This week’s game on Monday Night Football against the Indianapolis Colts will be an important bench mark for the Patriots. If they can not raise their level of play as the season moves into November against arguably the toughest opponent in the NFL they could face, that would indicate the strong possibility this just won’t be the Patriots year this year. But its too early to say that just yet. Not until this game is played. This is a big game. Its been an up and down year for the Patriots, inconsistent in every way. There can be no disputing that. But its time to play. They’ll need to stop with the inconsistencies, start to gell as a team and perform at a higher level than they have so far. It has to start this week.

Everyone knows the challenge it is to face the Indianapolis offense. They are efficient, they can run and pass, they are generally careful with the ball and they can beat you over the top if you aren’t careful. The Colts have been less explosive, albeit still dangerous, on offense this year. This is, to some degree, by design. Having learned from watching and losing to the Patriots for a few years now, they are attempting to incorporate the lessons into a game more suited to the playoffs and late season games. They are running more. They aren’t taking as many shots downfield. They are working the clock. They are cautious at times. And they are willing to take what the defense gives them.

In the past, what the Patriots defense has given them is the short dump off stuff and, at times, the run. Then you wait for a mistake to be made, or a forced throw, or a fumble or a great play by someone on the Patriots defense. Indianapolis has at times tried to adapt to this philosophy by running more against the Patriots and taking the short stuff in the flats to tight ends and backs. The difference is, this year, that is what the Colts WANT to do. They’ve changed their game.

So, if as often is said to be the case, Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s strength and philosophy as a defensive strategist is to take away what the opposing offense does best, then that may translate into a slightly altered defensive game plan than the plan the Patriots have used against the Colts in the past. Belichick, ever conscious of staying one step ahead of what the opposing coach expects, may elect to play run-based defenses a bit more against the Colts this year. He may use less defensive backs than in years past and get linebackers out in the flats looking for Colts back Edgerrin James, Dominic Rhodes and tight end Dallas Clark. He may look to blitz occasionally and more than he has in the past. Take away the run and the dump off routes. Flood the flats and you may be able to sneak a blitzer or two in on Colts quarterback Peyton Manning as he switches off the short routes he expects to be open and tries to find guys downfield more. But on occasion, he may run out of time and suffer a sack or hurry a throw and have it go off target.

Then late in the game, if the Patriots have a lead, they can switch back to the more traditional eight in coverage, multi-corner cover two defense the Colts are expecting and the Patriots have used in the past. Except playing from behind, perhaps you get some forces as you have in the past. Perhaps you get some errant throws. The Colts will rush. They’ll get frustrated again. And the hammer will come down on them.

The Colts receivers all have very low averages per catch this year as they run shorter more conservative routes. Their yards after catch averages are abysmal. Take away the conservative, shorter routes the Colts have turned to by choice this year, then adjust for the more downfield looks they’re not as accustomed to running this year and the Patriots may have done it once again. The Colts will have fallen back into the trap. And the Patriots will once again have the advantage. They’ll have outsmarted, out prepared and out played the Colts one more time. And it will be ballgame.

Some specific areas the Patriots can look to take advantage on are found in the middle of the Colts offensive line. The Colts lost both their starting guards in the offseason. The two new guys are not as good as the departed guys. In the past, Patriots defensive lineman Jarvis Green has had a field day against the Colts as an inside rusher. Against the weaker Indianapolis guards, this may be an area the Patriots can exploit once again on passing downs. Inside rushing in particular will be important for the Patriots as Manning isn’t nearly as effective when you get him rolling, to either side. Pressure up the middle needs to be a focus from the Patriots on passing downs.

The Colts defense remains a smaller, quicker unit that doesn’t stack up as well against physical, power running teams. They give up 4.5 yards per run. Patriots running back Corey Dillon ran wild against the Colts in the playoffs last year and, if he is healthy, there is no doubt he could do it again. The Patriots simply have a stronger, more physical team that should be able to overpower the Colts defense once again. Again, the hitch being Dillon’s health which is somewhat of a question mark. But given the way Dillon ran last week, it should be expected Dillon will have a productive night once again and the run should be a major focus for the Patriots after they establish a lead in the second half.

And to get the lead, the Patriots should be able to throw the ball. The Patriots have never had a problem doing that against the Colts, with one word of caution. The Colts do have effective pass rushers and use of backs and tight ends to help with them will be a neccessity. That being said, the Patriots should be able to make plays on the Colts corners. Patriots speed guys at receiver Andre Davis, Deion Branch and Bethel Johnson could have an opportunities to make plays well downfield. Some of the younger Colts defensive backs, such as Marlin Jackson, while talented, do try to jump routes a little too often which leads them exposed to hitch and go routes further down the field. Look for the Patriots to try and exploit that and they should complete some so long as they can hold off the Colts dangerous pass rush.

Expect the Patriots to throw a lot early, try to get a lead, then run it as they try to bait the Colts into the trap the defense is setting described above. They’ll do it and they’ll get that lead, because when all is said and done, they have a more balanced, efficient and effective outdoor offense than the Colts have.

A fairly even matchup here, but a bit of an advantage to the Patriots. Both teams have good kickers and punters, though Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt isn’t nearly as effective outdoors as he is when Indianapolis is home in a dome. Indianapolis did give up a kick return for a TD in their last game and the Patriots have had some success against them in the past in this area. They should have some shots at long returns again this week. The Colts return game has not proven very dangerous so far this year with poor averages for both their punt and kick return teams.

At the end of the day, the Patriots are at home. They have no excuses against a top notch opponent who they know are gunning for them and have been for years not to play a good game. They’ve done it before, they will again. The Patriots once again send a message to the NFL and a nationwide audience they are not done yet and the champ won’t be rolling over this year. The Patriots beat the Colts Monday night, 34-17.