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Defenses bracing for test

Patriots-Colts showdown to be a numbers game

FOXBOROUGH - Gentlemen, start your offenses.

That revving sound you hear is Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his Indianapolis Colts counterpart Peyton Manning tuning up their respective high-octane units for the showdown in the RCA Dome Sunday. Only this time, Brady (2,431 yards, 30 touchdown passes and two interceptions, 74.2 percent completion percentage) might have more horsepower than Manning, whose NFL record for touchdown passes, 49 set in 2004, he is threatening to dust.

The Patriots (8-0) have scored at least 34 points in all eight of their games this season - a feat matched only by the 2000 St. Louis Rams - and are averaging 41.4 points per game. They lead the league in yards per game (439.5), passing yards per game (303.8), touchdowns (43), and first downs (213).

The 7-0 Colts are averaging "only" 32 points per game, third-best in the NFL. They're third in the league in yards per game (399), are amassing 258.7 yards through the air (sixth-best), and are second in first downs per game (23.7) to the Patriots.

Last one with the ball wins.

"If I'm the Colts, the last thing I want is Brady with the ball with 1:20 left, and if I'm the Patriots the last thing I want is No. 18, who has such great control of that offense and stays out of bad plays, with the ball at the end," said ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Sean Salisbury. "If you're faint of heart, or scared about offense, or a defense lover, don't go to this game. This game is like Wrigley Field with the wind blowing out."

After losing the last three times to the Colts, including a heartwrenching 38-34 loss in the AFC title game in January, it appears coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots have taken a different tact to attacking Indy, bringing in wide receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte' Stallworth to keep pace.

Moss leads the league in receiving yards (779) and touchdown receptions with 11. Welker is tied for second in the league in receptions, with 56 for 613 yards and six touchdowns. Stallworth is averaging 15.8 yards per reception.

Call it keeping up with the Mannings, instead of the Joneses.

Of course you'll never get New England to admit it copied the Colts.

"I wouldn't say that," said Stallworth. "You don't ever want to base your team around playing one team. They were just trying to make the team better, and I think with all the guys that we've been able to bring in it's just made us a little bit better, and we're just trying to focus on getting better each week."

They'll have to be at their best this week. Manning's numbers might be a little off by his standards - 1,833 yards, 13 TD passes, and three interceptions - but the days of Belichick befuddling him are over.

In their past three meetings, dating to 2005, the Colts have scored 38, 27, and 40 points and punted just six times. During that stretch, they've outscored the Patriots, 105-75, averaged 420.6 yards of total offense to the Patriots' 318.6, and generated 84 first downs to New England's 58.

Manning has thrown for more than 300 yards in each of the three victories, completing 75 of 120 attempts (62.5 percent) for 996 yards, with six touchdowns and three interceptions. Brady has gone 63 of 102 (61.7 percent) for 698 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions.

"I think you really kind of throw out the Colts [playoff game] last year," said former Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, now a Fox NFL analyst. "No. 1, it was at their place; No. 2, New England was coming off a difficult emotional trip to San Diego, and third they were all beat up in the second half and didn't have all their top people on the field. But having done that, you have to identify that they've done some outstanding things offensively, and you know you're going to have to score."

The Colts actually have been doing a lot of damage on the ground with second-year running back Joseph Addai, who has rushed for 592 yards on 123 carries and an NFL-leading seven rushing touchdowns. Addai has teamed with Kenton Keith, a Canadian Football League find, to form the fifth-rated rushing attack in the NFL at 140.3 yards per game.

"Joseph Addai is an outstanding running back, and he's really good in that style with them throwing the ball," said Johnson.

With Marvin Harrison missing two of the past three games because of a strained knee, Pro Bowler Reggie Wayne (44 catches for 668 yards and five TDs) and versatile tight end Dallas Clark (32 receptions for 388 yards and six TDs) have picked up the slack.

Regardless of the target, Manning usually has time to find him. The Indianapolis offensive line, which starts rookie Tony Ugoh at left tackle, has given up just five sacks in 239 dropbacks, the second-fewest in the league behind New Orleans.

So, which team will set the pace on Sunday?

"The Patriots," said Salisbury. "That doesn't mean I don't think the Colts are great, but I think the Patriots are beyond great. They're both great offenses with good offensive lines, good receiving corps, and the quarterbacks are just ridiculous. A healthy Addai might give Indianapolis a little advantage there, but if [Laurence] Maroney is fully healthy, I don't know. So much of offense is momentum and rhythm and with 30 TD passes and two picks that's just ludicrous. If both play their best I'm going with New England."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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