And one riveting rivalry.
Since Peyton Manning first introduced himself to Tom Brady before a game in September 2001 — to which Brady replied, “No [expletive]!” — the two have waged one entertaining back-and-forth battle of one-upsmanship. Manning throws a record 49 touchdown passes in a season, then Brady answers with 50. Brady leads the Patriots through the Colts and to a Super Bowl, only to watch Peyton return the favor.
Who’s the better quarterback? Usually, that answer depends on who won the most recent edition of Patriots versus Colts.
And even though the magnitude of the matchup shouldn’t be measured simply by dueling marquee quarterbacks, Brady and Manning will always be the headline. And they should be, considering it is no great stretch to believe that years from now, history will remember these games as featuring the NFL’s greatest quarterback showdown.
There are so many subplots to that storyline, and it will be fascinating to watch them play out on Sunday night.
A few of the big ones:
Home Field: As per usual, at stake in this game will be the AFC’s top seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Think that’s not important? Playing in the soggy, snowy Foxborough cold in January did in the Colts in 2004. Sure, both offenses are predicated on the pass, but there may be no better cold-weather quarterback than Tom Brady.
“We always know Indianapolis is going to be there at the end,” said Brady, in reference to the playoff implications of this game. “With them being 8-0 right now, it makes it tough if we get behind them with a loss here.”
Dome, Sweet Dome: Oddly, this will be the third straight season New England travels to Indianapolis. In 2007, these two met on the RCA Dome turf in Indianapolis, both undefeated, both in search of a leg up for AFC supremacy. The Colts legitimately threatened to spoil the Patriots’ eventual 16-0 regular season, perhaps giving New England its toughest game that year (aside from the postseason, of course) and forcing the Pats to rally for a 24-20 win.
Last season, this time in Indy’s brand new Hoosier Dome, the Colts squeaked by a Brady-less Patriots team. The moral of these stories? Indianapolis is one tough place to win a football game.
Brady vs. Colts Secondary: Tom Brady looks to be in rhythm, throwing for 1,020 yards and 10 touchdowns in three straight Patriots wins. The Colts will have to rely on pressuring Brady, who could do some damage to an Indy secondary thinned by injuries. No Bob Sanders, no Marlin Jackson? No doubt, Brady will be looking to go to work on their replacements.
Manning vs. Patriots Secondary: While the young Patriots defense appears to be making its own name this season, it couldn’t hurt to take a look at how their predecessors played Peyton in years past. Mike Vrabel, Teddy Bruschi and company always carried out a physical, precise game plan against the Colts. And while Indy’s offense hasn’t changed much in theory over the years, this will be a first look at Manning in this rivalry game for plenty of these guys. To give a developing Patriots secondary a chance, it’s incumbent on Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork to continue what has been spectacular defensive line play.
Colts are Due: Says who? I’ve heard so much about this theory all week, but I just don’t buy into it. This is nothing but a crutch, and I’m not going to fall for it. If the Pats beat them, do you think the Colts will sit back and just chalk it up to being “due” to lose? It’ll be lame if they do. And by that logic, weren’t the Patriots “due” to lose in 2007 going into the Colts’ game? Of course they were, but that didn’t matter. Sorry, had to get that off my chest.
Four Downs: Patriots (6-2) at Colts (8-0), Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
Peyton Manning’s go-to target du jour this season is Dallas Clark, a “tight end” leading the AFC with 60 receptions. I use that tight end term loosely because given his speed and size, he’s a matchup nightmare for defenses. Throw a linebacker on him, and he’ll beat his man easily. Cover him with a defensive back, and he’ll outmuscle his defender. This situation begs for Rodney Harrison, who will be busy applying makeup rather than big hits on the pre and postgame NBC set. That means this year’s feel-good story, Brandon McGowan, will face his most challenging assignment to date. The Patriots will give him help, using Brandon Meriweather and rookie Patrick Chung to double-team Clark. But as former Patriot and NESN insider Ted Johnson showed us on Thursday’s SportsDesk, any success in shutting down Dallas will start at the line of scrimmage. Someone (hello, Adalius Thomas?) needs to get a good shot on Clark off the line to throw him off his route. Otherwise, it could be a long night.
Second Down: Great, rookie, now do it again
The Patriots are thoroughly impressed by the play of rookie Sebastian Vollmer at left tackle, especially for a player considered something of a project when he was picked in the second round of this year’s draft. Vollmer didn’t just hold his own against Miami’s Jason Taylor and Joey Porter — he silenced them. Head coach Bill Belichick said this week that Vollmer has a good future. But before you go handing Matt Light’s job to a rookie, let’s see how he handles a beast like Dwight Freeney.
Third Down: Big Vince on the outside, again?
No, you were not imagining things last Sunday — you did see Vince Wilfork playing defensive end. It was an idea Belichick approached him with last week in an effort to find a creative way to stuff the Dolphins’ problematic Wildcat offense. Wilfork hadn’t played end since his rookie season, but he handled himself well. So will we see the — ahem — agile Patriots nose tackle line up on the outside against the Colts? Probably not, since this matchup will require an entirely different defensive approach than Miami.
Fourth Down: Maroney gaining ground
Speaking to Laurence Maroney earlier this week, his confidence was evident. He said he hasn’t felt this good running the ball since the playoffs in 2007, and now he wants to strive for consistency. The fourth quarter against Miami was key for Maroney, who threw away the dancing shoes and hit holes with some purpose in a Patriots win. He’s averaging better than four yards per carry in his last three games, but he will be hard-pressed to keep it up against the Colts, who still boast a solid run-stopper in safety Melvin Bullitt, even with Bob Sanders out.
Brandon Meriweather : Finally playing like a first-round draft pick, Meriweather has been nothing short of spectacular for a Patriots defense charged with replacing Rodney Harrison this year.
Brett Favre : OK, I’ll admit it, I’m stunned. The 40-year-old Favre has thrown 16 touchdowns to just three interceptions for the Vikings so far. Granted, “so far” are the operative words of that statement, given Favre’s history for three-pick games (as Eric Mangini and Jets fans will no doubt attest to). But this guy is making all of us who doubted him eat a little crow. So far. I’m holding my mea culpa’s until after games that really matter, like the playoffs.
Cincinnati Bengals: Do you realize that the Bengals (nee, the “Bungles”) are 6-2 and in position to win the AFC North? Do you realize that they can sweep the season series from Pittsburgh this Sunday? And do you realize that … well, do you realize that we’re talking about the Cincinnati Bengals here?!
Down and Out
Chad Ochocinco: Speaking of the Bengals, the NFL fined Ochocinco $20,000 after he spoke of bribing the officials during last week’s win. The Bengals’ wideout flashed a $1 bill at an official as his 15-yard catch was under review and later joked about trying to bribe them. Is anyone else wondering why he’d even have a dollar on the sideline of an NFL game?
Larry Johnson: A little tip: Tweeting shots at your head coach, belittling Chiefs fans for working minimum wage jobs and using gay slurs are probably not great for job security. Still, even after Kansas City released this headache, some other team (Pittsburgh?) will take a flier on him.
Michael Vick : The Eagles’ quarterback says he’d like to start somewhere next season instead of sitting behind Donovan McNabb as the “Wildcat guy.” Understandable — though he’s technically sitting behind Kevin Kolb, too. So how, exactly, will Vick jump from third-string Wildcat guy to starting NFL quarterback next season? The only answer: The Buffalo Bills. They love irrelevant former NFL star. Just ask Terrell Owens.
Some of you Patriots fans may still hate Peyton Manning. And however irrational that hate may be, I get that. You’ll always point to his one Super Bowl win against Tom Brady’s three, and to the old and washed-out perception that he isn’t clutch. I’m not here to argue any of that right now. After all, the rings do speak for themselves. But I just want you to agree with me on this one point: Peyton Manning is hilarious.
Face it, the Colts’ Pierre Garcon is going to have to make a play against the Patriots’ defense this Sunday. Austin Collie has practiced for Indy but remains bothered by a neck injury he suffered in last week’s fourth quarter against the Texans. If New England effectively double-teams Dallas Clark, Manning will look to Garcon. Even if the Pats’ defense comes up big, here’s betting they still won’t keep Manning and the Colts out of the end zone.