We know what Tom Brady and Peyton Manning can do. We also know what they can't do, which is win the Patriots-Colts grudge match all by themselves.
For as much hype as there is about the premier passers being pitted against each other on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, it's unlikely that having one Canton-bound quarterback in the huddle (or no-huddle) vs. having the other is going to provide the difference.No, this game is going to be decided by the Other Guys. Last year's instant classic in Indianapolis was the perfect example. The biggest play of the game was made by a Colts reserve safety who entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2007. Patriots fans won't soon forget Melvin Bullitt, or the tackle he made on the now infamous fourth-and-2.
Some of the biggest plays on Sunday are going to be made by guys who aren't Brady or Manning. Colts-Patriots is more than a stage for star power. It's a passion play starring both teams' entire 53-man roster -- and those rosters are pretty green.
When the Patriots and Colts meet, it's not just a proving ground on the field, it's a measure of execution off of it. How well have these two franchises, who have pushed off parity and set the NFL gold standard for more than a decade, followed their philosophies and found their type of players? Have they tapped into the draft to replenish their rosters or has the trail of talent grown cold?
Player procurement in the NFL is somewhere between an inexact science and voodoo, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Colts president Bill Polian, and by extension the Patriots and the Colts, are two of the best at it. The ideology is different, the goal is the same.
"I think we’re two different teams just in terms of structurally how they put their team together," said Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio. "Some of the players that fit our team really don’t fit their team and vice versa. I think in the end you just have to identify whatever your philosophy is, whatever you believe in, whatever types of players fit your system, and you have to go out and find them accordingly, which they’ve done a great job of that through the years. ...Bill Polian is one of the most respected personnel men in the business. And he’s been at it a long time. They get good football players."
So have the Patriots in the last two drafts.
One of the biggest reasons the Patriots have been able to hit the F5 button on their run and reload the roster so quickly is a pair of productive drafts. After some, ahem, suspect drafting from 2006 to 2008 (always a sore subject with Patriots fans), the Patriots picked up seven rookies last April that are starter quality for them right now: cornerback Devin McCourty, tight end Rob Gronkowski, outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, inside linebacker Brandon Spikes, tight end Aaron Hernandez, punter Zoltan Mesko and defensive end Brandon Deaderick.
Mea culpa on the McCourty pick, as he has emerged as the team's top corner in the absence of the injured Leigh Bodden and has clearly outplayed Jerry Hughes, whom the Colts selected four picks later.
Add April's haul to a 2009 draft that brought safety Patrick Chung, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and wide receiver/kick returner Brandon Tate, among others, and you have a youth movement that has moved the Patriots in the right direction.
If the Patriots are to beat the Colts, it is likely that two or three of those Other Guys, none of whom was even in the NFL when the Patriots last defeated the Colts in 2007, are going to have to rise to the occasion.
The same holds true for the horseshoe-helmeted visitors, who boast 13 rookies on their 53-man roster. There are some callow Colts that coach Jim Caldwell is going to be counting on coming up big on Sunday for his injury-riddled team.
With tight end Dallas Clark out for the year, the Colts are relying on third-year man Jacob Tamme. With Anthony Gonzalez out last year, second-year receiver Austin Collie, a former fourth-round pick, emerged last year as a trustworthy target opposite Reggie Wayne, as did '08 sixth-round pick Pierre Garcon, who has been inconsistent this season. Gonzalez is gonzo again this year with a knee injury. Undrafted rookie receiver Blair White could also play an important role if Collie can't go due to concussion symptoms.
Rookie linebacker Pat Angerer has started four games this season for the Colts and will start on Sunday. Second-year corner Jerraud Powers, a 2009 third-rounder, is tied for the team lead in interceptions (two) despite missing two games with an injury.
These are hardly households names we're talking about, but they could be after Sunday.
There is a lot of history between the Patriots and the Colts, but with so many young players on both sides, the balance of power in the rivalry will be determined by the future.
...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.