FOXBORO — Since the early days of the 21st century — since Bryan Cox blasted Jerome Pathon, to be exact — no two NFL teams have delivered a better rivalry than the Patriots and the Colts. And as usual, in the days leading up to Sunday night’s game in Indianapolis, both sides have done their level best to downplay the importance of the game. Most of the time, they’ve had a straight face when they’ve done it, too.
But running back Kevin Faulk knows better. He’s played in more games against the Colts than anyone in the Patriots locker room. In all, he’s played in 15 games between the two teams, dating back to 1999 when Jim Mora and Pete Carroll were walking the sidelines and the games were played at the RCA Dome and Foxboro Stadium.
The 33-year-old, who has gone 9-6 as a member of the Patriots against Indianapolis, knows that for all the official talk about this being just another game, it’s more than that. It’s not an apocalyptic showdown between good and evil, but there’s certainly more at stake than most people are letting on.
“It is just another game. But at the same time, you know it’s bigger than that,” Faulk acknowledged on Thursday morning during a quiet moment in the New England locker room. “You know that the winner of this game, down the line, is going to have a comfort zone a little bit.”
Things likely will get awfully comfortable for the winner — the Patriots and Colts, as well as the Broncos, Steelers and Bengals, all sit in command of the AFC playoff picture. A win over another team at the top would go a long way when the playoff seedings start to come into focus over the next month. At the very least, the winner of this game has to feel good about its chances to get one of the top two seeds, which would guarantee a weekend off when the postseason rolls around.
Plus, says Faulk, there’s a chance to add another great memory to the already long history of the Patriots-Colts rivalry.
“My fondest memories of these games are winning them, no matter how you did it. They won the game last year. So, I need that memory this year,” Faulk said with a smile. “And hopefully, we can get it.”
Here are four other things to watch for Sunday night in Indianapolis:
Dallas Cark vs. Brandon McGowan. This is the must-see matchup of the game. Clark is a tight end without peer, while McGowan has developed a rep as a tight end stopper. McGowan cuffed around Tony Gonzalez (one catch against McGowan) and Kellen Winslow (two catches against McGowan) pretty thoroughly earlier this season while working in the safety/linebacker hybrid role that Rodney Harrison perfected with the Patriots. Now, McGowan gets his shot at Clark. Look for him to be handsy with Clark at the line, playing him physically right up on the line of scrimmage.
“He’s a good tight end,” McGowan said of Clark, whose 60 receptions lead the AFC. "I see Peyton likes him and he likes the other receivers. The defensive backs are going to have our hands full this week.”
Harrison — like many other New Englanders — has become a fan of McGowan’s self-described “reckless” style of play. The Maine product enters Sunday night’s game with three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery this season and 46 tackles, good for second-best on the team. It’s too early to anoint McGowan as the heir apparent to No. 37, but he’s certainly earned Harrison’s respect.
“I watched him play well against Tony Gonzalez,” Harrison said of McGowan. “He’s a guy that’s a smart kid. He's always in the right place.”
Randy Moss and Wes Welker vs. the Indianapolis secondary. Last Sunday, Moss and Welker faced a pair of rookie Miami cornerbacks in Sean Smith and Vontae Davis. The Patriots went right after them early — Brady targeted Moss eight times and Welker seven in the first half — and the duo feasted to the tune of a combined 15 catches for 231 yards and a touchdown.
Last Friday, the Colts placed Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders, cornerback Marlin Jackson and linebacker Tyjuan Hagler on injured reserve. In addition, cornerback Kelvin Hayden will be out as long as four weeks. Instead, on Sunday night, a pair of rookies — undrafted free-agent Jerraud Powers and third-round pick Jacob Lacey — are expected to get the call at corner, while Melvin Bullitt will start in place of Sanders.
While Powers has played well, that could mean good things for the New England passing attack, and Moss in particular. If he goes off like he did last week (six catches, 147 yards, one touchdown, one Hall of Fame stiff-arm), it will very likely mean the difference in the game.
“[Sanders and Gonzalez] are fine football players, great leaders and members of our team,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “The thing about it, though, we’ve had young people step up and do a great job in their absence. We’ll continue on that path.”
The Indianapolis pass rush. Because the Colts secondary is so banged up, Indianapolis will look to cut down on the coverage time for its defensive backs by trying to hurry Brady by any means necessary. That will likely mean an aggressive pass rush from the Colts, who will likely try to get Dwight Freeney — who has sacks in nine consecutive games — into advantageous situations against New England’s rookie left tackle, Sebastian Vollmer, who is expected to start another game in place of the injured Matt Light.
While Indianapolis is going to come hard after Tom Brady, don’t look for a whole lot of blitzing, according to Bill Belichick.
“I wouldn’t classify them as a blitzing team, but you can’t go to sleep on it or they will pressure you. Most of the time they get a lot of pressure from those front four and they use all of them,” Belichick said.
“It’s not just Freeney and [Robert] Mathis, although it’s certainly them, but it’s [Raheem] Brock, [Keyunta] Dawson, [Daniel] Muir — all those guys — [Antonio] Johnson, but they have them extend some pressure probably a little more than they have in the past and they’ve gotten some plays out of it.”
The New England running game. When playing the Colts and Manning, the classic approach to beating them is keeping the Indianapolis offense off the field. It didn’t exactly work for the Dolphins earlier this season, but more often than not, controlling the clock against the Colts is a recipe for success.
While Fred Taylor is definitely out, Sammy Morris is inching closer to a return. That leaves New England with Kevin Faulk, Laurence Maroney and BenJarvus Green-Ellis to carry the load. Maroney, who has run for 248 total yards the last three games (an average of 5.1 yards per carry) will likely get the bulk of the carries when the Patriots try and rush the ball against an Indianapolis run defense that is yielding an average of 108 rushing yards per game, tied for 14th in the league.
“It’s going to come down to what it always comes down to — keep the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands,” said former Pats tight end Christian Fauria, who was part of the rivalry from 2002 through 2005.
Fauria believes that the Patriots will be able to run against the Colts.
“I think you need to run on them,” Fauria said. “They’re still small, and they still scheme people to death. The Pats have always had good success good success running the ball against them, and this week should be no exception.
“You have to know how to block them. They stunt a lot, so huge holes open up,” he added. “They’re fast, but not big enough to stop you. They can be pushed around. They can’t hold up.”