The Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots have shared what arguably has been the best rivalry in American professional sports for much of the previous decade.
Who can forget New England’s triumphs against Peyton Manning in the snow in Foxborough, Mass. during both the 2003 and 2004 playoffs? Or the epic Colts comeback in the 2006 AFC Championship game en route to Super Bowl glory?
In truth, the NFL largely has become what it is today because of these two teams (all-time great quarterbacks, as well as Bill Polian’s successful lobbying for rules changes after the 2003 AFC Championship game).
Now, though, the rivalry welcomes a new significant face: Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.
True enough, rookie quarterbacks haven’t won against Tom Brady’s Patriots in Foxborough, but Luck is the biggest reason the Colts, picked by many analysts to rank near the bottom of the league this season, are 6-3, the same record the Patriots carry entering Sunday’s showdown at Gillette Stadium.
A few of Luck’s traditional statistics — his 57.5-percent completion rate, nine interceptions and 79.1 passer rating — might not look special on the surface, but the rookie has played far better this season than those figures suggest (he’s completed 68.4 percent, 62.5 percent and 69.2 percent of his passes in each of his last three games). His third-down prowess has proven a major difference maker in Indy’s recent surge, particularly in its win against the Miami Dolphins, and he’s displayed tremendous ability to make plays with his feet, both avoiding the pass rush and gaining yardage with 13 first-down scrambles (not to mention five rushing touchdowns).
ESPN’s Total QBR, which factors quarterbacks’ statistics and performances in key situations, suggests Luck has meant as much to his team’s success as many of the elite quarterbacks in the game. He ranks fourth in the league in total QBR, just below Brady, who stands second.
Luck could be problematic for the Patriots’ pass defense, which ranks 29th in the NFL. I keep hearing analysts say coach Bill Belichick will take away his opponent’s best offensive playmaker, but who in that New England secondary is talented enough to match up with Reggie Wayne, who ranks near the top of the league in receptions and yardage while enjoying a rejuvenating season with Luck? The Patriots did recently trade for cornerback Aqib Talib, who has shut-down potential when his head is on straight, but is he going to be able to play at that level against Wayne in just his first game with New England off a suspension?
Of course, there’s that whole rookies-in-Foxborough deal again. Also, the Patriots defense does have a legitimately sound pass rush for the first time since … well, Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel? Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones is showing why Belichick traded up in the first round to acquire him. The first-year man from Syracuse has recorded six sacks, has forced three fumbles and has knocked down three passes, prompting defenses to give him extra attention and allow other rushers some chances at the quarterback. I’m interested to see how well Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo handles Jones and how Luck responds to what could be heavy pressure throughout the game.
The same can pretty much be said on the other sides for either team. We all know what Brady and the Patriots offense are capable of, and we know the Colts’ shaky pass defense could face trouble with both starting corners, Jerraud Powers (injured-reserve) and Vontae Davis, out (though it will be interesting to see if former Patriots and current Colts corner Darius Butler is able to build off his three-takeaway game at Jacksonville against his old team today). And we know rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis always love to get after Brady.
A lot of new twists to the Colts-Patriots classic. Many people might not have imagined this would be the case before the season, but the two rivals square off with playoff implications once again … and could they meet again in the postseason?