FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots' road game against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night reminds me a little bit of the Patriots-Colts games from the early 2000s.
In those years, a young Indianapolis quarterback named Peyton Manning was looking to get over the hump against Bill Belichick, who seemed to have his number.
Fast-forward to 2012, 2013 and now 2014, and Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck finds himself in a similar situation. The Patriots have made the talented Luck look bad at times the past two years, but is this the year that Luck finally breaks through with his first win against New England?
That's one of the compelling storylines heading into another highly anticipated game.
Meanwhile, for those in the Indianapolis area, feel free to stop by and say hello on Saturday night. If my flight is on time, I'll be heading over to Shapiro's around 6:30 and be there until it closes around 8 p.m. I'll update my travel status on Twitter, and while I can't guarantee what will happen in Sunday's game, I can guarantee this: You won't find a better corned beef sandwich than right there.
Here we go:
Q. Hi Mike, not to crown anyone too early, but I am feeling pretty confident going into the tough road ahead. That being said, winning all of the next four games (five if you want to include Miami) would be impressive. Which of the next few matchups do you see as the toughest for this team based on the way it has been playing? To me, Detroit has the right combination of strong D-line play and a balanced offense to give us fits. Your thoughts? -- Bob (Washington, D.C.)
A. The Lions are tough, but one thing about that game is that it's at Gillette Stadium. If it was in Detroit, I might lean in that direction. Calvin Johnson vs. Darrelle Revis and/or Brandon Browner has potential to be an unforgettable matchup. Of the next stretch of games, the one that I'd put atop the list as the toughest challenge -- based on the present snapshot -- is Nov. 30 at Green Bay. That's a tough place to win a football game, because of the venue and the team that plays there.
Q. Hi Mike, this stretch of games from Denver to the end of the season is going to be a tough one. What are the odds that we can get through this stretch undefeated? What do you predict our record to be at season's end? Also, does anyone in the NFL have a harder string of games this year? Seems like we play a division leader or playoff contender each week from here on out (aside from the Jets, of course). -- Brad (Scottsdale, Arizona)
A. Brad, I liked Tedy Bruschi's outlook on this topic. He said the Patriots could go undefeated, or lose every game, because that's what the NFL is -- unpredictable. He used the Jets' win over the Steelers as an example of something few saw coming. But I'll play along; I think they probably have one loss left in there, maybe two. As for the schedule, so much changes from week to week that it's almost impossible to judge this stretch of the schedule relative to others. For example, after the Bengals opened 3-0 and had a bye before their Week 5 game against the Patriots, they looked hot. But the Patriots played a terrific game and exposed them. Ditto for the Bears in a sense, as their Week 2 win at San Francisco was as good as any road performance I had seen up to the point they visited New England on Oct. 26 (the Bears were 3-1 on the road at the time). That's why I think the best approach is to go week to week. It's not necessarily who you play, but when you play them. I don't view the wins over the Bengals and Bears any differently now that the wheels have come off for those clubs. The wheels were on when they played the Patriots and they were a legitimate threat. It truly is a week-to-week league.
Q. Hey Mike! The Patriots offense has looked great so far since the game vs. the Chiefs. Do you think Tom Brady's unit will be able to keep up similar production for the remainder of the year, or do you see this as more of a hot streak that won't last forever? The run game is worrisome to me and I think it might hold them back come playoff time. -- Joe (Niagara Falls, New York)
A. Joe, it might be difficult to match the recent production -- they're averaging 40 points per game over their past five wins -- but I think they'll still move the ball and score points. On the running game, it's been inconsistent but they've shown they can do it -- 122 yards against the Bears, 220 against the Bengals, 150 against the Vikings. So it's not like the flashes haven't been there, and even in games where they haven't put up such big numbers, they've committed to it enough to have effective play-action passing possibilities out of it. I understand the worry, and it's fair, but I've seen enough to think they can get the production they need in that area.
Q. Mike, What are your thoughts on Aaron Dobson? Is he done in New England? For someone who had such momentum at the end of the season last year to not even be able to contribute as special-teamer makes it seem like he is in Josh McDaniels' doghouse. -- Greg (San Ramon, California)
A. I definitely don't think he's done, Greg. I'm playing a hunch here, but I think we could see him on the field this week. I wrote about it a little bit on Sunday and he's basically battling Brian Tyms for a spot on the game-day roster. Dobson might now have an opening to re-emerge.
Q. Hi Mike. With Darrelle Revis having time to settle into a Patriots system that could provide opportunities to win championships, do you think the team's success will help his decision to stay put (at most likely less than top dollar) or will his individual success prompt him to seek out top dollar and ultimately his exit? -- Elee
A. My sense is that it will be a combination. He's a shrewd businessman who will want to maximize everything he can, but he doesn't strike me as a player who would pick a place like Oakland right now over New England if it meant taking slightly less to stay here.
Q. Mike, I saw that you mentioned penalties as an area for improvement coming out of the bye week. I'm wondering if you have any insight on how the team views Brandon Browner's role and whether penalty concerns will impact how they utilize him in the future. I'm of the opinion that you have to let him play his game and take the penalties as a byproduct. Do you have an opinion on this based on your experience covering the team and your knowledge of the coaching staff? -- Bob (Washington, D.C.)
A. Bob, I don't think we'll see Browner's role affected by his high penalty total (seven in three games) unless there is an in-game case where the Patriots feel he could benefit from a quick break. But I don't think this is a situation where the coaches are saying, "We need to limit this player's snaps because of the penalties."
Q. Hi Mike, I was surprised by tight end Rob Gronkowski's poignant defense of, and pride in, Tom Brady after the Bengals game. Have you noticed a change in the locker room environment since? I've lamented for a couple years that cutaways to Brady in games showed him on the bench frequently sitting and brooding rather than the more animated antics for the majority of his career. The Bengals game seemed to reignite that passion and behavior on the sideline? Have you noticed any tangible change in your daily coverage? -- Tom B. (Encinitas, California)
A. Tom, I haven't noticed a big difference in the locker room from a coverage standpoint, other than it's a happier place when they win. That's pretty standard across the league. I'd also relay that I felt like sometimes the perception didn't always match the reality with Brady, as it relates to the cut-away shots on the bench, etc. I think he's always been one of the guys; it's just that he's so intense that sometimes it might come across as if he's detached from others. To the contrary. I think most teammates have always enjoyed playing for him, and with him.
Q. Hey Mike, I think that one of the most unheralded players at this point in the season is Patrick Chung. After the loss of Jerod Mayo, they have increasingly relied on his role as an in-the-box safety. It seems like his role is vital to their team defense. Do you think that an injury to him would leave the Pats exposed at the second safety spot? I don't feel Duron Harmon or Tavon Wilson could fill that role. Thoughts? -- Chris (Middlebury, Vermont)
A. Chris, Chung gets my vote for most surprising player this season. I view it as a combination of things that have contributed to his success -- more maturity, an increased knowledge of the game and the pieces around him allow him to best maximize his assets. For example, with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner at cornerback, and Devin McCourty often playing a single-high safety role, it gives Chung more freedom to play in the box and support the run. In the event the Patriots were ever without Chung, I think we'd probably see Tavon Wilson. It would be a drop-off, but I don't think it would necessarily be catastrophic.
Q. Mike, this question is more of a psychological one for the team. Going into Week 1, the Pats were supposed to be retaking the AFC and tripped at Miami. Since then, it's been a climb uphill perception-wise, meaning that there was plenty of "disrespectful" material for the Pats coaching staff to help motivate the team. That "us against everyone" mentality. Now, everyone is back saying the Pats are the class of the AFC. How does the coaching staff navigate everyone doubting them to everyone patting them on the back so they don't get full of themselves going forward? -- Bart (Indianapolis, Indiana)
A. Bart, players are reminded a few things each day when they walk in or out the door to the facility and one of the things is "ignore the noise." So even when they might be motivated by negative media coverage, it's always in the context of "nothing outside these walls really matters anyway." I'd sum it up this way: The Patriots have very good leadership in that locker room and players know that just as fast as someone might praise them, it can turn in an instant. That might be a harder lesson for younger players to learn, but they generally follow the lead of the experienced players.
Q. Mike, Bill Belichick doesn't get enough credit for how well he manages a roster throughout the season. For example, we are coming into the cold-weather months when teams will need to run the football and Bill will be adding Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch to the active roster. Most teams are losing key guys and Bill is adding them. Also, despite not playing much, is Aaron Dobson learning how to block, run routes, and position his body from watching Brandon LaFell and Rob Gronkowski and listening to guys like Browner and Revis? He has a unique opportunity to improve his game. -- Paul (Lexington, Massachusetts)
A. Paul, I view Belichick as a master in that area. We'll see how it turns out with Branch and how much he might contribute, but what we saw with Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas was most impressive. Bill Belichick identified an area that needed some help, gave up minimal assets to add capable depth options, and the players contributed to a big win. That's the way to do it. No one has all the answers, and not every decision will work out, but that's excellent work right there.
Q. Mike, I know the Pats picked up Casey Walker from another team's practice squad, which means they had to put him on the 53-man roster. Does that mean they can't cut him for the rest of the season? He seems like he might be the odd man out when Sealver Siliga returns, but is he automatically protected against being cut? -- Jim T. (Natick, Massachusetts)
A. Jim, when a team signs a player to its active roster off another team's practice squad, it commits to that player for at least three weeks -- both with a spot on the 53-man roster and in salary. Walker has been on the roster for six games, so that commitment is now over. The Patriots could cut him if they feel that is the best way to go and no longer be committed to his salary and/or roster spot. Walker has cooled off a bit from this view; I'm curious to see how the presence of Alan Branch affects him.
Q. Any news on an extension for Devin McCourty? I feel like he is one of most important players on the team and would hate to see him not in Patriots uniform. -- Frank (Brookline, Massachusetts)
A. Frank, very quiet on that front and my sense is that they will pick it up after the season. I think the deals signed by some of the top safeties this past offseason (e.g. Jarius Byrd) changed some things. Prior reports indicating there were talks probably required a bit more context. It was never really a situation that had built momentum, as I understand it, but I still maintain that it's more a matter of "when" than "if" it happens.
Q. Mike, just got done looking through your midseason grades and "MVP" for the Pats, and I would almost have to challenge you for Gronk as MVP. I want to vote for Brandon LaFell. His emergence as a trustworthy candidate for passes from Brady has opened Gronk and Julian Edelman up for their success. The offense is clicking wonderfully, but his presence allows single coverage on other players. Arguably, Gronk would not be the player he was if opposing teams were able to line their top CB against him (similar to Aqib Talib vs. the Broncos last year). Thoughts? -- Peter (Virginia Beach)
A. Peter, I respect the viewpoint and LaFell has done nice things for the offense this year. But to me, Gronkowski's value is still at a much higher level. I thought the attention he drew on Julian Edelman's touchdown catch against Denver, and then Shane Vereen's touchdown catch in the same game, said it all. He's drawing two, three and four defenders, his sheer presence opening things up for others.
Q. If Gronk is your first pick as MVP then who is your second? Just wondering because Peyton Manning never gets faulted for having five great receivers but Brady always gets half the credit because of Rob. Seems like a double standard is all. -- Jason (California)
A. Can't go wrong with Brady, Jason. He's been on fire lately, specifically with the ability to keep plays alive with his feet.
Q. Hey Mike, moot point hypothetical for you. I look at letting Dane Fletcher go and can't help but think both sides could have benefited from each other this year. With the moving of LBs from the practice squad to 53-man roster then back to the practice squad, do you think they could have benefited from having him on the roster? No doubt he left for Tampa in hopes of playing defense, but it doesn't appear he's really snuck onto their defense. The trade for Jonathan Casillas likely wouldn't have happened if we retained him. Casillas vs. Fletcher, who in the long run could have/will benefit the team better? -- Kasey (Hopkinton, Massachusetts)
A. Kasey, I definitely think they could have benefited from having Fletcher on the roster. But those situations are two-way streets and I'm not sure if Fletcher wasn't looking for a fresh start himself.
Q. Has anyone noticed that Stephen Gostkowski is only 30-plus points away from becoming the Patriots' all-time leading scorer, supplanting Adam Vinatieri? It's an achievement I hope gets some recognition. -- Christian (Amesbury, Massachusetts)
A. Christian, this is a good week to bring it up, with the Patriots set to face Vinatieri and the Colts. Gostkowski has developed into one of the NFL's finest kickers. Vinatieri, I believe, is a Pro Football Hall of Famer (he'd be only the second kicker, behind Jan Stenerud).
Q. Mike, how do you see the state of the AFC East, which sounds like a more competitive division than in last couple of seasons? Which team should win Thursday (BUF@MIA) in terms of Patriots' division win, if this matters? -- MarkJ (Japan)
A. MarkJ, I think the East has been good this year -- I like Buffalo's defense, I think Miami is a fundamentally sound team that when on its game can beat anyone. And the Jets seem to play the Patriots tough for the most part. In terms of who Patriots followers should root for to win, it's not necessarily clear-cut. If Buffalo wins, it would go to an AFC East-best 3-1 in the division, and division record is one of the tie-breakers. So that would be a vote for Miami, I guess.
Q. Hey Mike, is there any chance that the Pats/Lions game could get flexed next week (even if it's just to 4 p.m.)? I doubt the NFL would move Cowboys/Giants from Sunday Night Football, but Patriots/Lions seems to be a 4 p.m. candidate for Fox. -- Patrick (Allston, Massachusetts)
A. Patrick, Tuesday was the deadline to make any changes, and a representative from the NFL's public relations staff tweeted that there are no changes to the schedule. That means Giants-Cowboys remains in prime time and Fox has a nice day with Lions-Patriots early and Cardinals-Seahawks late.