By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
One of the best rivalries in the NFL resumes what seems like it’s annual meeting (and sometimes twice) when the Colts visit Gillette Stadium and the Patriots this Sunday at 4:15 PM. This Colts team is still a very good team, but probably not the juggernaut it has been in other seasons. It is their first visit to Foxborough since 2006 and comes after four straight meetings out in Indianapolis. This could be the game of the year so far for the NFL and on the weekend before Thanksgiving, it comes at a time when the games are becoming more and more important. The Patriots are coming off perhaps their most impressive game of the year, while the Colts are winning despite injuries but do expect several injured players back this week. Personally, I can not wait to see how the young defense does against Manning and company and whether the Patriots can avenge last year’s most emotionally crushing loss of the season.
Peyton Manning (#18), Quarterback: Here in New England we’re all very familiar with Peyton Manning. For years it has been an ongoing debate as to who has had the better franchise and quarterback between the Patriots and the Colts. While Manning has gotten a slight upper hand on Brady statistically, its been Brady whose won more Super Bowls and had more overall ultimate success. Early in his career and in the Bill Belichick years, the Patriots controlled Manning. Even toyed with him at times and forced him sometimes into among the worst games he has had as a pro.
But in recent years, head to head against the Patriots, Manning has pretty much had the Patriots number. Manning had wins in 2005, two in 2006, 2008 and last year 2009. The only loss was during the Patriots 2007 undefeated season and even that was very close. That gives Manning victories in five of his last six against the Patriots. It is very hard to say they have his number anymore. We’ve seen him come back from huge deficits in the AFC Championship Game and again last year in a game that arguably sent the Patriots season tumbling southward. Personally, I think it is obvious that Manning is a great quarterback. He’s benefited from the same coordinator his entire career and an excellent team around him.
But you cannot dispute his passing ability and as a fan rooting against him, he certainly puts you on the edge of your seat every time he has the ball. My dispute with him has always been his post-season play. Sprinkled here and there with good performances, there also are a ton of clunkers and outright chokes. Witness last year’s Super Bowl. While it is natural that a quarterback’s stats would go down somewhat in the postseason as you’re playing exclusively against the best teams in the league, Manning’s numbers go down unusually poorly and would be worse but for a few stellar games. I maintain the Colts won in 2006 mostly on the strength of their defense standing on its head and their running game and Manning tried to pull his usual choke act most of the postseason but for one great half against the Patriots. That one Super Bowl win was largely despite his postseason play that year. In other years, he’s outright cost them a chance at it. I’m not really a fan.
But we’re currently in the regular season, so the Patriots will certainly have their hands full. It’ll be interesting what approach they take. Successful while blitzing Pittsburgh last week, the conventional wisdom against Manning is not to blitz him. And that would seem to fit with this year’s Colts team which has a lot of its weapons hurt. Not a good running team, they’re not lighting it up as usual in the air either. They’re certainly not as explosive. And while it would seem a more coverage than blitz oriented approach may lead to field goal attempts or stalled drives, there is intriguing evidence perhaps blitzing this year’s Colts teams is a good remedy. Gred Bedard in today’s Boston Globe presents the interesting case Manning’s passing this year is at its worst when being blitzed. And Belichick is surely aware of this. Realistically, the Patriots will probably try a combination of things and hope mixing it up will be the recipe. It should be fun to watch the chess match.
Donald Brown (#31), Running Back: A first round choice by the Colts out of Connecticut a couple of years ago, Brown has been a disappointment and could be headed towards bust territory. But with Joseph Addai and Mike Hart out at running back, the Colts have no choice but to rely on Brown this week. Brown, for whatever reason, just has not shown the speed, elusiveness or power he was thought to posses when drafted. Thru 20 career games including postseason, Brown only has two games he has had more than 50 yards rushing. Its not for a lack of opportunity and if the other backs can’t go, the Patriots won’t have to do too much to control Brown and perhaps force the Colts into long yardage third downs.
Jacob Tamme (#84), Tight End: When All-Pro tight end Dallas Clark went down for the season for the Colts earlier this year, I remembered Tamme from college at Kentucky and thought he’d do a good job providing the Colts with a reasonable facsimile. Tamme isn’t the blocker Clark is, but in the passing game he’s quite good and always has been. Starting out as a wide receiver at Kentucky, he was eventually moved to tight end due to his big frame. He ended up starting three years there and led SEC tight ends in receptions both his junior and senior seasons. He doesn’t quite have the down field ability of Clark either, but on short to medium routes he is excellent and has very good hands. The Patriots would be wise to pay close attention to him because despite his limited experience, after Reggie Wayne he’s probably Manning’s second best option in the passing game.
Clint Session (#55), Linebacker: A fourth round pick by the Colts in 2007, Session has quickly established himself as a tough, run stopping, playmaking linebacker that few have heard of. He is not particularly big, but that fits the Colts mold and he relies more on speed and quickness to get to the ball and make the play. Session is good in coverage as well with 4 interceptions and 8 passes defended since 2007. Last year he racked up 103 tackles, displaying his speed in tracking down ball carriers. Earlier this year, Session displayed incredible toughness by dislocating his right elbow and fracturing the forearm yet continuing to play in a November 1st game versus Houston. Session has now missed the last two weeks, but reports as of today are that he could be back for New England. If he is, it’ll go a long way towards the Colts being more stout against the run and covering up backs and tight ends in the passing game. Session is that good.
Antoine Bethea (#41), Safety: Bethea is the lesser-known Colts starting safety to Bob Sanders. But unlike Sanders, he seems to stay on the field healthy. And he always plays well against the Patriots. Drafted in the 6th round, he is another great draft pick by Colts GM Bill Polian. He has started pretty much from day one for the Colts. The Colts usually play a cover-two zone with very deep safeties and they’ll very rarely let a receiver get behind them when they’re playing even or with a lead. And Bethea is a big part of that. Hard to fool and with good ball skills, the Patriots are going to need to rely on a good running game and the short and intermediate passing to beat the Colts, at least early in the game. Bethea is just a solid player who should get more recognition but doesn’t.
Adam Vinatieri (#4), Kicker: What is there to say? We’re all intimately familiar with Vinatieri and with the Colts offense not as explosive as it has been in the past, its likely he’ll be a major player in the game on Sunday. Despite being named AFC Special Teams player of the week this week, the former Patriots hero turned Colt doesn’t quite have the leg he used to. He gets by on good technique and shorter kicks now. Now 37 years old, Vinatieri has only attempted one kick (which he missed) beyond 50 yards since 2008. Outdoors in November his range is probably at best 45 yards for this Sunday. He has been decently accurate from that range in recent years, 5-6 this season, 2-2 last year, but only 4-9 the two seasons prior to that. His leg probably doesn’t get the lift it used to either and he’s had 3 kicks blocked since joining Indianapolis in 5 seasons, including one this year. He only had 3 blocked total the 10 years he was in New England. Still nobody is more clutch than Vinatieri as a kicker and should the game contain big kicks, it’ll be exciting to see if the aging kicker still has it or not. It wouldn’t surprise me if outdoors this time of year, its just too much to ask for him to be perfect and he misses a big kick at some point.