The Game of the Century is now the game of the week, though even that is open to debate. Fifty-two weeks have passed since the Patriots last took on the Indianapolis Colts. When they meet again on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, a national audience certainly will know that time has not treated these teams well.
Patriots and Colts. It just doesn’t seem to have the same cachet anymore, does it? A year ago at this time, entering Week 9 of the 2007 season, the 8-0 Pats and 7-0 Colts were teams on a collision course with history. No one else really seemed to matter. The meeting came less than a year after the Colts’ historic comeback against the Patriots in the 2007 AFC championship game, only adding additional layers to what had become the best rivalry in football.
In the end, the Patriots eked out a 24-20 victory that sprung them to an undefeated regular season, the first 16-0 campaign in NFL history. The Colts finished a mere 13-3. Most assumed the teams would meet again for the AFC championship at Foxborough until the San Diego Chargers upset the Colts in a divisional playoff. Three weeks after that, the New York Giants upset the Patriots by a 17-14 count in Super Bowl XLII.
Since then, a most extraordinary thing has happened: The Pats and Colts have fallen back toward the pack. Already this season, Indianapolis (3-4) has lost as many regular-season games as in any full campaign since 2002; the Pats similarly have lost any air of invincibility. New England enters the game with a 5-2 mark, but the Patriots are succeeding thanks to guile and grit, a soft schedule, and the manipulations of a coach who must know, deep down, that he has a flawed team.
Last week, in the wake of an ugly 23-16 victory over the St. Louis Rams, Patriots coach Bill Belichick took his customary place at the podium in a conference room just outside the home locker room at Gillette Stadium. Truth be told, the room resembles a lecture hall, the coach looking up at tiered rows of seats as if he were a college professor. Belichick immediately began his opening statement, as he always does, offering an overview of the day and game before taking questions.
But prior to opening the floor, the coach concluded his initial remarks with this:
“Now it’s on to Indianapolis. We know what kind of test that will be.”
We did, once.
But do we anymore?
Do we really?
What went wrong
As is always the case with the Pats and Colts, the discussion begins with the quarterbacks. On their 16th play of the season, the Pats lost reigning league MVP Tom Brady to a crippling knee injury that knocked him out for the season. They promptly turned over their offense to Matt Cassel, a career backup who had not started a game since high school.
Entering Week 9, for those who believe that such efficiency can be measured, Cassel ranks 19th among the 35 qualifying NFL quarterbacks in passer rating.
Peyton Manning ranks 22nd.
On the surface, at least, what this suggests is that the Patriots somehow have been better off without Brady than the Colts have been with Manning, at least to date. In the Colts’ 31-21 loss to the unbeaten Tennessee Titans on Monday night in Nashville, Manning threw two touchdown passes and two interceptions, leaving his respective season totals at 10 and nine. (Cassel has seven touchdowns, six picks.) This comes during a season in which the Colts’ defense has looked every bit as spineless as it did during the 2006 regular season, when Indianapolis dramatically altered the results in the postseason en route to a Super Bowl win over the Chicago Bears.
The difference now, as the Patriots are similarly learning, is that the quarterback can no longer mask the deficiencies.
Late in Monday’s loss to the Titans, the Colts twice failed to convert on fourth down, only reinforcing the notion that the offense can no longer pick up the defense. The defeat left Indianapolis four games behind the unbeaten Titans in the AFC South, all but ensuring that the Colts will have to qualify for the postseason as a wild card and raising serious questions about whether they will reach the postseason at all.
“We didn’t execute and score more points than them,” Manning told reporters after the game. “We had a couple of good drives at times. ...We had it within a touchdown and then [were stymied by] two fourth-down stops. That kind of ended up being the difference in the game. Those are fourth downs that we have to be able to convert. It would have been nice to get them on third down. Those were disappointing.”
For Manning, arguably the most prolific passer of all time, the signs are especially worrisome. After he missed the entire preseason, much of the speculation surrounding him concerns the health of his left knee. Sound familiar? Manning’s nine interceptions this year match his season total from 2006; last year, he threw only 14. Beginning in 2003, Manning’s yearly INT totals are 10, 10, 10, 9, 14 and, now, 9 again, though this year’s number has come in a mere seven games.
As things stand, Manning is on pace for 21 interceptions, the third-highest total of his career and most since 2001.
Since the reign of commissioner Pete Rozelle, the NFL has worn parity like a gaudy fur coat. The idea is that anyone can beat anyone else, anywhere, anytime. Hence the phrase any given Sunday.
Yet, for much of this millennium, the opposite has been true:
The Patriots and Colts have ruled.
Beginning after the 2001 season, when the Patriots made their improbable run to their first Super Bowl title, the Patriots or Colts have played in five of the seven Super Bowls, winning four. During that same span, entering this season, the Pats had gone a league-best 86-26 in regular-season play; the Colts ranked second at 79-33. Belichick and the Colts’ Tony Dungy have established themselves as the premier coaches in the league, Brady and Manning as the premier quarterbacks.
This year, for as much talk as there has been about balance throughout the league — particularly in the AFC — the truth is that New England and Indianapolis have fallen victim to parity, for varying reasons. Cassel is not Brady. Manning is not himself. For both teams, what were once regarded as invulnerable strengths have exposed an array of weaknesses in what could nonetheless prove a decisive contest.
For the Colts, in particular, the 2008 season could be at stake.
So now, where the Patriots and Colts once gave us the premier quarterbacks of their era, we get this, among other things: flaw vs. flaw. A far less efficient Colts passing attack goes up against a wounded and inexperienced Patriots secondary, for instance, and even the great Belichick does not know what to expect.
“Well, we’ll see how things go. Tune in Sunday night,” Belichick said. “I don’t know if I’m ready for them. We’ll find out on Sunday night.”
All things considered, take solace.
The Colts aren’t ready for the Patriots, either.
Tony Massarotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti.