The New England Patriots' matchup with the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday night brings back thoughts of the old days.
There were few better rivalries in NFL history than when the Peyton Manning-led Colts played the Tom Brady-led Pats. As a member of the Colts, Manning played the Pats 13 times. He won five of them, including the 2006 AFC Championship Game. Brady beat Manning twice in the playoffs in 2003 and 2004.
Now, the Colts are a shadow of their former selves. Their quarterback, Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, is coming off an injury that caused him to miss all of the 2017 season. Other than Luck, the team has only six players left since the Pats and Colts last played in 2015.
The Colts' best receiver, T.Y. Hilton, is unlikely to play. Indianapolis has few offensive weapons and a defense that Brady can look at and go up and down the field all day long.
Brady is 5-0 against Luck. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been impressed with Luck.
"I think probably any coach would be comfortable putting the ball in Luck's hands," he said. "He's a very good quarterback and he has excellent skill players to work with. We've seen Luck control many games before.
"It's different because it's a different system and I'm sure that Coach (Frank) Reich has given Luck a lot of flexibility in the offense in terms of things at the line of scrimmage and post-snap decisions, pre-snap decisions, all of those kinds of things. So it's different, but I'd say he's had a lot of responsibility like that in the past and he handles it very well. He's a very sharp guy that has good football instincts and makes a lot of good decisions, so I can see why they put it in his hands."
If the injury list was just Hilton, the challenge would be enough. But the Colts had several gimpy players after losing 37-34 in overtime to Houston last Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The short turnaround is always taxing for players, let alone if they're hurt. That lengthy list of banged-up Colts who like Hilton are expected to sit this one out includes tight end Jack Doyle, left tackle Anthony Castonzo, running back Marlon Mack and cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Kenny Moore II.
"Every person individually, do what you need to do to physically get ready for this game," Reich said of his message to players.
New England is coming off a 38-7 home rout of Miami. The Patriots could be without All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who hasn't practiced because of an ankle injury and is expected to be listed as questionable.
The Colts are at least 10-point underdogs, according to most oddsmakers.
"Obviously, the coaches, they take care of us physically," Luck said. "You have to adjust as professionals. We know what we need to do to be ready to go Thursday night at kickoff with no excuses for it being a short week.
"Both teams are in the same boat, so I think I have a good plan. I think I have recovered well from the game. I think guys have recovered well and as we switched gears -- especially early Monday, you just start switching gears to preparing."
Without Hilton, the Colts still managed to rally from an 18-point deficit to tie the Texans in the final minute and force overtime.
Luck still thrived because Reich's offense is all about getting rid of the ball quickly and spreading the ball around. Luck has completed passes to 12 different receivers, not counting center Ryan Kelly, who grabbed a deflected ball and was tackled for a 4-yard loss.
"Everybody is a playmaker in this group, Ryan (Grant), Marcus (Johnson), Zach (Pascal)," said Chester Rogers of the Colts' wide receiver group. "It showed last game, but I mean if you go through this offense, everybody has a chance to make plays. So I mean I think that is going to be on display Thursday."
Luck completed a record 40 of 62 passes against the Texans. His 464 passing yards were eight shy of Manning's team mark. In the second half, Luck completed 20 of 25 passes for 247 yards and three of his four TDs.
Rogers, a third-year pro, had a career-high eight receptions. Pascal, in his first season, caught his first NFL touchdown pass. Tight end Mo Alie-Cox, promoted from the practice squad on Friday along with Johnson, a second-year wide receiver, caught their first passes for the Colts.
"They are unfazed," Luck said of his receivers. "They go out and they prepare well. They go out and when their time or their number is called, they make the most of the opportunity. We will continue to grow and we will continue to get better, but I'm glad we are in the same corner."
The last time the Colts (1-3) beat the Patriots (2-2) was in 2009 when Belichick decided to go for it on fourth-and-2 at their own 28-yard line leading 34-28 with about two minutes remaining. Kevin Faulk caught a pass, but was just short of the first down. Peyton Manning led the Colts on the winning touchdown drive and the Colts prevailed 35-34.
The Patriots led that game 31-14 in the second half. The Pats have won the last seven meetings, including two playoff victories by Brady against Luck. The Patriots beat the Colts 45-7 in the 2014 AFC Championship Game. The Pats are 4-1 against the Colts in the playoffs. The Colts beat the Pats 38-34 in the 2006 AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis.