FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It appears that the luster of the Patriots-Colts rivalry has returned after a one-year hiatus.
Rookie sensation Andrew Luck has made an efficient offense out of one that could barely get out of its own way in 2011, and the team has played inspired football in the absence of head coach Chuck Pagano during his treatment for leukemia.
All of sudden memories of a 2-14 season are fading, and the transition from Peyton Manning to his heir apparent has gone even smoother than expected. The Colts are 6-3, firmly entrenched in the playoff mix in the AFC, and looking to upend the Patriots for their fifth straight win.
New England, meanwhile, is looking for its fourth straight win and fourth at home in 2012. The goings have been tougher at home than previous seasons, with a trio of wins by an average margin of just over six points. But the Patriots once again find themselves atop the AFC East and in prime position to run away with the division with a strong second half.
With kickoff drawing close, here’s a look at five things we’ll be watching on Sunday.
1. The new rivalry begins. Can the Pats faze Luck? No longer does a Patriots vs. Colts showdown mean Brady vs. Manning. Now, it’s Brady vs. the Kid, Andrew Luck. Nominally, he’s a rookie, but he sure doesn’t play like one. Nonetheless, the Patriots need to mix up coverages to force Luck into making “rookie mistakes.” That’s much easier said than done, but Bill Belichick remains one of the brightest defensive minds in football and a creative game planner. In the Colts’ weakest performance of the season, a Week 5 blowout loss to the Jets, New York forced two interceptions of Luck and sacked him four times. Causing havoc for Luck resulted in a long day for the rookie. Can the Patriots do the same on Sunday?
2. Talib’s (likely) debut. Can cornerback Aqib Talib turn the Patriots’ fortunes around in the secondary? Truth be told, few cornerbacks can make a 29th-ranked pass defense into an elite one, but he sure helps. What will be interesting to monitor is how, if at all, the Patriots alter their defensive strategies and concepts with Talib in the fold. Will they tilt coverage to the side opposite of Talib and allow him to play on an island? Will they increase the pressure up front and follow-in with man coverage behind? Should Devin McCourty start at safety and Talib at cornerback, who moves down the depth chart? There are plenty of questions related to this move, and the domino effect will be of note in the early goings.
3. Exposing Indy’s secondary. The Colts have endured a different form of futility in their secondary this season than the Patriots; specifically, a failure to force turnovers on a regular basis. Their four interceptions are tied for the fewest in the NFL, and a pair of those came in a win over the hapless Jaguars in Week 10. Beyond the turnover-forcing struggles, the Colts will also be without top cornerback Vontae Davis. The Patriots have an opportunity to pick on the Colts’ secondary, although their own weapons won’t necessarily be at 100 percent.
4. Speaking of those weapons. The Patriots are facing the possibility of being without two of their top targets, with both Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez nursing ankle injuries that have their statuses up in the air as of now. *UPDATE: On Saturday night, the Patriots waived receiver Deion Branch, who had popped up on Thursday’s injury report with a hamstring issue, and promoted Greg Salas from the practice squad to the active roster (link here). That could open the door for more playing time for tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and receiver Julian Edelman, among others. Beyond the injuries at the skill positions, the Patriots are dealing with offensive line issues, as starting guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly have been absent from practice this week.
5. Third down focus. Percentage-wise, no offense has been better than the Patriots on third down. Few teams have been stouter on third down than Indianapolis, who has allowed only 41 successful conversions, the sixth-lowest total in the NFL. So on Sunday, something will have to give. The Patriots let themselves down late in the game against Buffalo in Week 10 on third down, and will need to beef up the efficiency against Indianapolis. If Hernandez goes, he would really open up the playbook for New England on both third down and near the goal line.