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A statement game for Patriots

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  November 19, 2010 09:30 AM

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Over the last five years, the scoreboard looks like this: Colts 5, Patriots 1. Indianapolis has been to more Super Bowls. Indianapolis has won more titles. Indianapolis has found ways to win while the Patriots have found ways to lose, Peyton Manning hovering between the ears of Bill Belichick like a persistent voice of doubt.

The Patriots need this game.

Playoff seeding? Bye weeks? Those are all on the table now as the Patriots enter Week 11 of the NFL season with an impressive 7-2 record that is tied with the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons for best in the NFL. There is still a lot of football to be played. A good deal can happen. And as much as a Patriots victory this weekend – as well as one over the Jets in Week 13 – would put New England in Position A for both home field advantage and a first-round bye in the playoffs, there are so many other reasons that a victory over the Colts would mean so much, now, as Belichick continues to restore an aura to the most successful NFL franchise of the last 10 years.

The Patriots are home. The Colts are ripe.

If not now, when?

By now, we all know the history of this rivalry, the story lines, the significance. For the first five years of this millennium, Belichick and the Patriots confounded Manning and the Colts like no other franchise in the NFL. Over the next five, Manning and the Colts have prevailed. The tally now reads Patriots 8, Colts 6 heading into Sunday at Foxborough, all of which puts the rivalry between the Patriots and Colts into even greater focus.

Think of that. In 10 years, the difference between the Patriots and Colts is essentially one outcome. If the Patriots didn’t rally in 2007, the tally would be 7-7. If Willie McGinest failed to stop Edgerrin James in 2003, the count would be 7-7. What we have here, essentially, is two teams who have been absurdly well matched at an extremely high level, the Colts winning 121 games since Belichick arrived in Foxborough, the Pats 119.

Over the last decade, when New England and Indianapolis have met, every snap has mattered. Outcomes in individual games and the decade as a whole have been thisclose, a real-life illustration of everything Al Pacino emphasized to his team during an unforgettable locker room speech in "Any Given Sunday."

In either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half-step too late, or too early, you don’t quite make it. One half-second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They are in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team, we fight for that inch.

And so where are those inches this week? Are they in Dallas Clark and Bob Sanders, the Colts standouts who have been lost for the season? Or are they in Ty Warren and Kevin Faulk, reliable Patriots similarly out for the year? Are they in Shayne Graham instead of Stephen Gostkowski? Are they in Randy Moss, who torched the Colts in his two career games against them when paired with Tom Brady? Are they in Indy’s wretched run defense or in New England’s secondary, particularly on third down, where the Patriots remain one of the most vulnerable teams in football?

The right answer: they are in all of those places, waiting to be strung together to determine the outcome when dusk descends on Foxborough come Sunday.

For the Colts, the stakes on Sunday are obvious. Indy is 6-3, a game behind the Patriots and Jets, tied with a group that includes the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. For Indy, a loss on Sunday could have huge ramifications. And yet, the Patriots also have so much to gain, particularly in Foxborough, where they have not lost a regular season game since November 2008. That’s 13 straight if anyone is counting. The Colts are banged up and the Colts are on the road, and the Patriots are now a year removed from fourth-and-2, from the deterioration of a locker room and culture that once defined their success.

In the year since, the Patriots have rebuilt themselves and climbed back into the NFL’s elite.

This week, we learn if they can get over the top.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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