Breaking down Sunday's New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts game (8:15 p.m., Eastern, NBC) ...
1. You don't have to dig too deep into Colts-Patriots to realize there are a number of potential game-changing factors other than the play of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
In fact, coaches, players, and a number of brethren in the media seem to be going out of their way to point out intangibles like kicking games, defenses and running games -- or lack thereof.
But let's get real. This one is about the greatest quarterbacking rivalry in modern football history, if not all-time history. Manning, Brady. Brady, Manning.
This one is about a pair of quarterbacks whose talents and records are so similar it is mind-boggling. Brady and Manning lead teams with identical 33-7 records since 2007. Despite no longer playing in the same division, Manning and Brady have met each other on the field eight times since 2001 -- usually with playoff implications. Manning passed for 49 touchdowns in 2004. Brady broke that record with 50 in 2007. Brady posted the second-highest passer rating in NFL history in 2007, at 117.2. The highest rating remains Manning's 121.4 in 2004. Manning has won an absolutely sick 132 of 199 career starts (66.3 percent). Brady has won even more, 107 of 136 starts (78.7 percent).
Put the impact of these two all-time greats and the significance of this rivalry this way: Yankees-Red Sox is widely considered the greatest rivalry in sports. Yet compared to even the highest Yankees-Red Sox playoff television ratings, Sunday's Colts-Patriots game should draw between 8 million to 12 million more viewers, based on recent numbers.
2. Those are some mighty big shoes you're filling. Even the most casual of sports fans knows Manning and Brady. It's kind of difficult to click on any link or network channel without seeing their faces. But the most hardcore fans might be hard-pressed to recite the names of players who could have a big impact on Sunday night's outcome.
Gone from the Patriots are the likes of Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi. Gone from the Colts are head coach Tony Dungy, receiver Marvin Harrison and, via injury, safety Bob Sanders and wideout Anthony Gonzalez.
When the Colts' offense is on the field, it's safe to say that if impact rookies Pierre Garçon and Austin Collie can make plays complementary to Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark, the Colts will win. On the other side of the field, the same can be said if a different cast of Patriots defenders step up. The Pats rank second in the league in points allowed and fourth in total defense. The Colts are first in passing offense and fifth in points per game.
3. Who'll buckle under DL pressure? Using the phrase "buckle under pressure" may be a bad way to put it, considering both star quarterbacks are coming off a season of knee problems. Nevertheless, the NFL is a merciless league and both defensive coordinators will be looking for ways to put lots of pressure on the opposing quarterback. They'll have to do it only with the defensive front.
Blitzing Brady and Manning is usually fruitless. The good news for both defensive coordinators, however, is that their D-linemen have been having a lot of success.
The Patriots haven't had near as many sacks as the Colts, but they keep pressure on the quarterback, force turnovers and are stingy in the red zone. Ty Warren is a play-making end and nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who switched to end in some situations in last week's win over Miami, is having maybe his best year. The Colts, of course, counter with pass-rushing forces Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who can impact virtually any play.
Dallas Clark -- You have to go with the hot hand. Or, hands. Clark has caught 22 passes the past two weeks, including torching the Texans with 11 first-half catches last Sunday, before the defense had to adjust.
Randy Moss -- With an average running game and Moss' big-play ability, Brady will be looking for him often.
Austin Collie -- The kid's having an amazing year, no doubt. He's on pace for probably 700-plus yards and near double-digit touchdowns as a rookie. But don't count on Wes Welker Lite stepping up in this one. Too much on the line means expanded roles for trusted hands Clark, Wayne and Joseph Addai.
Laurence Maroney -- Even though he ran for a tough 82 yards at Miami, Maroney has yet to break through and give the Pats the clock-churning threat they need. Colts safety Melvin Bullitt is no Bob Sanders, but he's a sure tackler who can support the run nicely.
The Colts likely will not go undefeated this year. Sooner or later, the lack of a big-time running game and those key injuries on the defense will catch up to them. But it won't be this week. The Colts may not have overwhelmed their last two opponents, winning by a combined seven points against the 49ers and Texans. And Brady has responded in a huge way since early-season sluggishness. But Manning is having maybe his best season ever, which is saying something. A loss here and the Patriots or some other AFC team could steal away home-field advantage from Indy. It won't happen. Manning won't let it. Colts are the pick, 38-34.
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