The midterm exam comes Sunday night for the Colts and Patriots. It is not the final and both teams know it, but its a measuring stick like no other, for it is a game that will sort out where each stands in the AFC at the seasons midpoint and go a long way in determining who will travel to whose house when the snow has begun to blow.
Barring something catastrophic, both the Patriots and Colts still will be playing football once the ice is along the river banks, regardless of what happens Sunday night in Foxborough. But that does not mean this isnt the most significant game of the season thus far, especially for Peyton Manning and the Colts.
New England holds a firm 2Æ-game lead (three in the loss column) in the AFC East over the Jets, who made it clear in losing to the lowly Browns last Sunday that they are not ready to challenge the Patriots. The Colts, meanwhile, have a commanding three-game lead over the Jaguars and are undefeated in the conference at 5-0. The Patriots, like Denver, are 5-1 against AFC opponents. Those are three of the top five teams in football at the moment.
The Patriots made their status clear Monday night in Minneapolis when they embarrassed the Vikings at a time when much of the football world thought x Minnesota might be a competitive challenge for New England. So the acid test of the moment is six days away for the undefeated Colts (7-0) and the once-beaten Patriots (6-1), and it seems that little has changed about their stories even though many of the faces on the field will be different.
Gone from New England are Deion Branch, David Givens, and Willie McGinest. Departed from Indianapolis are Edgerrin James and David Thornton. Present but on the other side of the field will be Adam Vinatieri, whose uniform changed in the offseason even though nothing else did despite the whispering campaign after he signed with the Colts that he somehow had turned into Peg Leg Pete. The fact that Vinatieri is 14 of 14 on field goals, including 5 for 5 from 40 yards or longer, and won Sundays game in Denver with a 37-yarder as time expired, should end that nonsense.
The Broncos and Jets, as common opponents, are the two benchmarks between the Colts and Patriots. The Colts beat New York by 3 while New England dissipated a big lead before winning, 24-17. What separates them is their contrasting performances against the Broncos. New England was beaten, 17-7, in a game that was not as close as that score makes it seem, while the Colts riddled Denvers defense for 437 yards in a 34-31 win and scored only 10 points fewer than the Broncos previous six opponents combined. Denver had allowed only two touchdowns in six games. The Colts scored three in a half.
Yet the Patriots-Colts-Broncos rivalry seems akin to Ali-Frazier-Foreman. These Colts are always going to be too much for Denver to handle, as Foreman always was for Frazier, but New England has Indianapoliss number in the same way Ali had Foremans. And when New England and Denver meet, its Ali-Frazier, a war every time.
Much of the reason is style. The Colts have the offense to dismember the Broncos, Denver has the defense to limit the Patriots, and New England has the defense to discombobulate Indianapolis. So when it comes to Sunday nights faceoff, the measuring stick of common opponents tells us little, because Manning seldom has done to New England what he has to everyone else.
Since the dawning of the Bill Belichick dynasty, Manning is a well-documented 1-7 against Belichick-authored game plans and 1-6 in head-to-head battles with Tom Brady. This is not to imply that Manning has played as badly as some in New England care to think. He has thrown for more than 300 yards three times in those eight games and had a quarterback rating in excess of 90 in four. Those were the last four regular-season contests between the teams, all played in reasonably good weather. In those games, Manning has thrown 10 touchdown passes and three picks yet went 1-3 in large part because Brady had eight TD throws and three interceptions and twice exceeded his quarterback rating.
What has turned everything sour for the Colts during this stretch is Mannings two abysmal performances in the postseason, both times in raw, snowy weather. In those games, Manning had one TD pass and five interceptions, had ratings of 69.3 and 35.5, and put up 17 points to New Englands 44.
So which Manning is likely to be on the field Sunday night?
Its more likely to be the one that has completed 95 of 148 attempts for 1,190 yards in his last four regular-season outings against New England than the one that was 50 of 89 for 475 yards in those postseason games. But will it ultimately make a difference?
When you play a guy like Peyton Manning and the guys going to put it on the money, what can you do? lamented Denver All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey after Manning threw for 345 yards and three scores on the Broncos. But will that bear any resemblance to what goes on in Foxborough, where he seems unable to fathom whats going to happen when he drops back to pass?
It may not matter, because what could more likely decide this game is the fact that the Colts run defense remains an abomination. Denver rushed for 227 yards, and if you cant stop the run against the Patriots, the only way you win is if your offense can score at so rapid a pace they have to abandon the run.
If New England can pound them with Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon, then the advantage swings to New England because even with the improved running of rookie Joseph Addai, its not likely Indianapolis will move on the ground.
The Colts struggled in their running game early in the season but now are averaging 108 yards a game. If New England can control the run with its talented and multifaceted fronts, then Belichick can unleash the zone blitzes and multiple coverages that have given Manning fits. As Richard Seymour said Monday night, Anytime you can make a team one-dimensional and when our offense puts points up on the board, it gives us a big advantage.
Against the Colts during this 7-1 stretch, New England has averaged 29 points per game. So the bigger question may not be how Manning plays, but how the Colts defense plays. It has allowed an average of 21.9 points a game, and there is nothing Manning can do about that.
On Monday night, the spread formations Belichick came up with compromised the Vikings defense and the run-stuffing play of New Englands defensive line made Minnesotas offense one-dimensional. As Vikings safety Darren Sharper said, It was frighteningly simple. They spread us out all over the field and Brady picked us apart all night long.
But the Patriots running game very likely could overpower Indianapoliss defensive front often enough to make Bradys play-action passing the story this time, assuming, of course, Manning doesnt go off like a Roman candle as he did last year about this time.
If he does, its a track meet, not a football game. That will work on a balmy night in early November but is no formula for victory in stormy January.
Ron Borges can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.