Thursday October 30th, 2008

The calendar says November arrives this weekend, and in the NFL, that has come to mean just one thing: a Patriots-Colts showdown and the now annual renewal of the league's most compelling and competitive rivalry of the decade.

So why does the glamour game of the entire regular season schedule feel so uneventful? Where's the hype? Where's the history? Is this really Pats-Colts week?

Yes, but it's in its 2008 form, and as we've already learned this season, that changes everything when it comes to the AFC's reigning power structure. This isn't a Pats-Colts game like any we've had recently. If last year's game was Super Bowl 41½, with the latest meeting of undefeated teams in the history of the league -- the 8-0 Patriots against the 7-0 Colts -- and an AFC title game rematch to boot, this year feels more like a quiet little training camp scrimmage by comparison.

No big buzz, and no potentially historic undefeated seasons on the line this time. Just a pair of high-profile teams that haven't been very recognizable at all when it comes to their lofty reputations. A knee injury knocked New England's Tom Brady out for the season in Week 1, and a knee injury has rendered Indy's Peyton Manning altogether mortal, witness his 79.0 passer rating, the lowest since his rookie year of 1998.

"This is definitely different,'' said Colts tight end Dallas Clark this week, of the Sunday night matchup.

Added Colts head coach Tony Dungy: "[The Patriots] are doing a little bit better than we are, but I would say neither of us has played up to our expectations so far.''

I'll say. These two franchises have owned the AFC the past five seasons, and their games have been a highly anticipated collision of the conference's best. But given the discrepancy between their past and current performances, how could expectations have been met this year when you consider the following?:

• From 2003-07, both New England and Indianapolis won five consecutive division titles, a feat unmatched by any other NFL team. The Patriots went an NFL-best 66-14 (.825) in those five seasons. The Colts were second at 63-17 (.788).

But this year the 3-4 Colts are four games behind first-place Tennessee (7-0) in the AFC South with just nine games remaining, and the 5-2 Patriots are tied for first with Buffalo in the AFC East, just a game ahead of the third-place Jets (4-3). Another pair of playoff berths are by no means assured.

• From 2003 on, the Patriots and Colts have combined for three Super Bowl championships, four Super Bowl trips, six AFC Championship Game appearances, 10 division titles and 18 playoff victories in 25 games.

• While 2002 is the most recent season that neither team won a division title, it has been since 1998 that neither team had a 10-win season, and remarkably, 1993 was the last time the AFC playoffs didn't include either the Colts or Patriots.

• With the Colts at 3-4, it's the first time since October 2001 that either team has faced one another with a losing record entering the game -- New England, which went on to win its first Super Bowl that season, was 2-3 going into that Week 6 game as Brady made just his fourth career start.

"I think both teams have great confidence in themselves and they have great leadership,'' Clark said. "I feel both teams aren't really kind of panicking, or hitting the panic button yet. The leadership, that's really going to help jell the teams and really get them through this tough time. Both teams are definitely going through some adversity they're not used to facing.''

The Colts have already lost as many games as they have in any of the past five regular seasons -- their streak of five consecutive 12-plus win seasons is the NFL's best -- and the Patriots, of course, own two more losses than they did all of last year. Before this season, the last four times the Colts have entered a game against New England, they've been unbeaten (7-0 in 2007, 2006, and 2005, and 0-0 in the 2004 season opener). The Patriots have had just one or fewer losses going into three of their last four meetings against Indianapolis (8-0 in 2007, 6-1 in 2006, 0-0 in 2004). And in 2003, both teams were 9-2 entering their game, which was the latest matchup ever of teams with no more than two losses.

That's a lot to live up to, and this year's Patriots-Colts game can't possibly do it. Not with Matt Cassel squaring off against a diminished Manning. Not with no Rodney Harrison in the Patriots secondary and Colts receiver Marvin Harrison looking like a shell of his old self these days. Not with seven AFC teams having a better record than the Colts, and three teams in the conference having as many or more victories than the Patriots. Not with the vaunted offenses of New England and Indianapolis ranking a lowly 20th and 22nd overall, respectively, as Week 9 unfolds.

Not, that is, unless you consider the desperation factor. The Colts, losers of two in a row, at Green Bay and at Tennessee, can't afford to fall any further behind the AFC wild-card contenders. Dungy conceded last week that a Monday-night loss to the Titans would all but end Indy's bid for a sixth consecutive AFC South title. But the Colts could do themselves a big favor in the coming wild-card chase by beating New England, a team that could very well lead the AFC wild-card pack if Buffalo can re-open its lead in the AFC East.

"This is going to be a big game,'' Dungy said. "It's pivotal in a lot of ways. When you're fighting like this, you have to get wins and get a streak going. We have to get it turned around quickly and we're playing a very tough opponent to try to do that.''

New England is in the rare position of trying not to look past the 3-4 Colts, if you can believe that. That's because the Patriots' next two games are at home against the Bills and Jets, the two teams they have to beat to win their sixth consecutive division title. After those games come a Week 12 trip to Miami, and we all know what the last-place Dolphins did to New England in Foxboro in September. The Colts representing a trap game for the Patriots? That's how convoluted things have gotten in this year's NFL.

"When I look at them, I see a very explosive football team,'' Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday, making his best effort to hype up the Colts to their previous standards. "Look at the last six minutes of the Houston game. Look at the first quarter of the Baltimore game. You see plenty of good football from them and plenty of explosive football. That's what worries us, and that's what we have to prepare for. We've had some great matchups against them in the past.''

But this one just doesn't have the same feel as so many of those great matchups of years past. The Colts and Patriots aren't the AFC bullies any more, and that's taking some getting used to. After combining to go a gaudy 29-3 in last year's regular season, they're a modest 8-6 this time around.

" This matchup is always hyped up because both teams play really well, and this year we haven't,'' Clark said. "So that's different. But it's always a great challenge between us, and it's usually a close game fought to the end. That's what people look for in football, and we look forward to it as players.''

We're still looking forward to the Patriots-Colts Sunday night, and the NBC cameras will be rolling in Indianapolis. But as showdowns go, it just doesn't look as familiar this season. It's yet another reminder that 2008 is an entirely new year in the NFL.

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