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Stakes add sizzle to Sunday's menu

Showdown Sunday is only four days away. On Sunday afternoon, the 9-2 Patriots will travel to Hoosierville to take on the 9-2 Indianapolis Colts in the kind of game that will begin to sort out the AFC playoff race.

If New England can beat up the Colts in their living room, it will enhance its chances of gaining what have become two of the most valuable playoff assets: a week off and home-field advantage.

The home field is still controlled at the moment by the Kansas City Chiefs, who are 10-1. There is nothing the Patriots can directly do about that because the two will not meet in the regular season. But they can go a long way toward enhancing their chances of hosting at least one playoff game and taking wild-card weekend off if they beat the Colts. Such a victory, coupled with an early-season win over the Tennessee Titans, would give New England a hold on the second seed in the AFC if it avoids stumbling in the final month of the season.

But let us not put the cart before the horse. Or in this case, the cart before the Colts.

Indianapolis has a balanced and dangerous offense that presents far more problems for New England's defense than the Patriots' offense does for the Colts' defense. But New England's defense is more talented and more dominating than Indianapolis's, so we have a textbook example of football's great debate.

Which has more staying power: offense or defense? On which can you rely more consistently: scoring or preventing teams from scoring?

Generally, the edge is given to defense, because defense revolves more around effort, speed, and talent while offense needs all those things plus timing and precision. Timing and precision are as much a function of mental dexterity as physical, and that can wax and wane as the result of a number of factors beyond the control of any coach or player. Thus, offense by its very nature is less reliable than defense. Edge, New England.

The Colts have continued to make their bones on offense although coach Tony Dungy began rebuilding their long-porous defense from the moment he arrived in Indiana after being thrown out of Tampa Bay a year ago because his Bucs did not score often enough (especially against the Eagles in the playoffs). The Glazer family fired Dungy, who had resurrected the woebegone Bucs franchise, and then paid a huge ransom to pry Jon Gruden from Oakland. Gruden rewarded the Glazers with a Super Bowl trophy last season, albeit with an offense not much better than Dungy's was.

This season, Tampa's offense has been awful and so have the Bucs, who are 5-6 and have scored nearly 90 fewer points than the Colts of the supposedly offensively-challenged Dungy.

Gone in 11 games is Gruden's mantle of genius, replaced by questions about Tampa's inability to score enough to help out a defense that has allowed only 174 points, about two touchdowns a game. While there now are questions about coaching offense as well as playing offense in Tampa, the only question in Indianapolis is whether or not the Colts will fade in the playoffs once the league's better defenses get their hands on Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, and Marvin Harrison.

Those three are among the elite players at their positions. The Patriots have nothing to match them with on offense, although Tom Brady is as adept at what he does as Manning is at what he does. What Brady does is manage the game and make key plays that often transform otherwise mundane efforts into memorable ones, while Manning is of a more spectacular bent.

Manning is the classic dropback passer who can make all the throws. He comes armed with arguably the league's best and most reliable receiver in Harrison. Behind them stands James, who won the rushing title his first two years in the league before a severe knee injury slowed him down. He is back at close to full speed, having run for 735 yards and seven touchdowns.

But the great equalizer comes on defense, where the Patriots are allowing only 15.9 points per game. That makes them the second-stingiest unit in the AFC and fourth-toughest to score on in the league. The Colts may be scoring nearly 9 more points per game than the Patriots (28.1 to 19.9) but they are giving up nearly 20 per game as well. Numbers don't always tell the tale, but they can at least lead to some conclusions.

One is that Dungy's work on defense is not yet done in Indianapolis. The Colts still can give up a bundle, as they have to Tampa Bay (35), the Jets (31), and Jacksonville (28). In fact, they have held only four opponents below what the Patriots' defense has done on average. New England, though, has allowed only two opponents to put up more points than the Jaguars rang up on Indianapolis three weeks ago.

But if one takes margin of victory into consideration, the Colts have one clear advantage: they play with a far greater margin for error than the Patriots. The Colts are averaging 28 a game and giving up around 20, just over a touchdown's worth of leeway. New England, on the other hand, is scoring 19.9 a game while giving up 15.9. That means the Patriots are winning, on average, by barely a field goal. That is what makes Sunday's showdown interesting. It will put the Patriots' seven-game winning streak at risk because of the Colts' firepower but it also will provide a clearer picture of what is the more dominant facet of the game: Indianapolis's offense or New England's defense. It is wise not to bet against defense, especially in recent years. Defense shut down the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl and it did the same to the Oakland Raiders last year when they brought the highest-scoring offense in football into the game.

To be sure, this weekend is not Super Sunday but it is Showdown Sunday. If it turns into Smackdown Sunday, don't bet against the Patriots leaving Indianapolis as the leader of not only the AFC East but also the race for one of the two playoff byes in January.

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Next game:
Nov. 30 at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 4 Radio: WBCN (104.1)

afc east standings
  W L T Pct. PF PA
Patriots 9 2 0 .818 19.9 15.9
Dolphins 7 4 0 .636 18.3 15.5
Bills 4 7 0 .364 15.7 17.0
Jets 4 7 0 .364 19.1 20.1
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