It's been a long time since the Indianapolis Colts' NFL itinerary included a trip to Foxborough. The last time the Colts came to these parts, Gillette Stadium still had real turf, not FieldTurf, Deval Patrick was two days away from winning his first term as governor and Delonte West was the Celtics' starting point guard with Rajon Rondo as his backup.
Ah, 2006. Back then it was still reasonable to believe that Peyton Manning would never win the big one and that Patriots coach Bill Belichick could keep Peyton in place. Those theories now seem as outdated as the idea that hiding under a school desk would spare you in a nuclear attack.
It is now Manning who plays mind games with Belichick. The much-debated decision by Belichick in last year's game to go for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line with 2:08 remaining was a direct result of Manning being on the other sideline. It was a show of respect and resignation -- one of the greatest defensive minds in the history of the game convinced his best defense against Manning was not to play defense at all.
Even before that game, Manning was dictating Belichick's beliefs. The 2007 point-a-palooza season happened, in part, because Manning outgunned the Patriots in the 2006 AFC championship game.
As much as we like to compare and debate the merits of the two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in this unrivaled rivalry, Manning and Tom Brady, the real showdown has always been Belichick vs. Manning. Two football savants who learned at the knees of their football fathers, absorbed the game through osmosis and weren't born to be anything other than what they are.
"He understands the game," said Belichick. "He finds some little thing, some little technique or adds a little something to a play or a read or something that continues to create problems for the defense."
The question is can Belichick, with a still-developing defense that ranks 30th against the pass and applies an inconsistent pass rush, win the war of wits once again with Manning? Can he coax his young defense to come up with that key interception, third-down stop, or red zone parry?
When Belichick was playing Patriots Games with Manning's mind, the Patriots dominated the rivalry. New England won six straight games against Indy from 2001 through the 2004 playoffs. In those six contests, Manning completed 58.5 percent of his passes for 1,540 yards and threw nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He enjoyed just one 300-yard passing game against the defenses drawn up by Belichick and then-defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
But since then the Colts and their iconic QB have reversed the rivalry, winning five of the last six meetings. Manning, the Megamind of NFL QBs, has cracked the code.
In those last half-dozen games, dating to the 2005 regular-season, Manning has completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 1,802 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. He has thrown for more than 300 yards four times, including last year's 35-34 Colts' victory in which he led Indianapolis from 17 down at the start of the fourth quarter and threw for 327 yards and four touchdowns (with two interceptions).
If you're thinking that removing the rivalry from the climate-controlled confines of Indianapolis will temper Manning's sudden success against Belichick, think again. Half of those four 300-yard days came in Foxborough, including a 326-yard performance in 2006, when the game-time temperature was below freezing (31 degrees).
Part of the reason for Manning's success can be traced to personnel. When the Patriots' game plan calls for the player wearing No. 24 trying to cover Reggie Wayne to be Jonathan Wilhite, and not Ty Law, you get results like last season's meeting, when Wayne torched Wilhite for 10 catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner.
Belichick's defensive parts simply haven't been as good as they were from 2001 to 2004. They're probably not now either, but they're the best they've been in the secondary since the Patriots' last win in the series in 2007, when they had Asante Samuel and Rodney Harrison.
We're going to learn a lot about just how good Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are in this game.
Conversely, the Indianapolis offense is probably as effete as it's been in a while. For the first time in a while, the Colts might not have the horses either.
The playing field is evened a bit by the fact that Manning has had a revolving door of targets this year due to injuries, disrupting the timing of the Colts' usually Swiss timepiece-precision attack.
Patriot-killer/Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark, who commanded a double-team last year, is out for the season with a wrist injury. Second-leading receiver Austin Collie had surgery to repair a thumb injury and missed last week's game with a concussion. Running back Joseph Addai has missed the last three games with a neck injury. Receiver Pierre Garcon missed two games with a hamstring injury and has had a case of the dropsies. Garcon dropped just five passes in 92 targets last year in a breakout season. He's already dropped six passes in 60 targets this year. That's not to mention Anthony Gonzalez, who slipped down the depth chart and then was knocked out for the season with a knee injury.
The rash of injuries has forced Manning to throw to guys like tight end Jacob Tamme and wide receiver Blair White. Of course Manning could be throwing to Snow White and still be effective.
But if Manning goes out and beats the Patriots with his current cast then it's official -- Belichick is as powerless to stop him as any other defensive coach in the NFL.
Then the only way you'll be able to watch the Patriots slow down Manning is if you fire up the DVD player and put on "Three Games to Glory" from '03 or' 04.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.