbacks right now. Manning and Brady have both rewritten the record books in recent years, and you wouldn't dare turn the channel if either has the ball in the fourth quarter needing a touchdown to win.
The rivalry intensifies because of the protectiveness each fan base has toward their quarterback. Nothing can spark a more heated debate than asking the question, Manning or Brady?
9. So, Manning or Brady?
Manning, of course.
Seriously though, you could definitely argue it's a matter of taste, but Manning has forever put the greatness stamp on his career with his play over the past two seasons.
Manning has seen his offense change significantly since the end of the 2007 season. Future Hall-of-Famer Marvin Harrison is gone. Young players such as Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon have been brought into the offense. So much has changed that the Colts were one of the powerhouses favored to fall from grace in 2009. Instead, Manning has never played better.
Manning has always been a fantastic quarterback. However, his early career resembled the career of Dan Fouts. Fouts was a solid quarterback that put up fantastic numbers. I'm a huge Fouts fan, but you can't deny that Fouts never broke through from being a great quarterback to being one of the all-time elite. Manning seemed to be heading that way as well, but his game has changed in recent years.
Suddenly, Manning is the type of quarterback capable of winning any game. When the Colts looked dead in the water last year at 3-4, Manning put them on his back and led the team to nine straight victories.
This is no knock on Brady. He's still in the discussion as one of the best quarterbacks of all-time. The major knee injury that knocked Brady out of 2008 also knocked down his status it seems, though I'll always be convinced Brady is a top-tier quarterback.
8. There was a time when New England owned this series. But since 2005, the Colts have won four of five. What's been the change?
I think the change comes from how Manning has evolved as a quarterback. The storyline of this game used to be how Belichick could get into Manning's head.
Some of Manning's worst performances came in games against the Patriots prior to the 2005 season. Since then, Manning has played solid football in every game, even the loss in 2007. When Manning took his game to another level, this no longer was a one-sided series. It became a true rivalry.
7. What are the keys to game for the Colts' offense?
Believe it or not, the key to the game may be the health of Colts' rookie Donald Brown. If Brown can play, the Colts can have a legitimate one-two punch with him and Joseph Addai. Some resemblance of a running game is needed to keep the Patriots' defense honest.
If Brown is out again, expect Manning to approach the 50 pass attempts he had against the Texans. The Colts will use a lot of the same sets they had last week that featured three wide receivers.
Then, Dallas Clark becomes a key to the contest. The Texans did a good job containing Garcon and Reggie Wayne, but couldn't contain Clark in the middle. The relatively young Patriots secondary could have the same problem.
Most likely, the Colts will rely on the short passing game to be their running game and Manning should take several shots down field to keep the safeties at bay.
Finally, they need to finish drives. Field goals won't cut it on Sunday night.
6. How can the Patriots' defense counter the Colts' offense?
The Patriots are not pressuring the quarterback very well this year, ranking just 26th in quarterback take-downs.
Manning has been sacked just seven times, but five have come in the past two games. If the Patriots can pressure Manning, it will keep Wayne and Garcon from putting pressure on the defensive backs through deep routes.
If the Patriots can't get to Manning, expect them to be physical with the Colts receivers. A lot of the Colts' routes rely on timing, so knocking the Colts' receivers out of rhythm could disrupt the flow of the offense.
5. On offense, the Patriots seem to be hitting their stride. Who will be the big factors for the Patriots?
This will be the ultimate test for Brady and just exactly how close he is to being back to 2007 form. Brady's 16 touchdowns are impressive, but nine came against the Titans and Bucs. Brady's numbers were solid last week against the Dolphins, but a little skewed thanks to Moss' break away touchdown that covered 71 yards.
Is Brady back, or is he still more like the quarterback we saw against the Broncos, a solid player but not the near immortal we've seen in the past?
If the Patriots win, it'll be because Brady played a near-perfect game.
His main target is likely to be Wes Welker. Last week Dallas Clark had a career high 14 catches. I would not be surprised to see Welker end up with a similar catch total. The Colts will be happy to give up some underneath routes, a Welker staple. The difference will be containing Welker after the catch.
4. How can the Colts' defense counter the Patriots' offense?
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis need to make plans to meet at Tom Brady several times. Getting to Brady has never been more important.
Whether he shows it or not, Brady could get out of sorts if there's a lot of bodies flying around him. Even if it doesn't result in a sack, the Colts need to get some hits on Brady and let him know they'll be around all day.
After that, the Colts need to be consistent tacklers. The Patriots will get guys open in the short passing game. The Colts have to limit the yardage gained on those plays, and just as importantly, get off the field when they can get the Patriots in 3rd-and-long.
3. How will special teams play a factor?
Neither team has a potent threat in the return game, and both have played very good kick coverage so far this year.
Both teams have good kicking games. Matt Stover has yet to miss in a Colts' uniform, and Stephen Gostkowski is one of the league's better young kickers.
The difference, then, falls to the punters. The early part of the game may be used to let each team get a feel for the other's game plan. The punters will need to be on their game to give their opponents as long a drive as possible.
2. Could the Colts' recent struggles be a good thing?
In a way, yes. It's obvious the Colts will need to score touchdowns to win this game. Eighteen and 20 points will not get you a W against the Patriots. However, the Colts have had to win games in the fourth quarter through clutch drives and the defense has had to keep the games close until the offense got on track.
It's hard to practice those types of situations in practice. The Patriots are a much better team than the 49ers or Texans, but this game is liable to be close just like the past two have been. The Colts have shown they can handle the pressure, and that may be a blessing should they need a stop or a score late in the fourth quarter.
I really tried to take my heart out of this one. Which team is better?
Both have defenses that can give up yardage, but seem to limit points. Both are led by great quarterbacks. Neither has a running game to speak of. The edge, as I see it, is the Colts' ability to put pressure on the quarterback. In the end, that should be the difference.
Colts 27, Patriots 24.
Enjoy this one, it should be another epic.
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