Commentary

A chance to develop consistency

With rival Colts hobbled, this is a perfect opportunity for Patriots to get on a roll

Updated: November 21, 2010, 7:51 AM ET
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's game between the Patriots and Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium (4:15 p.m.).

Mike: Little needs to be said to introduce this one, Tedy. It's one of the best rivalries in sports over the last decade -- Patriots versus Colts.

Tedy: Here we go. Patriots and Colts. Players on both of these teams circle this game because of the rivalry and how big of a game it is. Fans do too because it's as big as it gets. When I think of the Patriots and Colts and the word "rivalry," I think of the time when the other team has a realistic chance of beating you. I don't think this was a rivalry early on because we just kind of slapped them around when Peyton Manning was younger. We got in his head. We'd get those fancy white jerseys dirty, and we always thought that if we hit them in the mouth they would fold. It wasn't until the 2006 AFC Championship game when it became legit, as they finally beat us in a playoff game when it mattered most. I think that's truly when it became a rivalry because it wasn't until that point that we truly respected them as a team that could beat us when all the chips were on the table.

Mike: I remember you going up to some Colts players after that game to congratulate them and thinking it was a classy gesture.

Tedy Bruschi
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesTedy Bruschi has been a big part of the Patriots-Colts rivalry over the years.

Tedy: There was a moment on the field with Tarik Glenn, their left tackle, which came before they scored that last touchdown (in the 2006 AFC Championship game). I looked him in the eye and said, "This is what it's all about. You're either going to earn it right here or we're going to the Super Bowl." We both looked at each other and said, "OK, here we go." And they went on to score. After the game, there was a picture that showed me going up to Peyton. I said, "You earned this. You really deserve this. Go win your championship." That was tough for me to do, but it's something I felt I needed to say to a player I respected very much.

Mike: For the first time since 2006, the Colts are coming to New England. In the last six games between the teams, the Colts have five wins. That 2006 game, the last one in Foxborough, you played in it, and it was the one in which Marvin Harrison had the great catch in the end zone.

Tedy: I remember seeing Harrison spike the ball after that touchdown, which you never really expected from him. It was almost him letting it all out, saying, "This is our time now." He never really showed a lot of emotion. He was a guy who would make a catch and hand it to the official or lay it on the ground. When you saw the spike, that's when you knew we had been under their skin, from beating them every time we had played them. That spike reflected the time in which this really started to shift into a rivalry. It's nice to see this game coming back to Foxborough. The Patriots, at home, have been tough all year, and I'm excited to see Peyton Manning coming in here.

Mike: Speaking of emotion, what got into Tom Brady in Pittsburgh last Sunday?

Tedy: They needed it, too. That's what good leaders do; they sense when their team is in a little bit of a lull. The Patriots had scored 10 points in the first quarter, but in the second quarter, they didn't score any. Time was winding down, and I could see what was happening. I know Tom. He just saw it and said to himself, "Something is wrong here. I better do something about it, because I remember what happened last week in Cleveland and I don't want it happening again." Tom took it upon himself to get the team right, and soon enough they were off to the races. That's what makes Brady special: his fire.

Mike: I saw Brady fired up from the moment he jogged out of the tunnel for pregame warmups. I had been watching him, wondering how he was moving on his injured foot, and was surprised to see him jog across the field, look up into the crowd and start gesturing to Steelers fans waving their "Terrible Towels." It was almost as if he was saying, "We're coming after you, right here in your house."

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Jason Bridge/US PresswireGood leaders know when their teams need inspiration and encouragement. Tom Brady demonstrated that last week in Pittsburgh.

Tedy: You talk about Harrison's spike from 2006, and then you can look at Brady's spike after his 3-yard quarterback sneak in Pittsburgh. That was an exclamation point that basically said, "I don't care who you are, I don't care what you say, take this!" He spiked it in all of Pittsburgh's face. Awesome.

Mike: Both of us had picked the Steelers to win the game, so looking back what surprised you most about the Patriots' performance?

Tedy: They surprised me in how they could go from looking so bad against Cleveland to how good they looked in Pittsburgh. We've talked about this in the past, but right now in the NFL you never really know what you're going to get. The Patriots reflect that. On a week-to-week basis, you almost kind of wait until that first quarter to see what you're going to get, which is the way I think it is with most young, inexperienced teams. This is a great game for the Patriots to start developing some consistency.

Mike: Before breaking down this matchup, let's hit on a technical aspect of football, which was a reader suggestion from earlier this year. Jonathan from Clermont, Fla., asks, "I was wondering what exactly goes through the mind of the player on defense before any given snap and the sequence to it -- down, distance, field position, score, time left in the game, what is the offense showing? How long do you have to assess those things and adjust before the ball is snapped? Is there a top 3-5 things to tip off whether it's going to be a run or a pass play?"

Tedy: Jonathan, great question. First you have to know the situation and where you are on the field. You referenced many of the variables in your question. Down and distance, etc. Additionally, when a signal-caller gets the defense from the coaches on the sideline, he has to convey the call to the defense and make sure all adjustments are communicated. The amount of time these adjustments are made depends on how long it takes an offense to get to the line of scrimmage and run a play. So many teams use the hurry up offense now. I remember many times when adjustments had to be made in seconds, especially against the Colts. In terms of pre-snap keys, I always depended on the stance of the lineman to tip off whether it was a run or a pass. You can read many offensive linemen in the NFL like an open book.

Patriots defense vs. Colts offense

Mike: When looking at the Colts' offense, it obviously starts with quarterback Peyton Manning, who is still playing at a high level. He is 248 for 386 for 2,663 yards with 16 touchdowns and 4 interceptions this season, although it seems some of the Colts' injuries have affected him.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Howard Smith/US PresswireWith many of his best weapons injured, Peyton Manning's numbers have suffered in recent weeks.

Tedy: They've lost some talented players, especially tight end Dallas Clark, and last week they were without receiver Austin Collie (team-high 6 TDs) and running back Joseph Addai. I think it has affected Peyton's performance. There is a difference between Jacob Tamme and Clark, as Clark has the uncanny ability to get open; find the openings in the zone defense; and when in close proximity to a defender to use his body; and lean and leverage to get open. Tamme can run the same routes and do the same things conceptually, but it's not the same. Clark was a difference-maker. Tamme is a good player but nowhere close to being Clark right now.

Mike: You brought up a good point about Manning's accuracy of late. He had completed 69 percent of his passes in his first four games, but it's 59 percent since then.

Tedy: I think that's the indication of where Manning was when he had his guys healthy. They are running the same routes and the same schemes, but it's different players doing it. You hear it all the time about players being on the same page. In this case, players might be where they are supposed to be and where Peyton expects you to be, but you still have to catch the ball. Tamme is not as good as Clark, and some of these other receivers aren't Austin Collie. So other adjustments have to be made, and that 10 percent dropoff is that adjustment.

Mike: One of the things that defines the style of the Colts is the no-huddle. Manning does a great job controlling the tempo and not allowing a defense to substitute.

Tedy: Manning uses that very well to get the answers on what the defense is doing before the snap. He does it constantly throughout the game. I'll relate it to the Patriots. When they were having problems a few weeks ago in Cleveland and the looks the Browns were giving them, they came out with the no-huddle adjustment. That's what you do when defenses give you disguises. Peyton does that from the first snap to the end of the game.

Mike: It was also clear how much Bill Belichick respects receiver Reggie Wayne, who scorched the Patriots last year for 10 catches for 126 yards and 2 touchdowns. I think we could see the Patriots adopt the Randy Moss-type coverage plan, with a safety playing over the top of him on almost every snap. I can't imagine Belichick putting together a plan that doesn't do this, after what unfolded last year.

Tedy: There are certain players that coach Belichick talks about and you can just feel the respect he has for them, and Wayne is one of them. [Belichick] called him one of the best receivers in the NFL.

Mike: The Colts rank first in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per pass play, which speaks as much to Manning as to the offensive line. But when looking at the line, center Jeff Saturday is the old standby.

Tedy: There have been a lot of changes on the line, but Saturday has been the constant, with his ability to get all those guys on the same page. It's a different type of running game that they implement, with the well-known stretch play. This offensive line isn't filled with maulers, like the New York Jets, where one-on-one they'll try to drive you off the ball, get angles and run scheme runs at you, with different formation sets in the backfield. This line moves in tandem, at the same time, from left to right on the various run plays they have. Saturday is the musical conductor, who keeps all of them together and playing the same song, if you will.

Mike: Last week, the Patriots went heavy with the pressure against the Steelers. Can we expect to see the same thing this week?

Tedy: Manning doesn't get sacked. Belichick has talked about that. I've been in that defensive meeting room where he's said, "Sacks will be tough to come by, but we have to hope to get a little bit of pressure to alter some throws to help the coverage." That was our main goal going into games against Peyton, because he gets rid of the ball so quickly and is so great at deciphering defenses. So you say to yourself, "If I get a sack against him, that's a bonus."

Patriots offense vs. Colts defense

Mike: Tom Brady said this week that he's had a lot of sleepless nights when getting ready to face the Colts and their pass-rushing defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Freeney is the Colts' career sacks leader with 90, while Mathis has 70.5.

[+] EnlargeRobert Mathis
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesThe Colts' defensive line is a pass-rushing force, with Robert Mathis (pictured) and Dwight Freeney combining for 13.5 sacks so far this season.

Tedy: They are extraordinary pass-rushers, especially in certain situations. You can block them throughout the day, which has been done before, but then in a two-minute situations they know that's a time when they have to step it up and bring it. A perfect example was last week against the Bengals. It was the Bengals' last-ditch effort to come back and win the game, and on back-to-back downs it was Mathis sack, Freeney sack. That was basically the end of it. Trey Wingo at ESPN likes to call these guys the Mariano Rivera of the National Football League. They are closers, who get it done when the game is on the line.

Mike: So it will be a big test for left tackle Matt Light and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. They should get help from the likes of tight end Alge Crumpler and running backs chipping out of the backfield.

Tedy: Another word that captures what this Colts defense is all about is "opportunistic." They force turnovers, with five last week against the Bengals. You may drive the ball on them a little bit. They may be smaller and you can push them around a bit. But they know how to go after that ball and produce turnovers.

Mike: The Patriots are 6-0 when winning the turnover differential this season. Since 2001, they are 76-3 when having a plus-turnover differential. Elsewhere on the Colts' defense, what do you see at linebacker?

Tedy: Gary Brackett is one of the most underrated linebackers in the league. He isn't someone you often hear in the discussion with the Ray Lewises and Patrick Willises, but he is a great tackler with great speed. He is undersized but perfect for what they do in that defense. He has been out with a toe injury, and Pat Angerer -- the rookie out of Iowa -- has come in. It's another example of how the Colts have had some injuries -- like Tamme for Clark at tight end -- and there has been a drop-off. A 3-yard gain is now turning into a 6-yard gain at times, because Angerer isn't as fast and is not as good of a tackler. Also, in zone coverage in that Tampa-2, Angerer will be back there in coverage, and he's not as athletic as Brackett. So there is a little more space there, and I think you saw that last week with Chad Ochocinco, where he had some big catches over the middle.

Mike: At defensive back, they have been without safety Bob Sanders again, but you like what you see here.

Tedy: Last week, I thought the Patriots had their way with the Steelers' secondary by spreading them out. I think this Colts' defensive backfield covers better, with cornerbacks Kelvin Hayden, Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey, and safety Antoine Bethea and Co. Looking back at last week, I know the Steelers have Troy Polamalu at safety, but he's more of that in-the-box guy, disguising, playing with his hair on fire. But these Colts guys are real cover guys and they are more likely to be able to stay with the quicker Patriots receivers. It will be a greater challenge for Patriots receivers to get open this week.

Mike: The Patriots have had some changes on special teams in recent weeks and they brought back Pierre Woods this week, waiving Shawn Crable. That was a move made with special teams in mind, as Woods was one of the better coverage players in his previous stint with the team. One name stands out when looking at the Colts' special teams: Adam Vinatieri. He's still kicking at a high level, as this past week he was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week.

Tedy: The kicker advantage has to go to the Colts in this game. Shayne Graham, the new Patriots kicker, missed an extra point last week, as he gets used to being back in the league. We had talked about Bengals coach Marvin Lewis talking about some of the demons that Graham has to overcome from his playoff misses last year, and it looks like he still may have a couple. With Vinatieri on the other side, he's 37 now, in his 15th season. You ask the question, "Does he still have the leg?" and then he goes out and kicks a 47-yarder last week. He's still clutch. I remember playing against him, and he'd make a kick late against us, and I'd want to go out and tackle him, just drive him into the ground for putting points on the board for the Colts and not the Patriots. He's still my buddy, though, and he's still playing good football.

Mike: Let's answer a question from a Patriots follower before getting to predictions. On Twitter, @pats_fo_life33 asks, "What is your favorite Bill Belichick story?"

Tedy: Coach Belichick always coached us hard. Very hard. And sometimes as players you want to get back at him somehow. My way was when I dumped the Gatorade bucket over him and his dad after we won our third Super Bowl. Getting coach Belichick would've been enough, but the fact that I got two generations of Belichicks was a bonus. That was a fun, memorable moment.

Mike: As for a prediction, I'm going with the Patriots at home, where they play some of their best football. Quarterback Tom Brady has won his last 24 regular-season home starts, and with a win Sunday will tie Brett Favre's home regular-season win streak, which is the longest in the NFL. In a game where every possession figures to be precious for teams, I'll go Patriots 27, Colts 20.

Tedy: You honestly have to ask yourself which team will show up? The team that laid an egg in Cleveland or the team that looked the NFL's best in Pittsburgh? I am going with the latter. This team will start to show some winning consistency. Patriots 28, Colts 24.

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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