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Who'll have the horses?

Patriots taking steps to rule the night

FOXBOROUGH -- Almost all the evidence says this time it will be different. Indianapolis, the team that has yet to play in a Super Bowl, rolling at 7-0, against New England, the two-time defending champion and winner of three of the last four titles, reeling somewhat at 4-3.

But the words from those involved aren't so clear. The Colts say these are the same Patriots that have won six straight games in the series.

''I don't know that they're a lot different," Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy said. ''They're still doing the same things."

Likewise, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said these Colts aren't doing anything the Patriots haven't seen (and stopped) the past few seasons. The question is, will they stop it tonight at Gillette Stadium?

''It's the same guys," Belichick said of the Colts, who lost to the Patriots in the playoffs each of the last two years. ''It's the same plays and it's pretty much the same results.

''You give me the coverage, I'll tell you where the ball is going. You show me the front, I'll tell you how they are going to block it."

So, if both teams are doing the same things that they always have done, won't they get what they've been getting? Not necessarily.

The Patriots may be playing the same defenses, but cornerback Ty Law isn't locking down on receivers on one side, and Rodney Harrison isn't body-slamming them in the middle. And for the past three games at least -- and probably not tonight -- defensive end Richard Seymour (sprained left knee) isn't dominating up front.

Dungy isn't falling into that trap.

''We played them the first time last year and they had Ty Law, [cornerback] Tyrone Poole [out for the season with an ankle injury], and Richard Seymour and we moved the ball pretty well and scored a lot of points. The second time we played those guys they didn't have Seymour, Poole, and Law and we scored 3 points," Dungy said. ''It is how you play that particular day. It is not who plays or what uniform they are in or where the game is or how the weather is. It is how you play."

Noted for being as good of an X's and O's coach as there is in the NFL, Belichick has been scouring video of his team's past whippings of Indianapolis.

''I think there's some point in the week, every week, when you come to the point where you feel like, 'I know we want to be here,' " Belichick said. ''It's not always on Tuesday or Wednesday."

Before that statement, Belichick signed running back Mike Cloud and waived safety Arturo Freeman, who started the previous week. So Belichick surely will have had his ''I got 'em" moment before kickoff. Patriots coaches spend time in the offseason on every opponent, and with the Colts having been last year's season-opening opponent, and a postseason foe, there has been plenty of study of what they do.

Despite a total of 427 offensive plays in the last six games between the teams, Belichick says there isn't an example of a play the Colts ran the same way and the Patriots defended the same way 10 times. The adjustments, tweaking, and personnel changes make each game an adventure of its own, but there are some elements in the Patriots' six straight victories, which range from a 20-3 domination in last year's playoffs to a 38-34 nail-biter in 2003.

In the blowouts (four games with a winning margin of more than 10 points), the Patriots have a whopping 14-2 edge in turnovers. In the two games that were decided by 3 and 4 points, respectively, the teams committed the same number of turnovers (five).

The Patriots forced just three turnovers in their first six games this season, but managed to get two in Tedy Bruschi's return from a stroke against Buffalo.

''I believe it's the most important stat in football," Bruschi said.

Like many of the statistics entering the contest, that one favors the Colts. New England is 24th in the league in turnover margin (minus-6), while Indianapolis is fourth (plus-8).

Unlike the other times the teams have met recently, the Colts enter with the better defense, the Patriots the better offense (statistically, at least). The Patriots are giving up 25.7 points a game (26th), to Indianapolis's 11.0 (first). New England is 26th in yards allowed, while Indianapolis is fourth. Offensively, the Patriots are fifth in the league in yards, and second in passing. Peyton Manning and the Colts are barely in the top 10 in yards and 16th in passing.

One category that doesn't come with a statistic is the psychological edge that comes with the Patriots having won every game the teams have played since 2001.

The Colts still have to overcome that. Only nine players on the Colts' 53-man roster have been with the team since the last time it beat New England. None of them were even in the league the last time the Colts won in Foxborough (Nov. 19, 1995).

''You hear a lot of 'Patriots this, Patriots that.' Rightfully so, they've beaten us every year since I've been here," said defensive lineman Dwight Freeney, who joined the Colts in 2002. ''So, you have to just handle it and go out there and do what we have to do.

''I guess a little bit in the back of your mind you sit there and say, 'Ah well, the last few years it hasn't been that great.' But you have to go out there and take the game for what it is. It's a Monday night game, a lot of energy, go out there and try to win a ballgame."

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com

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