So the Patriots are 5-2 and tied for first place in the AFC East, all without their best player. Everything in Foxborough seems to be in order for the first time in months, right down to this week's matchup against arch-rival Indianapolis Colts.
Sure, neither team is playing with the fireworks that we have come to expect from them in the past, but this game still has a lot of implications and intrigue to go along with it.
—Peyton Manning and the Colts are certainly not the same team that they have been since Tony Dungy took over. They have looked lost on offense, and Manning's skills and performance this year pales in comparison to little brother Eli's in New York. This has fans in Indianapolis worried about their playoff hopes, especially considering the resurgent Titans, who have started the season 8-0.
For the Colts, just like the Chargers a few weeks ago, a win at home versus the Patriots is as big a win as they could possibly ask for right now. This is an absolute must win for the Colts, who conceded the AFC South to the Titans on Monday Night Football, looking lethargic on offense and suspect on defense. A win against the Patriots will have them back in the thick of things, if only for a week.
—Can the Patriots finally string together a few solid games? Sure, they blew out the Broncos on MNF two weeks ago, but they needed a fourth-quarter comeback from Matt Cassel to squeeze by the Rams last Sunday. What Patriots team will show up on Sunday: the one we saw against the Broncos and Rams, controlling the pace of the game and playing good defense, or the underachieving team who lost to San Diego and Miami?
The Patriots' need to establish an identity for themselves, and this is yet another chance to do so, against their biggest rival.
—The Patriots' running game has raised more questions than Obama's economic plan in the last few weeks. Who is healthy? Who is practicing? No one really knows at this point. LaMont Jordan has been sidelined for weeks now, and Sammy Morris' knee may still be acting up. Both missed last weeks' game, and it was up to Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis to pick up the slack. Good thing we have depth, right?
—Lastly, this is going to be a tough matchup for Cassel, possibly the toughest he will see all year. He will be making his first start in the loud (and digitally crowd-enhanced) Lucas Oil Stadium, going up against one of the loudest crowds in football. This will certainly be a distraction, especially when he is making his pre-snap reads and audibles.
Tom Brady used to be able to change the play at the line of scrimmage, but we haven't seen that kind of smart football with Cassel. The crowd noise, compounded by the Colts' solid pass defense, will force Cassel to make smart throws and throw the ball away when facing pressure.
The offensive line must give him protection, so he can go through his reads quicker and make the best decision with the football, whether it be throwing it deep to Randy or short dink and dunk passes to the backfield and Wes Welker.
This makes establishing the running game that much more important, especially in the early stages of the game. I'd like to see the Patriots come out with the no huddle offense, keeping the Colts' D on their heels, while running to set up the pass.
This defense will test Cassel without a doubt, and he may be forced to stage another fourth-quarter comeback in order to win this game. If the Patriots want to stay relevant and not fall off like so many other teams this year, they must win this game, sending a message to the entire league.