One of the most highly anticipated non-playoff games in recent memory takes place on Sunday when the New England Patriots visit the Indianapolis Colts in the league’s first matchup of teams who are unbeaten this far into a season.
“I really think that’s why you’re in the league, for games like this,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said.
This showdown involves the only teams left which have yet to lose, adding an intriguing chapter to what has become the NFL’s best rivalry of the decade.
New England (8-0) held the upper hand after Brady became the starter, with six straight wins that included a 2004 victory in the AFC championship game en route to its most recent Super Bowl win. Manning, though, has led Indianapolis (7-0) to wins in the last three meetings, the latest being a come-from-behind 38-34 victory in last season’s AFC title game before winning his first championship.
While that defeat is the only one the Patriots have suffered in their last 14 games, the Colts go into this contest having won 12 straight after joining the 1929-31 Green Bay Packers as the only teams to open three consecutive seasons 7-0.
“Two undefeated teams, and obviously with the history between these teams, it makes for a great matchup,” Brady said. “You know anytime you play the Colts it’s always an exciting game for all the players and all the coaches. You know when you’re playing them, you’re playing the best.”
However, many are saying the Patriots are the best, with their astounding domination of all opponents this season making them the favorites despite playing at the RCA Dome. Indianapolis has won 13 straight home games since a Jan. 15, 2006 playoff loss to Pittsburgh.
This is the first time in NFL history two teams are playing each other with undefeated records through at least seven games.
“Everybody’s been talking about it for a long time, except us,” Manning said. “I guess now it’s safe to talk about it.”
Even though they have routed two solid teams on the road over the past two weeks, beating Jacksonville and Carolina by a combined 60-14, the Colts had some close calls earlier in the season.
The Patriots have not had one. All eight of their wins have been by at least 17 points, and they posted the most lopsided victory of any team this season last Sunday with a 52-7 rout of Washington.
It was the eighth straight game Brady has thrown for at least three touchdowns - an NFL record to start a season. He’s already set a career high with 30 TD passes, on pace to shatter Manning’s league record of 49.
Brady has thrown only two interceptions and completed 74.2 percent of his passes while making the most of a revamped receiving corps.
“I wouldn’t want to play for any other quarterback,” Patriots fullback Heath Evans said.
The offseason acquisitions of Randy Moss, the league receiving leader in yards (779) and touchdowns (11), as well Wes Welker and Donte’ Stallworth have turned the New England offense into what the Colts unit used to be. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has gone to a spread offense and looks to pass more often than run, whereas Indianapolis has switched to a more balanced attack after relying so heavily on Manning’s arm for so many years.
While Brady has a mind-boggling 136.2 passer rating, Manning is tied for second in the league at 102.9.
“He’s probably got a better arm, he’s probably faster, he’s bigger, he’s probably smarter,” Brady said. “He’s proven over the years how consistent he is. I’ve always looked up to Peyton and the way he plays. He’s gotten the best of us the last three times we played, so we’ve got a great challenge. Hopefully we’re all up for it.”
Manning has 13 touchdown passes, compared to three interceptions, while the Colts have thrown the ball just 12 more times than they’ve run it. In Manning’s previous nine seasons as the starter, Indianapolis has averaged nearly 124 more pass attempts than rushes.
Led by Joseph Addai and Kenton Keith, who have combined for 936 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, the Colts have the league’s fifth-ranked run offense with 140.3 yards per game and lead the NFL with 12 rushing touchdowns.
New England has given up just 87.0 rushing yards per game, but that’s partly because opponents have been forced to abandon the run after falling well behind. Though it’s hard to find a weakness on the Patriots, their run defense has shown some holes, giving up 4.2 yards per carry this season and allowing 179 rushing yards and three TDs to winless Miami two weeks ago.
“New England is a different challenge for us because they’ve got a lot of guys who can make plays,” Dungy said. “So far, so good, but it’s going to be tougher against these guys.”
While the Patriots were generally considered to have the better defense as this rivalry developed, and they’re still among the best, the Colts have caught up. Indianapolis is giving up 14.6 points per game, compared to 15.9 by New England, and both teams have a plus-11 turnover margin to lead the league.
The Colts have the NFL’s best pass defense, allowing 165.4 yards per game, and New England boasts by far the top passing offense with 303.8 yards per game.
The Patriots will be facing an Indianapolis offense which is expected to have star wideout Marvin Harrison available. Colts doctors told the Pro Bowler he can play Sunday despite missing practice all week with a bruised left knee.
Neither quarterback has faced much pressure, with Manning getting sacked only five times and Brady eight. Manning, though, has been sacked 21 times in the last nine meetings with New England, which tops the AFC this year with 22 sacks. Pats linebacker Mike Vrabel has a team-high 7 1/2 after collecting three last week and forcing fumbles on all of them.
The Colts were the last team to make the New England defense look truly vulnerable. They scored 32 second-half points and finished with 455 total yards in last season’s AFC title game.
“That film will definitely come up. I can tell you that,” Patriots defensive end Ty Warren said Monday.
The Patriots blew a 21-3 lead, all the more reason they will do anything but let up if they put the Colts in a big hole as they’ve repeatedly done to opponents this season. New England has led by a combined 66-7 score at halftime of its last two games.
“They’re unbeaten and they’re the Super Bowl champions,” Belichick said. “Until someone beats them, they’re the best team in the league.”