The time has arrived. The New England Patriots (8-0) travel to Indianapolis to play the Colts (7-0) at the RCA Dome.
What can I say on a Saturday night that fans or media have not said already?
The fanfare is well documented. Not once over the course of NFL history have two undefeated teams met so late in the season. As if that weren't enough, destiny was kind enough to make this once-in-a-lifetime event include the modern NFL's version of the Lakers and Celtics. The Colts and Patriots have inexplicably linked destinies, and tomorrow's game is merely another chapter in what will likely be one of the best books ever written about an intra-conference NFL rivalry in the salary cap era.
Patriots have skewed our thinking
The numbers say the Patriots are the best team in the league. And until we know the results of the game tomorrow, we can't really argue otherwise. The Patriots are absolutely thrashing teams this year; no team in the salary cap era has sustained this level of dominance for this long of a stretch.
I think, however, that what we have seen thus far has skewed our thinking. The Patriots have hugely lopsided wins and gaudy statistics, but what do they really mean?
To me, the stats mean the Patriots run up the score. When other teams make a conscious decision to run the football pull starters from the lineup after a game gets out of reach, the Patriots leave their best out on the field and play like the result of the game is still in doubt. I think that's wrong and most of the nation thinks that's right. Whatever.
But the question I pose to you is this: how much stock do we put into the Patriots accumulation of stats when other comparable teams made contrary decisions that affected theirs? In other words, the Patriots are accumulating apples, and the rest are accumulating oranges. The circumstances are totally different because the variables are different. Belichick plays through, most other coaches don't. It's not an accurate comparison.
The Colts will need to do a lot of this on Sunday
The Patriots might be the better team, but I don't think we can really know this until they play each other. Picks from pundits, experts and fancy computer simulations were made with the discrepancy in stats; we should take them for what they are.
What to watch for
On the football side of things, watch for the Colts to feature the running game and look for tight ends in the middle of the field.
The recipe for a Colts victory will be to dominate the line of scrimmage and control the clock. With two pretty good corners in Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs, Manning will find it difficult to get Harrison and Wayne both heavily involved in the game. Just like the AFC Championship Game.
Because of this, the Colts will need to work the middle of the field and attack favorable match-ups between Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai and the Patriots' aging linebackers.
But it all starts with run blocking and pass protection. If the offensive line does its job tomorrow, the Colts will be able to dictate the pace and play keep away from Tom Brady.
Defensively, the Colts will give up a lot of points tomorrow. I look for the Patriots to score into the 30s. We should accept that notion now and move forward.
That being said, all hope isn't lost. The Colts will have to pressure Brady and force him into 3-step drops and quick releases. If Brady can take a comfortable 5-step drop, he'll hit Randy Moss down field just about every time. To get the pressure, I would expect to see the Colts blitz more than usual.
To counter against exposure to the deep ball, though, I expect to see Bob Sanders play more as a traditional safety and less as a fourth line backer. But again, that will be dictated by the amount of pressure the front four gets on Brady. If they can consistently harass Brady, Sanders will be able to play linebacker more frequently because Brady won't have time to throw the home run ball.
Colts 37, Patriots 34
Mike Chappell from the Indianapolis Star wrote an article at the beginning of the season that said the Colts have a home field advantage that's worth 7 points per game. In other words, the Colts essentially have a 7-0 lead before the opening kickoff. As I said earlier, the Patriots might in fact be a better team -- clearly they're better than last year's team -- but I don't think they're 7 points better than the Colts.
For all we've heard about how much the Patriots improved, let's not forget one minor detail: the Colts improved over 2006 as well.
And that seems to have been lost in the mix.