Thursday November 1st, 2007

Normally I'm fairly well hype-intolerant. I've even been known to start getting that queasy, over-the-top feeling at the mere sight of Roman numerals. But this time, in that rarest of instances, the hype is right. This time, we're not overselling it. This one has the goods.

The Patriots at Colts may not be the Game of the Century in the strictest, 100-year snapshot sense, but it's the biggest, best and most anticipated regular season game of the new century. I'll argue that with any one.

What we have here, smack dab in the middle of the 2007 regular season, is an almost-too-good-to-be-true matchup that features the following:

• The latest meeting of undefeated teams in the 88-season history of the NFL. The ridiculously prolific Patriots are halfway home to perfection at 8-0, with the ever-consistent and defending Super Bowl champion Colts a click behind at 7-0 for a league record-tying third consecutive year.

• a resumption of the NFL's premier rivalry for five years running, with these success-soaked franchises combining for four of the past six Super Bowl titles. These former division rivals have a history of knocking each other off in the largest of settings -- playoff meetings in three of the past four years -- and their intimate familiarity with one another makes for unparalleled theater.

• A rematch of last season's game of the year, the Colts' stunning 38-34 comeback win over the Patriots in the AFC title game in Indy. The Colts overcame a 21-3 late second-quarter deficit, scoring 32 points in the second half. Given the historical weight of that game for Peyton Manning, Tony Dungy and Co., it stands as the most memorable game I've ever covered in my 18 years on the NFL beat.

• A pairing of the NFL's two best quarterbacks, two best head coaches, two best offenses, and maybe the game's two most accomplished receivers in Randy Moss and Marvin Harrison. And we're not even paying attention any more to that juicy Adam Vinatieri-used-to-be-a-Patriot angle. That's so last year.

• Future Hall of Famers will be fairly well stepping on each other on Sunday, giving the game the kind of star-studded aura that used to belong to the 49ers-Cowboys matchups in the '80s and early '90s, the Steelers-Raiders in the '70s, or the Cowboys-Packers in the '60s. I'm not a Hall voter, but if I were, I'd like the chances of seeing Moss, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Junior Seau, and maybe Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison enshrined some day for New England. For Indy, put me down for Dungy, Manning, Harrison, and Vinatieri, with guys like Reggie Wayne and Dwight Freeney worth keeping an eye on through the coming years in regards to Canton.

Given all that, you can't possibly over-hype this game. It's one of the few regular-season matchups that deserve the build-up, the breathless coverage, the 1,000-person week-long deployment by ESPN's troops. On Wednesday, I even got Brady to concede (sort of) that it's a big, big game at the RCA Dome this week, despite that notion clearly not being on the Belichick-approved list of talking points in New England.

"They're a great football team and I think we've proven over the last eight weeks that we can play at a pretty high level ourselves,'' Brady said in his mid-week media session, which was attended by at least 100 of us in the notepad/mini-cam set. "It's two undefeated teams and obviously with the history with these teams, it makes for a great matchup.

"I think you look back on games always throughout your career, and you look at the ones that probably stand out. Any time you play the Colts it's always an exciting game for all the players and all the coaches because you know when you're playing them you're playing the best.''

I'm indebted to Tommy Terrific for bringing up the most important aspect that looms over this entire showdown. There's no way to be subtle about this, so why try? These are the two best teams in the NFL, and nobody else is remotely in the same league. Case closed.

I know it can't make the suits on Park Avenue in New York particularly happy when I keep harping on this, but Super Bowl XLII in Arizona (which is a mere three months and two days away) will be won by one of these two teams, and the rest of what transpires in this 2007 season is superfluous. It's all mere window dressing to distract us while we mark time until Feb. 3. Harsh, but true. Trust me on this one. It says right here I'm an NFL expert.

While there are fine seasons being put together in the likes of Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Dallas, Green Bay, Detroit and by the Giants, can anyone close their eyes and keep drinking enough Kool-Aid to envision any of those teams knocking off New England or Indianapolis in either the AFC playoffs or the Super Bowl? And, yes, I suppose if Brady or Manning go down with a season-ending injury we'll be forced to reassess, but since that has never happened before, it's a bit like believing in UFOs sight unseen.

We're going to experience this Pats-Colts thing again in the AFC playoffs, but I believe where the rematch occurs will be directly decided by Sunday's outcome, and you can add that to the list of reasons why this is no ordinary Week 9 game. If the Colts have to come to Gillette Stadium in the dead of January, you can start planning the Patriots post-Super Bowl parade to city hall. If the Patriots have to return to Indy's dome, that will be advantage Colts, who by then would have a four-game winning streak against their one-time tormentor.

In listening to the Colts talk about the game this week, it's clear that Dungy has stressed to his team that nothing of significance is going to be either won or lost on Sunday. Don't believe it. For starters, somebody's undefeated season is going bye-bye, and last I checked with the 1972 Dolphins, that's the kind of history that makes a team immortal. Some team wins a Super Bowl title every year, but immortal is immortal. It's nothing to sneeze at, Tony.

And if this week is so run-of-the-mill, why is it that Dungy, for the first time all year, isn't allowing the local Indianapolis media to watch practice? The Colts head coach, when queried about that little detail, joked that it was because Indy was installing the Wishbone offense. At least I think he was joking.

Actually, Dungy did his part to hype the game this week, comparing the Pats-Colts to those classic Ali-Frazier confrontations in the '70s. It's a darn good analogy in my view, because the Ali-Frazier fights were hyped to the rafters and still delivered unforgettable memories. Dungy sees his Colts in the role of Frazier, the young, up-and-comers, against the Patriots' Ali-like standing, the proven, long-time champion who's determined to remain relevant.

Here's all I know: Pats-Colts is as good as it gets in the NFL, circa 2007, and nothing else is even close. Besides all the ground we've already covered, there's a lot going on just beneath the surface in this one. There's Dungy and Belichick's personal rivalry, which has a lot more juice than most people know. Dungy's reaction to the Patriots' Spy-gate episode -- saying he was disappointed and making a Belichick-Barry Bonds comparison -- was undoubtedly noted by a certain hoodie-wearing genius in Foxboro.

When you add in the backdrop of accusations that the Patriots are ruthlessly running up the score in recent weeks, the full-scale makeover at receiver that New England underwent this offseason in the effort to win a shoot-out with Manning and Indy, and the bitterness that lingers in Foxboro from that 18-point lead that was squandered last January, it's a combustible mix of motivation on both sides of the field.

And we can't wait to see what drama all of that produces this Sunday in Indianapolis. Pats-Colts. Bring it on. This time, the hype is right.

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