Breaking down Sunday's New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts game (8:15 p.m., Eastern, NBC) ...
1. Let's not kid ourselves; this ain't Super Bowl XLII1/2. But that doesn't have to be a bad thing. A rash of injuries and some serious desperation (the Colts sit below .500 after seven games for the first time since '98; the Patriots have two, maybe three division opponents within striking distance) could make this an entirely entertaining affair.
Last year SI dubbed the Nov. 4 Patriots-Colts match-up "Super Bowl XLI1/2," and for good reason. The then-defending world champion Colts were 7-0 and the Patriots were halfway to undefeated. The winner of this developing grudge match had gone on to Super Bowls in two of the previous four years. Heck, even injured receiver Marvin Harrison was going to shrug off a knee injury just to play. (Ultimately he didn't.) Harrison or not, the game delivered, and Peyton Manning's fumble at midfield with 2:34 helped keep the Pats' streak alive. Final score: 24-20. A four-star game for certain.
In '08 it's a different story. To give you an idea of how little Sunday's game will resemble last year's contest consider the four matchups SI highlighted in last year's preview issue. Reggie Wayne vs. Asante Samuel: Hurt and gone. Wayne didn't practice on Thursday; Samuel's an Eagle. Bob Sanders vs. Randy Moss: Hurt and bored. Sanders is still iffy with a knee; Moss is playing like a shell of the man he was in '07. Joseph Addai vs. Vince Wilfork: Addai's iffy with a hamstring; Wilfork's fine. Only Adalius Thomas vs. Dallas Clark looks like a guarantee this time around. And that's without counting the indirect Peyton Manning-Tom Brady matchup. You could argue that's there's barely half a healthy body between those two this season.
What does that all mean? Well, it could be good for the scoreboard. Without Samuel on his tail, a healthy Wayne could go wild, especially without Rodney Harrison patrolling deep. Same for Moss without Sanders around. Perhaps the Colts' secondary, which lost cornerback Marlin Jackson to a season-ending ACL tear on Wednesday, will make Matt Cassel look like a star. Perhaps the Patriots secondary, which lost Harrison to a season-ending torn quad, will make Manning look like, well, Peyton Manning. And that would be something new. Which brings us to...
2. Who'd have believed this three months ago: In '08 the Colts' and Patriots' starter at quarterbacks would both rank outside the AFC's top eight in passer rating. Top Eight! That means there are only six other AFC quarterbacks with worse passer ratings! Manning's 79.0 is the second-worst of his career, only 7.8 points higher than his rookie season when Indy went 3-13. Cassel, with a pedestrian 84.6, is essentially having a better rookie year (if we want to call it that, which we should) than Manning did. In trying to assess each guy and how his performance has affected his team, I'm drawn to two numbers:
• 9: As in the number of interceptions Manning has thrown this season. Through seven games last year he had three; in '07 he had two. At the current rate he'll just touch the 20-interception mark, which he hasn't done since '01. Of the 17 passers to have topped 20 picks during a season in this decade, only four led teams that finished above .500, and that list includes Brett Favre, Vinny Testaverde and two quarterbacks for St. Louis's pass-happy Greatest Show on Turf offense.
Worse than the sheer volume has been the timing, and this is where Manning starts to remind me of Favre circa '05, back when he tossed 29 picks and the Packers went 4-12. Remarkably, three of Manning's interceptions have been returned for touchdowns. The first one gave Jacksonville its first lead and eventually proved the difference in a crucial Week 3 division loss. The second two provided, in turn, the key turning point and the nail-in-the-coffin in a Week 7 smoking at Green Bay.
Opponents have scored touchdowns on the immediate series following two Manning picks, including last Monday when Chris Johnson ran 16 yards to score on the first play after a Manning interception. And three of Manning's picks (against Minnesota and two against Tennessee) occurred on the third or fourth play of a series when Indy was trailing, suggesting that Manning, who has often found himself needing points fast, just isn't showing the patience we're used to seeing. We expect that in J.T. O'Sullivan. Not so much with Manning.
Here's one reason to consider laying money on Indianapolis, however: The Pats allow a so-so 207 passing yards per game, but they've given up an awful 11 passing touchdowns -- and that was with Harrison on patrol. Something to consider when setting your fantasy lineup.
• 28: As in the number of sacks Matt Cassel has taken through seven games. Sixty is really the magic number when it comes to sacks and only six quarterbacks have ever reached that level. If you hit 60 you've either got stone feet (Jon Kitna, Steve Beuerlein) or seriously crazy-happy feet (Randall Cunningham, twice; David Carr, twice). The way I see it, Cassel, who's on pace for 64, falls into the later category but he's far from Cunningham-esque, meaning that I think the kid lacks grace, style, speed -- all that stuff you look for. Tom Brady is no Cunningham but he knows when to throw the ball away instead of curling up.
When Cassel moves I see more Carr in him than anyone else, which is scary. He gives up on his routes early, pulls the ball down, loses all sense of direction or composure and then he's dead meat. Against St. Louis last week on 2nd-and-8 I watched him drop back, panic at the slightest sense of pressure and then scramble right before sliding feet-first two yards short of the first down marker. There wasn't a pursuing defender anywhere near him.
What's worse, Cassel has gotten worse at this as the year has progressed. In his first three career starts he was sacked 10 times. In his last three, against the likes of St. Louis, San Diego and Denver, he's been sacked 13 times.
When asked to point out a weakness in New England's offense, one AFC defensive coach told us, pointedly, the "Broncos had six sacks." He added, "To say Matt Cassel has arrived, I don't think you can say that."
In fairness, maybe Cassel has been instructed by Bill Belichick not to take risks, to pull the ball down and eat it when things get hairy, in which case I have some rethinking to do. But I doubt it.
On the flip side, Cassel's sacks haven't seemed to correspond negatively to the Patriots' success. The most times he's gone down in one game was six, and that was in a resounding 41-7 stomping of Denver. Plus none of that may matter this week. Only the Bengals, Jaguars and Chiefs have fewer sacks than the Colts' 10 in '08.
3. The Tony Dungy Factor. I put the onus on Dungy to accomplish two things this week: Rally the troops and deliver a better game plan, one with some serious focus on establishing the run, if only to help set up the play action. In the prior matter Dungy seems to be succeeding. Manning delivered some fired up words earlier in the week, saying he expects the Colts to play "a little ticked off." (What did you expect from Manning -- the Animal House rally speech?)
Also, Sanders, Addai and cornerback Kelvin Hayden, who've combined to miss 10 games with injuries, all made it through Wednesday and Thursday practices and look like possible starters. You have to imagine Dungy had something to do with their hastened recovery timetables. Hayden essentially moves into Marlin Jackson's vacated role, which evens out; Sanders and Addai could be instant boosts in downfield tackling and in the rushing game, which ranks last in the NFL at 73.4 yards per game.
It'll take more than just Addai to pump up the run attack, however, and this is where Dungy has to shake things up. More damning than the Colts' run average is their mere 17.7 attempts per game (second-worst). So far in '08, the Colts have more often than not worked from three-wide, shotgun, no-huddle. Any Detroit Lions fan from this decade can attest to the fact that you can't win with a pas-pass-pass offense that throws interceptions at the rate Manning is doing it. In '08, that failed attack has lead to an average time of possession of just 26:41. That's both too little time for the Indy offense and too much time for opponents to whittle away at the Colts' banged-up defense.
Against Tennessee, the Colts' defense held firm for three quarters before falling apart. Indy's run-pass split in that game was 22 to 41. And the final time of possession was 34:14 to 25:46 in favor of Tennessee. We all know the final score.
Every week, we ask an NFL assistant with relevant game experience to provide an anonymous scouting report on our Game of the Week. Here's what two assistants from 2008 Patriots opponents had to say about game-planning Moss, Cassel and the Patriots' offense:
"I think the best way to defend him is probably to reroute him, get your hands on him a little bit early in the route. You're taking a chance in doing that because if you don't get your hands on him and he gets going, he's a hard guy to catch up with. I don't think you can just let him go vertical on you. His athletic skills -- the guy jumps out of the building. So, you can't really let him get started."
"I [haven't seen] the offense change, really. When we played them they were still doing a lot of the same things [as they did with Brady]. They might have run it just a little bit more than usual, but they were still doing a lot of the same things. I saw Cassel make a couple of big throws [against Kansas City] and I thought he played pretty well against the Jets.
"I think the guy is pretty well coached. He looks to me like he's got pretty good poise in there. So I think you have to be careful what you do [differently] with a guy like this.
"He's been very well schooled, you can see that. The guy doesn't take a lot of chances with the football. He doesn't force the ball and he's got some pretty good weapons. He can throw the ball four yards to Wes Welker and all of a sudden that guy can turn it into a 13-, 14-yard gain. Those are the things I think I'm sure that they're banging into [Cassel] a little bit. With the weapons that they have and the defense that they play, why not?"
"I would be shocked if on the offensive game plan sheet, up in the right-hand corner where it says 'Shots,' (as in 'shots down the field') it doesn't have a minimum of three to five every week that are plays going downfield. Most teams have a minimum of three every week. I would say the Patriots probably have as many as five. And they're probably saving two for this week."
Cassel's burnt me every time I've doubted him, plus I imagine Belichick certainly sees an opportunity to absolutely bury a serious AFC rival. (Imagine this: If the Colts lose, they could be as much as five-and-a-half games out of first in the South and two games out of a Wild Card spot.) I'll take Cassel's boys to work over a Colts secondary that's still in turmoil, even with Sanders back. If Addai plays and gets 25 carries, I think it's even closer, but not enough for Indy. Pats 27, Colts 17.