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Balancing act on display

Indianapolis Colts (7-0) at New England Patriots (4-3)
9 p.m., Channel 5 (Colts by 3)

When the Colts run

Edgerrin James is one of the most destructive offensive forces in the NFL. Yes, Peyton Manning gets most of the headlines (and deservedly so), but James has been reason 1A why the Colts have been toying with most opposing defenses over the last few seasons. The 6-foot, 214-pound James runs with great power and balance. The seven-year veteran's favorite route to the secondary is a straight shot up the middle. But make no mistake, James still has the speed and moves to get outside and rip off huge chunks of real estate. James has rushed for 801 yards (tops heading into Week 9) and his legs are sure to be fresh coming off a bye week. If he does need a breather, the Colts have a solid backup in Dominic Rhodes, who has rushed for 107 yards on 26 carries this year. Indianapolis has an above-average offensive line and the best run blocker of the bunch is 6-6, 331-pound right tackle Ryan Diem. The five-year veteran explodes at the snap and simply drives through defenders until they scream "uncle." Diem can fight through most double teams, but can get can sometimes get lost by stunting linemen. Diem is teamed on the right side with guard Jake Scott, who is among a dying breed - an offensive lineman under 300 pounds. The 6-5, 280-pound Scott, who is nursing knee and toe woes, is quick and smart but lacks bulk and strength and struggles to sustain his blocks. The Patriots have really struggled against the run this year. It's a pretty safe bet this unit will get stronger as Tedy Bruschi works to solidify the middle. Another big help would be the return of All-Pro end Richard Seymour.

Rushing yards per game
Indianapolis offense: 134.9 - 4th in NFL
NE defense: 83.9 - 28th in NFL
Edge: Colts

When the Colts pass

From a statistical standpoint, Peyton Manning isn't have his best season. In fact, the perennial Pro Bowler is running second in passing yards and touchdown passes in his own family. But there's only one statistic that matters and that's 7-0. Although he's more than capable of carrying this offense, Manning hasn't had to this year. He's acting as more of a caretaker and he's certainly excelling in the role. Manning is among the smartest quarterbacks to ever play and one his biggest strengths is his ability to adapt on the fly. He's a legendary audibler and often resembles a traffic cop as he rearranges his teammates after changing the play. Manning is great at play action and because James is such a weapon, defenses always have to wait until the last second before rushing Manning. The Colts have a tremendous receiving corps led by the incomparable Marvin Harrison (37 catches, 388 yards) and the dynamic Reggie Wayne (37, 437 yards). Harrison can make all the catches. He can go deep, he can go short, or he can come back when he senses Manning's in trouble. Wayne has great hands and makes many highlight show catches. Brandon Stokley is a clutch No. 3 receiver while tight end Dallas Clark is an excellent receiver who can give lead-footed linebackers and smaller safeties fits. If that's not enough, James could be the best receiving running back not named LaDainian in the league. The New England secondary is in shambles and appears to be a mismatch tonight. Asante Samuel is developing into a terrific cornerback but he can't cover everybody. Duane Starks always appears out of position and safety Eugene Wilson hasn't been as dependable without running mate Rodney Harrison. Getting pressure on Manning early and often is a must tonight.

Passing yards per game
Indianapolis offense: 218.9 - 15th in NFL
NE defense: 230.7 - 24th in NFL
Edge: Colts

When the Patriots run

Time for the Patriots to invoke the "best defense is a good offense" clause. Chewing up the clock with Corey Dillon is the most effective way to keep the ridiculously high-powered Colts in the barn. If Dillon's balky ankle is up for it, the 6-1, 225-pounder could be the team's most valuable player on both sides of the ball tonight. When healthy, Dillon is a beast who enjoys handing out beatings as much as he likes scoring touchdowns. With Patrick Pass hobbling and Amos Zereoue walking the streets, Dillon, who showed flashes of his 2004 form during last week's win vs. Buffalo, will be the lone option on the ground unless Bill Belichick feels comfortable throwing newly signed fullback Heath Evans or newly signed Mike Cloud into the fire. New England could try to keep the Colts honest with a few reverses with speedy receivers Deion Branch and Bethel Johnson. These plays will keep the clock running and give Dillon a chance to catch a blow. New England's rookie left side of Logan Mankins and Nick Kaczur have struggled some, but run blocking is easier than pass blocking and with some help from tight ends Daniel Graham and Ben Watson, Dillon may be able to find some holes to burst through. The Colts have improved their front seven with the addition of Eagles castoff tackle Corey Simon. The linebacking corps features Gary Brackett in the middle flanked by Cato June and David Thornton. The 5-11, 235-pound Brackett plays with a mean streak while June and Thornton know how to shed their blocks quickly and make plays.

Rushing yards per game
NE offense: 83.9 - 28th in NFL
Indianapolis defense: 108.6 - 14th in NFL
Edge: Colts

When the Patriots pass

Tom Brady has been having an all-world season as he tries to compensate for New England's anemic rushing attack. Brady has completed 157 of 249 attempts (63.1 percent) for 2,020 yards but he'd gladly trade all his impressive numbers for a clean bills of health for Dillon and Kevin Faulk. If Brady is given time tonight, he should be able to do some damage against this secondary. Left corner Nick Harper (5-10, 182 pounds) has excellent technique and route recognition but his lack of size and speed make him susceptible against speedy receivers such as Deion Branch and Bethel Johnson. He's at his best covering underneath, though he'll struggle against the muscular David Givens and tight ends Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson. Right corner Jason David (5-8, 172 pounds) is comparitively small but makes up for it with great speed and aggressiveness. Strong safety Mike Doss (5-10, 207 pounds) is a great support player but will get burned when he's left one on one. Free safety Bob Sanders (5-8, 206 pounds) is also vertically challenged but that doesn't stop him from being among the most ornery safeties in the game. Brady's biggest challenge tonight will be avoiding the pass rushers Robert Mathis (a league-leading 8 sacks), Dwight Freeney (6 sacks), Montae Reagor (3.5 sacks), and Raheem Brock (3 sacks). Brady's blindside is being protected by two rookies and there's only so much Graham and Watson can do to help neutralize these stalwarts. Look for a lot of quick outside hits to Branch and Givens (a Charlie Weis staple) as Belichick tries to mask the deficiencies along the offensive line.

Passing yards per game
NE offense: 279 - 2d in the NFL
Indianapolis defense: 169.3 - 7th in NFL
Edge: Patriots

Patriots' keys to victory

1. Home rule petition: Foxborough fanatics have to play a role in drowning out Manning and his ability to audibilize.
2. Lots of horse play: The Colts receivers tend to turn the other cheek after they've been smacked. All the more reason to smack 'em.
3. Run, Corey, run: Dillon has to keep the chains moving in order to prevent Manning and James from moving them themselves.

Colts' keys to victory

1. Bomb-proof: Manning and his mates have to act like stallions rather than ponies as they run in a hostile environment.
2. Mug shots: Defensive backs have to jam receivers at the snap to disrupt New England's numerous timing patterns.
3. Balancing act: James has been a stud so far - feed him the ball to keep the Patriots' edge rushers from teeing off on Manning.

Colts' key offensive player

Brandon Stokley: This seven-year veteran is one of the league's premier slot receivers and plays bigger and stronger than his 5-11, 197-pound frame.
How he beats you: With toughness and competitive spirit. Stokley has no problem giving up his body in order to make tough catches. He's an absolute demon on third down as he seemingly always comes up with enough yards to keep a drive going.
How to shut him down: By punishing him. Stokley's fearless nature makes him susceptible to some vicious hits. The Patriots must make him pay when he goes over the middle.

Colts' key defensive player

Robert Mathis: It's hard to believe how much destruction this relatively small (6-2, 235 pounds) defensive end can cause. He's speedy and powerful and smells quarterbacks the way Yogi smells picnic baskets.
How he beats you: With quickness and moves. Mathis is fast enough to blow past most tackles but can also spin inside like a whirling dervish if that's the best route to the backfield.
How to shut him down: By running at him. Mathis struggles against the run (he's smaller than some DBs) and can get overpowered when rumbling offensive linemen bear down on him.

Prediction: Colts 24, Patriots 20

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