Still some sizzle, but lesser stakes
INDIANAPOLIS - Turn back the clock last night? Never mind one hour. How 'bout going back a full year?
Last year Patriots-Colts was Ali-Frazier III. It was the 18-12 (Manning-Brady) Overture. It was the Regular-Season Game Of The Last Two Centuries, the battle of unbeaten bands, the most hyped non-playoff game in league history. The NFL Network devoted 36 hours of pregame coverage to Patriots-Ponies on Nov. 4, 2007. It was presented as the de facto Super Bowl. Tom Brady entered the game with 30 touchdown passes and two interceptions.
The Patriots' 24-20 win lived up to the hype, part of New England's inexorable, undefeated march to Glendale, Ariz. It was the last Patriots-Colts game played at the RCA Dome.
Tonight we have the Bradyless Patriots against the sub.-500 Colts in Lucas Oil (Can Boyd) Stadium.
Sorry, it's just not the same. Like Brady, Rodney Harrison, and those unblemished records . . . the thrill is gone. Patriots-Colts 2008 is not even the NFL Game of the Weekend - that distinction goes to Giants-Cowboys.
Still, it is a game of considerable consequence, one that should make you nervous if you root for the Patriots.
It's fashionable this fall to dump on the downtrodden Colts. In the previous three seasons, Indianapolis started 7-0, 9-0, and 13-0. Going into their matchups against the Patriots, they were 7-0 each of the last three years. The Colts were defending Super Bowl champs when the Patriots last visited the Hoosier State. Now they are 3-4 and lame-duck coach Tony Dungy has virtually conceded the AFC South to the Tennessee Titans.
Things haven't been the same here since Indianapolis was stunned by the San Diego Chargers in the playoffs last winter, denying us a chance to see Manning back at Gillette for another conference championship showdown. Folks in Indy were still getting over the playoff loss when Manning had surgery on a staph-infected bursa in his left knee in July. Manning's recovery was slowed by a second procedure on the knee. He missed all of training camp.
Patriots fans gave little mind to details of Manning's woes until Brady experienced difficulties after his initial knee surgery Oct. 6. Now even casual listeners of Patriot Infomercial Radio are experts on methicillin-resistant staphylococcus and infectious disease control.
Bottom line: Manning, who has never missed a game, is not the same player and these are not the same Colts. He has 10 touchdown passes and nine interceptions (Matt Cassel has seven TDs and six picks). Manning's quarterback rating (79) is lower than Cassel's (84.6).
Indy's surgical-strike quarterback doesn't have as many weapons, nor does he have enough time to get rid of the ball. His timing and rhythm have been short-circuited and he has been forced to play from behind all season. The Colts could easily be 1-6. They haven't been able to run the ball and for the first four weeks of the season they couldn't stop anybody's running game.
But they are still dangerous, they are desperate, and they are at home - just like the Chargers were when Bill Belichick and his players toured California last month.
The Colts also are getting some players back from injury, including running back Joseph Addai and all-world safety Bob Sanders. It's a combustible mix for a Patriots team learning to live without Brady, depleted in both backfields. Even with a hoodied genius plugging holes and devising schemes, it's difficult to win without talent and experience at cornerback and safety. Especially against Manning playing at home on a dry, fast surface.
Jake LaMotta used to say, "I fought Sugar Ray Robinson so many times, it's amazing I didn't get diabetes." That pretty much sums up Patriots-Colts. This will be the ninth meeting between the teams in the last six seasons. Belichick, rarely given to humor or hyperbole, said, "We have had so many games with them and so much history with this team, the scouting report looks like a phone book."
Lucas Oil Stadium is another new wrinkle. It's massive. It makes the adjacent RCA Dome look like a guard shack.
"I know it will be a dynamic atmosphere up there Sunday night, a lot of noise, a lot of energy, a new stadium," said Belichick. "I am sure it will be very challenging for us, and hopefully we will be prepared, up for it, and ready to go."
They will be ready. We're all ready. It's a fascinating matchup. But it's hard to be here this weekend and not think about the past.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.