Let the Patriots-Colts hype begin

Charles Robinson

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – If you could splice epic moments in American history and squeeze them all into next week – the Titanic sinking on Monday, Neil Armstrong landing on the moon on Tuesday, Mount Saint Helens erupting on Wednesday and so on – that might actually blot out the hype leading into next Sunday's clash between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts.

Emphasis on the word might.

Not only did the Colts hold up their end of what is sure to be trumpeted as one of the greatest regular-season games in NFL history, but they also did it by wiping out the NFC South-leading Carolina Panthers 31-7. For the second straight week, Indianapolis dispatched a likely playoff contender by allowing only one touchdown while knocking out an opposing starting quarterback. Last week, it was Jacksonville and David Garrard. On, Sunday it was Carolina and Vinny Testaverde, who sat out the second half after a right Achilles' tendon injury.

Not that a healthy Testaverde would have changed the outcome. After floundering most of the first half and leading only 10-7, Indy's offense finished the game hot, scoring 21 second-half points before inserting backups and killing the clock midway through the fourth quarter. That set the stage for the inevitable postgame onslaught of questions about New England, but the Colts were prepared for that thanks to coach Tony Dungy, who, in the locker room afterward, urged his team to enjoy Sunday's win and wait until Wednesday to start talking about next week's "circus."

"I'm not even sure who we play next week," Indianapolis linebacker Gary Brackett teased, leaning back into a locker and shrugging his shoulders. "Who is it again?"

Certainly, the NFL media machine knows the answer to that question, and it will spend the next week trapped in the tractor beam of Indianapolis versus New England. In fact, the game has taken on such outrageous electricity that two significant records – most career wins by a Colts head coach and most career touchdowns by a Colts quarterback – were eclipsed Sunday with little fanfare. Dungy surpassed Don Shula and Ted Marchibroda with his 74th victory with Indy, while Manning's 59-yard passing score to Reggie Wayne pushed him past Johnny Unitas with his 288th touchdown pass.

But those mere footnotes were lost in the wake of two perfect teams hurtling at each other.

"It will be a very, very much hyped game," Dungy said. "I told our players in there that all you guys are going to ask them about this week and that we should talk about this (win over Carolina) and what happened. Next week will have plenty of time to take place. (The Patriots are) a good team. They've played great football all year."

Then again, so have the Colts, who continue to show new wrinkles of maturity. Last week, they showcased the speed and hitting ability that has become a defensive hallmark, particularly in the secondary. This week, they showed the poise to bounce back on the road after arguably one of their worst first-half performances on offense this season. Through two quarters, Manning had struggled to 5-of-14 passing for 88 yards and no touchdowns without the services of favored wideout Marvin Harrison, who sat with swelling in his knee.

The rest of the Indianapolis offense wasn't much better. Running back Joseph Addai scratched out only 38 yards on nine carries and Reggie Wayne was the only wideout to catch more than one ball (he had three first-half receptions). That all shifted dramatically in the second half, with Manning going 9-of-15 for 166 yards and two touchdowns in the final two quarters and Addai providing balance with 62 yards and a touchdown on his final 14 carries.

"That's the difference that I see from six years ago," Dungy said of the offensive resurgence. "When we had halves like that in the past, there would be a little frustration. But we've been there and our guys do have a lot of confidence in our coaching staff. They know we're going to come up with some good things.

"Normally what happens is we tighten down. We throw out some things and just concentrate on the stuff that we really like in the second half. Our guys have the sense that when a half goes like that, especially when we've got the lead at halftime, that we're going to play better in the second half."

It's a quality that might serve the Colts well against the Patriots, who have shown no signs of struggling in any phase after obliterating the Redskins 52-7 on Sunday. Like last week's 49-28 trouncing of Miami, New England's lopsided win upstaged a quality victory by the Colts, who might be the first undefeated team to go into a midseason game at home as a decided underdog.

"Everybody's been talking about this game for a long time, except us. Now it's safe to talk about it," Manning said. "It will be good to come back at home. We've been on the road for two games in a row. The Patriots are playing great. It's well-documented what we think of them as an organization."

And come next Sunday, the Colts will know how they measure up to the Patriots. But first, Indianapolis will savor Sunday's win over Carolina and its 7-0 start for a few more precious days. In a surprising move, Dungy gave his players both Monday and Tuesday off to keep them out of the media spotlight until Wednesday afternoon.

"I'm sure it's going to be crazy," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "Playoff atmosphere, I guess. The media hypes it up so much. Even though we'll probably see New England twice anyway. … Who knows what will happen? No one knows."

True enough. But for the next seven days, that won't stop the sports world from talking about it.