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DAN SHAUGNESSY

To battle, on and about the field

FOXBOROUGH -- No one is saying much of anything -- which is standard operating procedure in the NFL, particularly in Foxborough -- but there appears to be a great deal of pettiness and gamesmanship being played out in the hours before the long-awaited Sunday night matchup between the 6-1 Patriots and the undefeated Colts.

This is a Keith Jacksonesque battle of teams that just plain don't like each other. And we're not talking about the 106 football players on the rival rosters.

On the field it'll be Peyton Manning against a Patriots defense that has yet to allow more than 17 points in a game. It'll be Tom Brady against a Colts defense that looked vulnerable Sunday at Denver.

Contributing to the hype, Peyton and Tom are throwing verbal bouquets at one another's cleated feet. Ditto for the rest of the players on the squads.

It's different off the field. Upstairs in the cushy boxes behind the glass Sunday night, it'll be the Patriots organization trying to stick it to Indianapolis president Bill Polian and anyone else wearing Colts colors. And you can be sure ever-diabolical Bill Belichick wants to knock the horseshoes off the side of the Colts helmets.

Denials are flying like confetti on New Year's Eve just to keep pace with all the finger pointing. First, the Colts complained to the NFL about the condition of the field at Gillette Stadium. Then, the Patriots wanted the league to ensure the safety of employees who might interact with Polian Sunday.

Some background: According to Jay Glazer's report on FoxSports.com, when Indianapolis played the Jets at the Meadowlands earlier this season, the Colts president roughed up a Jets employee who placed loudspeakers too close to the Colts' bench.

Polian was unavailable for comment yesterday, and according to Craig Kelley, the Colts' vice president of public relations, Polian has not commented on anything regarding the Patriots this week.

As for the alleged incident involving Polian at the Meadowlands, Kelley said, "We deny that incident happened."

Did the Patriots ask the league to protect employees from Polian?

"Not that I'm aware of," said Stacey James, the Patriots' executive director of media relations. "Nothing formal, anyway."

Pay attention to that last remark. There may not be a paper trail of charges and countercharges made by the Patriots and Colts, but there's been plenty of grumbling from both sides. It's easy to believe the Colts complained about Gillette's turf. Who wouldn't? Since September, the middle of the field has looked like Tony Kornheiser's head. We know the Patriots like it that way, or it would not be that way. But the Patriots don't like outsiders telling them what they must do with their field.

It's certainly no stretch to imagine retaliation from Jonathan Kraft, a.k.a. "The Pocket Rocket." Young Jon's enemies list is longer than Richard Nixon's. And he never forgets. Hard to believe he's not Irish.

Meanwhile, we know the Patriots are still steamed over Polian's behavior in the Gillette press box when the Colts spanked the Patriots last November. Much like Oakland godfather Al Davis, Polian pounds his fists on the table and makes loud remarks throughout the games. In the waning seconds of the Colts' 40-21 win here last season, several people heard Polian yell, "Break his leg," when he watched a Colts lineman pursue a scrambling Doug Flutie.

Polian, you might remember, is the guy who complained bitterly when his wide receivers got the cold snot kicked out of them by Patriots defensive backs in the Jan. 18, 2004, AFC Championship game in Foxborough. (That was the game in which Ty Law intercepted three Manning passes.)

Polian has great cachet in the NFL (five-time executive of the year) and he got the rules changed after that playoff game. Earlier in that season, the Colts claimed Willie McGinest faked an injury to allow the Patriots to make a late substitution in a 38-34 Patriots' victory. In the final play of the game, McGinest stuffed Edgerrin James at the goal line.

Oh, and let's not forget that last summer the Colts stole Adam Vinatieri, the greatest clutch kicker in the history of football. The Patriots were further offended when Polian gave a post-signing interview with a Boston radio station.

Wednesday's comical injury reports underscore the animosity. The Patriots and Colts each listed 17 players as questionable for Sunday's game (the Patriots inflated their entire list to a whopping 21 yesterday). The purpose of the list is to ensure that teams disclose injuries, but Belichick has made a farce of the exercise and it's obvious the Colts are counterpunching.

"Just following league guidelines," laughing boy Bill submitted yesterday. "I don't look at it [the injury list]. We prepare for all 53 players."

Right, Coach.

Belichick has issues with NFL regulations and sees Polian as a nemesis in this area as well. How long before Bill lists all 53 of his players as "questionable"? After all, you never know who might come down with the bubonic plague before game time.

It goes on and on and it makes for a combustible environment. The Colts don't like reading they are choke artists, a soft team unable to win the big one. The Patriots don't like to be told what to do by a sore loser with 18 years of experience as an NFL club president or GM.

"We have not filed a complaint with the league regarding the turf," Kelley insisted yesterday. "And the league told us that nothing unusual is being done as far as security."

Ray Anderson, the NFL's senior vice president of football operations, did not return the Globe's call. Ditto for Polian and everyone of authority in Foxborough.

So, officially speaking, there is nothing going on here. It's just a high-profile football game. No hard feelings. May the best team win.

But we know better. We know it's more. There's lots of hatred and revenge here. It feels almost like a 2006 election.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com

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