FOXBOROUGH -- As surely as the Mass Pike intersects Route 128, the Patriots and Indianapolis Colts remain on a collision course. And as 8-0 meets 6-2 this week in the American heartland, let there be no doubt that the Patriots have more at stake.
"We always enjoy playing them. They’re a great team,’’ Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said in the immediate aftermath of yesterday’s 27-17 win over the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. "They seem to always be one of the best teams in the league and they’re good in all three [phases], very well-coached. It will be a great challenge for us. We’re 1-2 on the road this year, so we’ve got to go try to play our best game.’’
Indeed they do. Superiority in the AFC and yet another trip to the Super Bowl may depend on it.
For the moment, let’s give the Patriots their due in the wake of a win over the well-coached, pesky and resilient Dolphins. Anyone who projected this game to be a cakewalk hasn’t been paying attention. And while the AFC East is now firmly in the grasp of the Patriots, we all know that nobody in New England is particularly interested in building footbridges to the division championship.
Here, we generally focus on far more meaningful projects.
In yesterday’s win, the Patriots got 82 yards from Laurence Maroney (averaging slightly better than five yards a carry in his last three games) and big plays across the board on defense, from an awakened Adalius Thomas to an unleashed Patrick (The Missile) Chung. Bill Belichick’s latest game plan called for Vince Wilfork to play defensive end -- who needs Richard Seymour? -- with Mike Wright in the middle, and saw the coach continue to thrust more and more responsibility on some young defensive backs who have no reservations about putting their heads down.
"It’s not always perfect and he doesn’t always do everything exactly the way you want it done, but at the end of the play he makes a bunch of tackles and he’s got his guy covered, and he basically ends up being a productive player,’’ Belichick said of Chung, who plays safety like a reckless SCUD. "Patrick works extremely hard. He’s in here early, he stays late -- kind of like [Jerod] Mayo and [Gary] Guyton were last year. He really puts a lot into it. Football’s real important to him and he’s continued to get better on the practice field, both in the kicking game and defensively, and he’s taken advantage of the opportunities he’s gotten. Anybody that works that hard and has that kind of ability he has, I think he’s going to continue to improve. It means a lot to him.’’
And it shows.
This week, of course, Chung and Company will face the most difficult task of their season to date in the Colts and Manning, who is on pace for an NFL-record 5,090 passing yards. In recent years, especially, holding down the Colts has not been realistic goal for the Patriots. The ultimate question this week is whether they can contain Manning enough to emerge with what would amount to New England’s first road victory of the season -- sorry, Tampa doesn’t count -- particularly as the Colts operate with a makeshift secondary devoid of safety Bob Sanders and defensive back Marlin Jackson, among others.
On paper, at the moment, this looks to be a relatively high-scoring and even game. All of that only makes it more critical for the Pats to establish a foothold among the truly elite teams in the conference.
Let’s be honest, folks. A bye and/or home field advantage in the postseason makes all the difference in the world. During Tom Brady’s tenure as starting quarterback, the Pats are 8-0 in home playoff games, 3-2 on the road (including 1-2 in the last three). The last time New England played a postseason game on the road was the 2007 AFC Championship Game, when it self-destructed in the second half of a loss at Indianapolis. In Brady’s last three postseason road games, he has thrown four touchdowns and six interceptions while posting quarterbacks ratings of, in order: 74.0 (loss at Denver, 2006), 57.6 (gift win at San Diego, 2007) and 79.5 (loss at Indy, 2007).
Because of that, and because the Pats are currently doing the chasing, this weekend’s game is of the utmost importance to their championship hopes. With a win, Indy would improve to 9-0 while the Pats would be 6-3, and the Colts would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. A Patriots win would makes the teams a respective 8-1 and 7-2 with New England holding the tie-breaking edge. With seven subsequent games remaining for each club, the second scenario allows the Pats a very realistic chance of finishing ahead of the Colts by season’s end, meaning New England would be in far better position for a bye or home field.
This week, rest assured that the Patriots and Colts will be dissected and analyzed from every angle and cross-section, from the matchup between Belichick and Jim Caldwell, to Brady and Manning, to Reggie Wayne and Randy Moss. In the NFL, given the history of this decade, there is currently no better rivalry. More often than not, the road to the Super Bowl travels through the junction of Indianapolis and Foxborough, no matter which direction you’re approaching from.
"We're heading into the teeth of our schedule,’" quarterback Peyton Manning told reporters yesterday after the Colts escaped with a 20-17 win over the upstart Houston Texans.
Not so coincidentally, so are the Patriots.
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