Some might say this is just like old times.
But in a way, this is also much different.
The marquee players have mostly changed. Furthermore, because the Colts are in the second year of a new front-office and coaching regime, there's a new face on what was once arguably one of the NFL’s greatest rivalries. Maybe a game like Saturday’s sparks it up again.
We can hardly wait, and here to break it down for us are ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Mike Wells (Colts):
Reiss: Mike, it used to be the Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning storyline. Now it’s Brady against Andrew Luck. From having watched Luck throughout the season, what have you noticed about him that reflects his growth as the Colts’ franchise player in his second season?
Wells: His maturity and will to win. Both of those elements were on display last weekend when Luck led the Colts to an improbable 45-44 come-from-behind victory over Kansas City after being down by 28 points in the third quarter. It looked like the Colts were going to have a difficult time winning the AFC South after receiver Reggie Wayne was lost for the season with a torn ACL, but Luck continued to work with his young receivers to develop continuity with them. Luck didn’t pass for as many yards this season as he did during his rookie season, but he improved his completion percentage and also cut his interceptions in half from 18 to nine. Reducing his turnovers was huge for Luck. He went from trying to force the issue with his arm to tucking the ball and running or just taking the sack.
I’ve said all season that there’s no better quarterback in the NFL than Brady when it comes to getting the most out of his receivers. Some Colts fans don’t agree with me. You’re around Brady on a regular basis. Why is he able to be successful with a group of relatively unknown receivers?
Reiss: Where to begin? Brady is exceptionally smart, with the recall of a golfer who might go through each shot of his round with vivid detail. Former offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien once nicknamed Brady’s brain “IBM” because it is computer-like, and when you consider that Brady has essentially been in the same offensive system for 14 years, that’s a major advantage. Brady also takes great care of himself physically, having just played every snap of a regular season for the first time of his 14-year career. I think it starts there, and it trickles down to his competitive drive and the feeling that he has an ownership stake in this team. He’s been having weekly film sessions with the young receivers on Tuesdays this year, as he’s almost morphed into another coach who demands excellence. He previously acknowledged that he had to learn to have more patience because of the unique situation and he’s been rewarded for it. It’s been impressive to watch.
We covered the quarterbacks, but let’s not stop there. Tell us more about the Colts’ defense and what linebacker Robert Mathis has done to put himself in the discussion for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Wells: Mathis hasn’t hidden the fact that he came into this season with a glacier-sized chip on his shoulder. He wanted to prove to people that he didn’t need Dwight Freeney starting opposite of him to be effective. Mathis backed it up by leading the league in sacks with 19.5. He became the 30th player in league history to record at least 100 sacks in a career earlier this season. He also set the Colts’ single-season and career sack records. I think Mathis is the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. Mathis has a knack for pulling off one of his customary strip-sacks at the right time. He did it against Manning and the Denver Broncos in Week 7 and he did it again against Kansas City last weekend. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was having his way against the Colts when Mathis forced the turnover. The Colts scored five plays later.
Speaking of defense, how much will the loss of linebacker Brandon Spikes impact New England?
Reiss: I thought Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower summed it up nicely when asked what the Patriots would miss without Spikes. He said, “Intimidation. Fire. He brings that spark to the defense that a lot of people don’t.” Spikes was most effective playing downhill in the running game, which was especially important for the team after losing powerful defensive tackles Vince Wilfork (Sept. 29) and Tommy Kelly (Oct. 6) to season-ending injuries. At times, the Patriots just sent Spikes straight into the heart of the opposing offensive line to account for those injuries. So they’ll have to piece things together, with top draft pick Jamie Collins (52nd overall) and four-year veteran Dane Fletcher the two linebackers who figure to see a spike in playing time. Spikes wasn’t a big factor in sub packages as pass coverage isn’t his forte, so he probably wasn’t going to have a very high snap count in this game anyway. He played 59 percent of the defensive snaps on the season.
We heard Bill Belichick say that if ever there was a Hall of Fame kicker, it was Adam Vinatieri. He just turned 41, is the oldest player in the NFL, and is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. What are your thoughts on his future with the Colts?
Wells: This is going to be a tough decision for the Colts in the offseason. Vinatieri was 35-of-40 on field goals, including four from at least 50 yards, and a perfect 34-of-34 on extra points in the regular season. But he’ll be 42 years by the end of next season. Age and the fact that Vinatieri just handles field goals and extra points are two major things that the Colts will take into consideration this winter. Punter Pat McAfee, who also handles kickoff duties, will be a free agent, too. The Colts have to decide what direction they want to go in the kicking department. If I were a betting man, which I’m not outside of penny slot machines, I’d say Vinatieri will not be back next season. He may end up being a Hall of Famer like Belichick said when he finally decides to hang up his cleats.
The Patriots were a perfect 8-0 at Gillette Stadium during the regular season. Half of those wins were by three points or less, though. Is Gillette Stadium really a home-field advantage for New England?
Reiss: I don’t think this is a home-field advantage like I’ve seen for other teams, such as Seattle with the “12th Man.” That, to me, is at the top of the list based on tough places to play because of the crowd and other factors. In this case, I think what makes the Patriots tough at home is that they are a good team that plays smart, and almost annually develops the type of mental toughness that is necessary to have when playing in the Northeast at this time of year. The Patriots’ home record (regular season and playoffs) since 2002 is 91-18, easily the best mark in the NFL over that span. I see where the Colts are 79-27 at home in that same period, third in the NFL. The Patriots have had some close calls at home this year and no one should be surprised if this game also comes down to the wire.