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Surprising Colts breathe new life into old rivalry with the Patriots

INDIANAPOLIS -- Well, if the Colts are nervous about the showdown of 6-3 AFC teams with the big, bad Patriots on national TV Sunday, they're hiding it well. In the middle of the locker room Thursday afternoon, guard Mike McGlynn and long-snapper Matt Overton played cornhole. Dwight Freeney, who hasn't always been warm and fuzzy with the press, was an entertaining host about all topics Freeney, Colts and NFL. In general these players are still getting to know one another -- 43 of the 61 players on the active roster or practice squad were not here 10 months ago -- but still, they seemed a lively, happy group on the verge of playing a pretty important football game.

"The Patriots are in a good place, and we're in a good place,'' Freeney told me. "Now, outside the locker room, everyone's saying, 'I can't believe the Colts are 6-3.' But I can tell you there's no one in here thinking that.''

This is the 10th straight year the Patriots and Colts have met, and it's the first time Tom Brady will face Andrew Luck. Next year, unless they finish in parallel positions in their division standings (unlikely, given the weakness of the AFC East and how hot Houston is), will be the first time since 2002 that the Colts and Pats won't meet in the regular season. That's unfortunate, given the fact that Brady-Luck, for as long as Brady plays, would be a compelling matchup every season. So enjoy this one, because you don't know when they'll be matched again in the regular season.

As he finished final preparations on the weekend game plan in his offensive coaches' lair Thursday morning, interim coach Bruce Arians said what so many in the building feel. "We've won six games, which I can emphatically tell you means absolutely nothing right now,'' he said. "If we finish 6-10, hey, it's been a nice story. But no one in this building thinks we've done anything yet."

The nice story revolves around the Colts going 5-1 since coach Chuck Pagano took a leave of absence to undergo aggressive treatment for leukemia. Pagano is home now, with a port in his chest to receive the chemotherapy that's part of his protocol. General manager Ryan Grigson sees him a couple of times a week. Pagano leads the league in texting his players and calling players and staff about things important (he regularly texts Andrew Luck with advice on defensive pressures he'll see that week) and fatherly (commiserating by text with injured tight end Coby Fleener about his bum shoulder).

The reality of this Week 11 matchup, though, is that emotion won't be a player in it. Third-down conversions will.

The Patriots are 31st in the NFL in third-down defense, allowing 44.6 percent of third downs to be converted to firsts. Indianapolis has been improving there, and two weeks ago converted 13 of 19 third downs against, at the time, the best third-down defense in the league, Miami. That's one thing Arians has been harping on around the Colts facility this week. "The way they stop people is by making them turn it over,'' Arians said, "and they're great at that. So we have to hold onto the football, and when we get down there, we've got to score touchdowns and not kick field goals. Because you know Tom's going to get his."

The Patriots are leading the league in scoring and yards, and the Colts will probably have to score in the 30s to have a chance. But I think the Colts will be in this if they don't turn it over. Over the last three games, Luck's been a 66 percent thrower and Indy's put up 444 yards a game. This should be a fun, high-scoring game if the Colts hold onto the ball.

The Bills are starting to play defense, and Ryan Tannehill is swooning. In Buffalo's 19-14 win over Miami, Tannehill continued to struggle (two touchdowns, five picks in his last three games, all losses), and I think much of that was due to Buffalo's front-seven pressure: three sacks, four additional tackles behind the line -- including a killer pancake of Reggie Bush by Kyle Williams -- and five quarterback pressures.

Buffalo is 4-6, and I can't see them challenging seriously for the playoffs, but the Bills have a manageable schedule with no premier teams left. If the defense plays like it did Thursday night, the sixth playoff seed is remotely possible. Said Williams of the Buffalo D: "I think it's just starting to click, playing fast, getting off of blocks, guys coming downhill. Obviously, it showed up tonight."

Darius Butler, cornerback, Indianapolis (No. 20). In the first 43 games of his NFL career, Butler, the New England washout, had one interception. He had two last week in Jacksonville, earning AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, and boosting his confidence in the nick of time for the Colts' trip to Foxboro Sunday.

The cornerback position in Indy has been totally made over by new GM Grigson, who dealt a Gronk (fullback Chris Gronkowski) to Denver for former undrafted free agent Cassius Vaughn, who will start alongside Butler Sunday. Grigson also acquired nickel Josh Gordy (from St. Louis for a 2014 seventh-rounder). That, ladies and gentlemen, is who Brady will facing Sunday, and I doubt he's very unhappy about it.

But Butler getting his confidence back, and returning to New England to face the team that fired him has to be a plus for a Colts secondary that hasn't had many this year.

1. The health of Jim Harbaugh. Hospitalized Thursday for a procedure to repair an irregular heartbeat, Harbaugh is expected to return to the Niners facility today. But will he coach in Monday night's game against the Chicago Bears? Stay tuned. Doesn't sound like anything serious long-term.

2. The health of Ben Roethlisberger. Talked to noted thoracic surgeon Clark Fuller about Ben Roethlisberger's dislocated first rib -- will have much on it Monday in MMQB -- and he thinks it will be multiple weeks, at least, before the quarterback plays again. "A throwing motion will not allow the proper healing to take place. This is a very serious injury,'' said Fuller, the director of Thoracic Surgery at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.

3. The readiness of Byron Leftwich. The Ravens love that Leftwich is a sitting duck with a long release -- the better to rush him -- and I understand how happy they are to be facing him instead of Roethlisberger Sunday night. Add that Leftwich has started only three games in the past five seasons (all in 2009 for Tampa Bay, all losses) and it's understandable why they like their chances. But Leftwich will not be scared. And Todd Haley will figure out how to help Leftwich complete intermediate stuff.

4. Concussion awareness. Roger Goodell spoke about player health and safety at Harvard Thursday, as the NFL came off a 12-concussion weekend. I was talking to an NFL GM this week, and he recounted excitedly about a young player in practice hitting a veteran so hard they both got woozy, and he caught himself and said, "I shouldn't be praising that now." He's right. And if Alex Smith shows any signs of cobwebbiness this weekend, he, like Michael Vick and Jay Cutler already, absolutely must be held out until he shows improvement. We can't talk about this enough.

5. Goodellisms, and the consequences. Goodell said at Harvard, "We may see different helmets for different positions." He said there may be a weight limit for players on kick teams. And added that mandatory knee and thigh pads will be enforced next year. All of this, plus concussion awareness, will be the talk of football this weekend, and should be.

6. Tebowland, rocked. Life around the Jets is a mess. What I have to say about it is pretty simple. Memo to Tony Sparano: Use Tim Tebow more.

7. Tony Romo likes turkey, and the trimmings. He must. He's 20-3 in November starts. Anyone doubt he makes it 21-3 against Cleveland in The House That Jerry Built?

8. The Bears, with adversity at quarterback again. Chicago was 7-3 when Cutler got hurt last year and went 1-5 down the stretch. The 8-8 record cost the Bears a playoff spot. They're 7-2 now, and there's no telling how long Cutler will be out with this current concussion (he won't play Sunday). The Bears signed Jason Campbell to ensure quarterback competence if Cutler went down, but they couldn't have liked what they saw last Sunday in his first test under fire. Gee, the 49ers">49ers, on the road, after a loss. That's an easy assignment for Campbell.

9. Ruh-roh, Rick Roles.Nick Foles, who looks like the "Shaggy" character from Scooby Doo fame, gets his first start against the Redskins and a slightly more famous member of the quarterbacks draft class of 2012. Fellow by the name of Robert Griffin III. If Foles wins, I can't see Andy Reid benching him immediately if Mike Vick gets healthy post-concussion.

10. A wakeup call in Atlanta. Good for the Falcons in releasing unproductive Ray Edwards (26 Falcons games: 3.5 sacks). Listening to their players this week, I think it sounds like they understand it's not going to be business as usual in Atlanta this year. No more, 'Well, we're going to make changes in the offseason.' It's more like the Edwards release was a sign that no excuses will be tolerated this year --starting with the game Sunday against Arizona -- if the Falcons stink it up down the stretch or in the postseason.

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