ColdHardFootballFacts.com breaks down Sunday's Indianapolis at New England game (4:15 p.m. ET, CBS).
The Patriots (7-2) host the Colts (6-3) Sunday in the latest edition of what's been the NFL's most important regular-season matchup for an entire decade. The winner of the season series between Indianapolis and New England has gone on to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl six times in the past nine seasons. How big is Indy-New England? It's the very rare afternoon game that will be seen coast-to-coast in almost every single market in the nation.
1. Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning is the greatest QB rivalry in the NFL. Ever. Sure, they may profess to be chums off the field and charter members of the mutual admiration society, so there's none of the personal animosity that stokes the flames of some of the most compelling rivalries in the history of sports. But when it comes right down to the nitty, gritty, Cold, Hard Football Facts, there's never been a quarterback rivalry like Brady v. Manning.
Start in the earliest days of the modern QB position: Sammy Baugh vs. Sid Luckman? Baugh might be the greatest football player ever. Luckman put up numbers that have stood the test of time (he's still the all-time passing leader in Bears history). They squared off in several notable NFL championships games, but the two dominated the talent-depleted World War II years and few saw them play except the folks in attendance on gameday.
Bart Starr vs. Johnny Unitas? The two Hall of Famers won eight championships between them from 1958 to '70 and are the two most recognizable quarterbacks of their era. But Starr and Unitas never met in the postseason.
Terry Bradshaw vs. Ken Stabler? One of these quarterbacks played in the AFC title game every year from 1972 to 1979 and they faced each other three straight years with the Super Bowl on the line (1974-76). But their numbers pale in comparison to Brady-Manning -- even adjusted for the Dead Ball Era in which they played -- and only one is a Hall of Famer.
Bradshaw vs. Roger Staubach? Legendary Hall of Fame quarterbacks who won six championships in the 1970s and met each other in two of glitziest Super Bowls ever. But playing in different conferences, they rarely squared off in the regular season.
Dan Marino vs. Joe Montana? The dominant quarterbacks of the 1980s and the source of endless debates about who's better: the perennial champion or the prolific stat monster? They played each other five times. And their lone postseason contest, in Super Bowl XIX, turned out to be no contest at all. Montana's 15-1 49ers destroyed Marino's 14-2 Dolphins, 38-16.
Brady vs. Manning, meanwhile, has been a big-time rivalry for a full decade. Brady made his first start against the Colts in 2001 -- an unexpected 44-13 New England win. A QB rivalry unmatched in the history of football was underway.
Both quarterbacks are bona fide first-ballot Hall of Famers and both put up dominant numbers, including the top two passer ratings and the top passing TD seasons in history. They've each led streaks of team success unmatched in NFL history, and they routinely meet in both the regular season and the postseason in games that have a direct impact on the Super Bowl.
Enjoy it on Sunday, folks. It's not every decade that the best QB rivalry in history rolls around.
2. Both teams this year have critical flaws. Past Colts-Patriots meetings have pitted seemingly unstoppable juggernauts in a class by themselves.
When they met in November 2006, they were a combined 13-1. When they met in November 2007, they were a combined 15-0, the latest meeting ever of unbeatens. The Patriots edged out Indy, 24-20, in that 20007 game on their way to the first 16-0 season in NFL history. The Colts ended the year as the AFC's No. 2 seed, with a great 13-3 record.
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The teams today are a combined 13-5 -- pretty good by the standards of most teams, but less impressive than some past Colts-Pats clashes.
Each team this year has been forced to overcome glaring, even critical defensive weaknesses. They're weaknesses that could ultimately prevent either team from winning a Super Bowl.
Indy's speedy but undersized defense is once again getting manhandled up front: they surrender 5.0 YPA on the ground, the worst run defense in the NFL. Of course, the Colts have been down this road before. The 2006 team fielded the worst run defense any NFL team produced over the last half century (5.33 YPA). Yet they overcame that flaw to win the Super Bowl.
But that porous run defense could spell trouble against New England on Sunday: the Patriots ripped off 103 yards (and 4.3 YPA) on the ground last week against a Steelers team that boasts the league's top run defense by any measure.
The Patriots, meanwhile, are still getting torched through the air, despite their lofty 7-2 record. New England ranks 30th in total pass defense (2,500 yards). But yards allowed a not a reliable indicator of the relative merits of each defense. It's often just a function of how often teams pass against you.
So at Cold, Hard Football Facts, we look at a far more reliable indicator: Defensive Passer Rating. New England's Super Bowl-winning defenses of 2001 and 2003 were among the best in recent history in Defensive Passer Rating. But the 2010 version of the Patriots struggle badly here, too: they're No. 27 with a 94.5 Defensive Passer Rating (in other words, opposing quarterbacks have posted an average passer rating of 94.5).
To put that number into perspective, Brady has one of the highest career passer ratings in history, and that rating is only 93.7.
It's the worst Defensive Passer Rating in Patriots franchise history and may prove costly against Manning on Sunday or in future playoff clashes against elite quarterbacks.
3. Peyton Manning is in the midst of a rare slump. The record-setting Colts quarterback has been anything but Peyton-like in recent weeks. In fact, he's been frustratingly ineffective by most standards, especially his own. In games against Houston, Philadelphia and Cincinnati, Manning has averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt -- a bad number for any quarterback -- with a 75.5 passer rating, about 20 points below his career rating.
In his last two games, a loss to Philadelphia and last week's win over the lousy Bengals, Manning posted passer ratings of 67.0 and 69.8. It's just the second time since his rookie season back in 1998 that Manning has posted ratings bellow 70 in consecutive games.
All quarterbacks have bad spells, but for Manning they usually last no more than a game. Injuries have certainly played a role. Manning right now is surrounded everywhere by second- and third-stringers. Skill-position players Joseph Addai, Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez and Mike Hart, among others, have all missed significant playing time and most are out this week. Manning is down to fifth- and sixth-stringers at wide receiver and running back.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts do not accept injuries as excuses -- if only because the scoreboard does not accept injuries as excuses. But you have to believe the carnage is having an effect on Manning and the Indy offense.
In normal circumstances, Manning vs. New England's flawed pass defense would be a huge advantage for the Colts. But given Manning's recent struggles and that he's playing without many of his best weapons, it gives the Patriots a fighting chance to contain one of the most feared passers in NFL history.
Victories have come in bunches for both teams. The Colts have won 12 or more games a record-seven straight seasons. But that streak is in jeopardy this year. With a loss Sunday, Indianapolis must win out to keep it alive.
Tom Brady's Patriots are also in the midst of an incredible streak: he has not lost a regular-season game at Gillette Stadium since 2006, a stretch of 24 contests. With a win over the Colts, Brady will match the record for consecutive home wins set by Brett Favre at Lambeau Field in the mid-1990s. But that streak, too, is in jeopardy, with the rival Colts coming to town.
One other Cold, Hard Football Fact to keep your eyes on: Indy and New England protect the passer better, and suffer fewer Negative Pass Plays (sack or INT), than any teams in football. Manning and the Colts are tops in the NFL. They're nailed with a sack or suffer a pick on just 4.01 percent of dropbacks, a remarkably great rate. Brady and the Patriots are second in the NFL. They suffer a sack or INT on just 5.64 percent of dropbacks.
Neither defense, meanwhile, is particular adept at creating Negative Pass Plays: the Colts force one on 8.98 percent of opponent dropbacks (11th); the Patriots force Negative Pass Plays on just 7.73 percent of dropbacks (20th).
So expect both passers to have oodles of time in the pocket.
The Patriots cast off Randy Moss earlier this season and quickly reinvented themselves. Or, more appropriately, returned to the old selves from their Super Bowl-winning seasons of 2001, 2003 and 2004: a tough team that plays smart situational football and guts out wins against tough teams, even if they're not always explosive on offense.
In their past five games, the Patriots beat three AFC Super Bowl favorites: Baltimore, San Diego and Pittsburgh.
The Colts, meanwhile, last enjoyed a victory over a team with a winning record back on Oct. 10, when they bested the Chiefs (now 5-4) at home, 19-9.
New England remains vulnerable on defense. But we like their ability to control the tempo -- as they have against most opponents in recent weeks -- against a team with a porous run defense.
Even a week ago, we might have liked the Colts to win and win big. But given the injuries and the recent struggles on offense, we think the Patriots will have just enough in the tank to keep alive their incredible streak of regular-season wins at Gillette.
Regardless of who wins, the 2010 season could mark the seventh time in 10 seasons that the winner of the Colts-Patriots regular-season series represents the AFC in the Super Bowl.
New England 27, Indianapolis 26
(Week 10 prediction: Pittsburgh 27, New England 24. Result: New England 39, Pittsburgh 26.)