Peyton Manning is healthy, Tom Brady is throwing
touchdown passes, the Indianapolis Colts are unbeaten and the New England
Patriots lead the AFC East.
It's the perfect stage for the next chapter in the
decade's best rivalry, Sunday night in Indianapolis.
"It's a fun game to play and, obviously, you have playoff
implications and playoff hype," Colts linebacker Gary Brackett said.
The annual November showdown has become more than a
midseason feature attraction; it's a barometer for what to expect. Four times
since 2003, the winner of this regular-season game also became the AFC champion.
Three times, the winner brought home the Lombardi Trophy.
And it's not just a road map to championships, either.
When these teams last met 54 weeks ago, Brady was
recuperating from knee surgery and Manning was just rounding into MVP form with
the Colts an uncharacteristic 3-4.
Indy won 18-15, a victory that started a nine-game
winning streak and sent it back to the playoffs. The Colts (8-0) haven't lost a
regular-season game since, 17 straight, leaving them one short of the
second-longest winning streak in league history.
The Patriots? Well, after losing last season in Indy,
they went 6-2, missed the playoffs and opened this season 3-2. Three straight
wins give New England a 6-2 mark, though it still trails the Colts by two games
in the chase for the conference's top seed.
"With them being 8-0 right now, it makes it tough if we
get behind them with a loss here," Brady said. "There are obviously a lot of
things that can happen, and the playoffs are a long ways away, but anytime you
play the teams that you know are going to be playoff contenders … you know,
that was our problem last year, why we didn't get into the playoffs. We finished
11-5, but we didn't beat any of the playoff teams."
As much as the rivalry has been about the teams, it's
also been about the headliners: Peyton vs. Tom Terrific.
The debates never seem to end about which player a team
would rather have, Brady with his three Super Bowl titles and one MVP award, or
Manning with his three MVP awards and one Super Bowl title.
The two have gone head to head eight times since the
Colts left for the AFC South in 2002 with Brady winning five times, and Manning
winning three times – plus last year's game when Brady was out. Manning broke
Dan Marino's single-season TD record in 2004 with 49, only to see that mark fall
to Brady when he threw 50 in 2007.
"Peyton Manning is the best pure quarterback in the
National Football League, but Tom Brady is my quarterback with a minute left and
we're down four points and we need a touchdown because he's done it," former
Patriots safety and NBC analyst Rodney Harrison said this week.
The comparisons go far beyond numbers.
A year ago, Manning came into the game answering
questions about his left knee. It took two surgeries to clean up an infected
bursa sac, procedures Manning later acknowledged led to a slow start before he
won his third MVP trophy.
This year, Brady is answering questions about his left
knee – more than a year after having surgery to repair torn ligaments. He, too,
needed additional treatment to fight an infection and like Manning in 2008,
wasn't himself early.
"We did talk a little bit when he was dealing with the
infection," Manning said. "There were some similarities there, but not quite as
much similarity as you'd think. What he's been able to do coming back this year,
we've seen film of the Patriots playing other defenses, and you can't tell that
he missed last year with major knee surgery."
So fans will get to see two premier quarterbacks at the
top of their game Sunday.
Brady has thrown 10 TD passes in the last three games,
while Manning has thrown for 2,545 yards and remains on pace to break Marino's
single-season record for yards passing (5,084).
Injuries could impact the Patriots plans, though.
Yes, the Colts are missing three starters in the
secondary – safety Bob Sanders and cornerbacks Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson
– and will start two rookies at cornerback, Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey.
But New England may be without left tackle Matt Light,
who missed last week's game and practice early this week because of a knee
injury. Center Dan Koppen left last week's game in the second quarter after
hurting his knee and also missed practice time. If they can't play, the Colts'
Pro Bowl defensive ends, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, could pressure Brady
into a short game.
"Every game it seems like they are in there in the
backfield," Brady said. "Any time you're playing them you don't have as much
time to throw so you've got to make those decisions quicker."
Which is precisely what the Colts intended to do when
new coach Jim Caldwell revamped the defense. So far, it's worked perfectly.
Caldwell is the first rookie coach since 1931 to open
with eight straight wins, and the Colts have allowed the fewest points in the
NFL, 108. Now he'll match wits with three-time Super Bowl winner Bill Belichick
and a New England defense that has allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL
Does it get better than this? Only if it comes with
another January rematch.
"There have been some classic games between these two
teams, we can't discount that," Caldwell said. "There have been some memorable
ones, and they have been hard-fought. Typically, there were games that had a lot
riding on them.
"But this is Week 9 and not the end of the year. It's
not the playoffs. It's not the Super Bowl."