Who would have thought six months ago that the Patriots and Colts would square off in a Week 11 matchup with identical records and major playoff implications?
Don't count this scribe in that mix, with Indianapolis at the time undergoing a franchise overhaul that included a new general manager, head coach and, of course, a new franchise quarterback.
But the Colts, catalyzed by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and playing inspired football in the absence of head coach Chuck Pagano, who was diagnosed with leukemia earlier this season, are right in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt. And while the Colts are a familiar franchise in these parts because of the countless matchups between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, they have a much different look in 2012.
Here's a brief introduction to the team that has already exceeded expectations in 2012:
Record: 6-3 (second in AFC South)
Head coach: Chuck Pagano
Interim head coach: Bruce Arians
Offensive coordinator: Bruce Arians
Defensive coordinator: Greg Manusky
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. QB Andrew Luck. You probably already know the story on Luck, the top pick in April's draft and the most polished quarterback prospect in years, according to many draft experts. Despite massive expectations about what he would mean to the future of the franchise, Luck already has been better in nine games than most expected, recently setting a rookie record for passing yards in a single game with 432. Luck is on pace for nearly 4,700 passing yards this season, and he's very good as a dropback passer. He's a good athlete to boot, with five rushing scores already.
2. WR Reggie Wayne. Wayne was a hot commodity on the free-agent market, but ended up re-signing with the Colts this past offseason in a move some questioned at the time. Why would a veteran receiver head back to a rebuilding team? Apparently Wayne knew more than the rest of us, as he's been a major part in the Colts' resurgence, trailing only Calvin Johnson of the Lions in terms of receiving yards. Wayne gets it done all over the field, and he's no stranger to the Patriots' secondary either.
3. OT Anthony Castonzo. Castonzo is familiar to many in New England, as he starred at Boston College before becoming the Colts' top draft choice back in 2011. The 24-year old has a Nate Solder-esque build at 6-foot-7 and just over 300 pounds, and has been part of an improving Colts offensive line. We'll be locked in on the one-on-one matchups between Castonzo and Chandler Jones on Sunday.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. DE Robert Mathis. Mathis missed last Thursday's game against the Jaguars due to a groin injury, but when healthy, he's a top pass-rushing threat. He leads the Colts with six sacks this season despite having missed four games due to injury, and he's a menace to contain on the edge. The Patriots have done well to contain Mathis in their two most recent meetings, but they'll face another stiff test if Mathis suits up on Sunday.
2. LB Jerrell Freeman. Don't recognize this name? Freeman is a newcomer on the scene, a former Canadian Football League player suiting up for his first games in the NFL in 2012 and making an immediate impact. He leads all Colts with 73 tackles and has three games in which he totaled 13, 14 and 14 stops respectively. The Colts have instituted a new defensive scheme under Pagano this season, and Freeman already has found a thriving role in it.
3. CB Vontae Davis. When news broke that Davis was traded out of the AFC East this offseason (he formerly played for the Dolphins), Patriots receivers were likely very happy. Davis is a big-time talent and playmaker at cornerback, although his availability for Sunday is unknown as he recovers from a knee injury. As a rookie in 2009, Davis picked off Tom Brady in each of the matchups between the Patriots and Dolphins, and though he has yet to record an interception in Indianapolis, Davis is a player of note in the secondary.
2012 RECAP THROUGH NINE GAMES
The Colts' season thus far has been defined by their ascension after a miserable 2011, as well as the courage exuded by Pagano in his battle with leukemia and the team's ability to rally around his recovery. The Colts slipped to a quick 1-2 start, but have since won five of six games, including an impressive decision over the Green Bay Packers. We saw the team up close and personal last Thursday night during their appearance on national television, and though Luck wasn't at his best, the Colts overwhelmed the Jaguars. On offense, the running game remains a work in progress, while the defense is improving as well. The Colts have been extremely poor at forcing turnovers, with a league-low total of just eight combined interceptions and forced fumbles. Starting cornerback Jerraud Powers was recently placed on injured reserve, and the Patriots likely will be facing an undermanned secondary on Sunday.