FOXBOROUGH - When he was the Patriots' defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel spent many a long night concocting game plans to try to slow down the Indianapolis Colts' offense. As Crennel, now head coach of the Cleveland Browns, clicked through the tape of the Patriots' offense recently, he experienced déjà vu.
"As I watched them, the thing that comes to mind is Indianapolis and Peyton Manning and how he runs that offense," said Crennel, whose team meets New England Sunday at Gillette Stadium. "It's very comparable because they're hard to stop and the Patriots are hard to stop right now."
If Patriots quarterback Tom Brady ever wondered how the other half (Manning) lived, he's found out in the first four games of this season. The Patriots' souped-up offense is out-Colting the Colts, fueled by the renaissance of Randy Moss, the precision routes and reliability of Wes Welker, the continued improvement of tight end Benjamin Watson, and sound pass blocking from a veteran offensive line.
New England is averaging more points (37.0 to 32.8), total yards (431.8 to 403.5), passing yards (274.8 to 262.8), and first downs (26.2 to 22.8) per game than Indianapolis. Brady leads all quarterbacks in completion percentage (79.2) and touchdown passes (13), and has thrown for three or more touchdowns passes in all four games, while tossing just two interceptions.
Manning has completed 67.2 percent of his passes and has eight TD throws and one interception.
"I always look at the Colts as like the standard for passing offenses," said Brady. "What those guys have accomplished over the years and them being together for as long at they have; they're impossible to stop. Us being to gether for such a short time, we're trying to reach a point that we feel the same way."
Brady may consider Indianapolis the pace setter for production in the passing game, but right now the Patriots are outpacing the Colts.
The Patriots are gaining 9.32 yards per attempt, second in the league, to the Colts' 8.33, which is third. Last year, Indianapolis led the league in that category at 7.89 yards per attempt, while the Patriots were 12th at 6.81.
It wasn't until the seventh game of last season that Brady had a completion of 40 yards or more - a 45-yarder to the soon-discarded Doug Gabriel against the Minnesota Vikings. Already this year, he has completed three passes of 40 yards or more, all to Moss.
"Without question, they are so much more efficient and dangerous throwing the football with the receiving corps they have now," said Fox analyst and former Cowboys and Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson.
"Brady may be the best in the NFL on the deep ball and at finding the open receiver, and when you add the weapons they added, he can just pick and choose."
With the offseason upgrade on offense, it's as if the Patriots, who suffered a 38-34 loss to Indianapolis in last season's AFC Championship game, decided that if they can't stop the Colts, they might as well join them.
"Coaches during the offseason, they study not only their opponent but the people doing the best in the league," said Johnson, who won back-to-back Super Bowls with the Cowboys in 1993 and '94. "And if they study Indianapolis and say, 'How are we going to slow them down?' The more you study them you say, 'Wait, that's pretty good, I'm going to use that,' and end up copying some things they see. I'm sure there are some nuances, but the Colts use a different style."
Although the Patriots have used a lot more three-wide-receiver sets this season, mimicking the Colts' favorite formation, they are still a variable, game plan-specific offense.
The Patriots spread out the Chargers to take advantage of their weak secondary in Week 2, and last Monday they rammed the ball down the throats of a Bengals defense that was depleted at linebacker.
"When I look at the Patriots, as good as they are in the passing game, I really kind of view them as a do-whatever-it-takes kind of offense," said Johnson. "When I look at Indy, I don't see them changing formations and personnel packages on a week-to-week basis. They're pretty standard. They're going to throw regardless."
While the Colts give Manning almost complete autonomy at the line of scrimmage when it comes to audibles and play calls, Brady's freedom to freelance is dictated by opponent and game plan.
"It depends on the play, it depends on the situation," said coach Bill Belichick. "It could be from zero to 100. He could have no flexibility and he could have total flexibility, and it could be somewhere in between. It would depend on what play we have called, what the situation is, and how it's set up. And that also changes from game to game. The percentage would fluctuate from game to game, depending on what all of the factors are we want to take into consideration."
Brady said one piece of the Colts' attack the Patriots want to duplicate is the ability to adapt seamlessly to defenses and then exploit their weaknesses.
"They're very balanced and if you decided you want to play a lot of Cover-2 and stop the outside guys, then they run it and throw the ball inside," said Brady. "I think those are things you try to do as an offense. You're not trying to squeeze it into double coverage all day to the outside guys. That's the kind of pressure they put on defenses. I don't know if we're there yet. I think we've got a long way to go."
If Brady previously lusted for targets like Manning has enjoyed in redoubtable receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, and terrifying tight end Dallas Clark, he wasn't telling.
"I don't have a whole lot of what-ifs. We won three Super Bowls," said Brady. "They have great players and they have a great team. We have over the years, too. It's nice being here. It's nice playing with the guys I've had. We've had tremendous players, especially at the receiver position, guys that have left here like Deion [Branch], [David] Givens, and David [Patten] that are still playing really well.
"It's just, you create ways, different ways, when you get new players, to get them the ball, and the different type of routes change. We're still working through things."
That may be true, but even the Patriots' defenders have taken notice of the potency of their revamped offense.
Rodney Harrison said he saw an Indianapolis-type attack being forged in training camp.
"I'm just glad I'm on the Patriots," said Harrison. "I'm glad I don't have to defend those guys, except in practice."