Huge MNF matchup highlights Week 9
There is a lot on the line when the Patriots host the Colts in John Clayton's top matchup of Week 9.
Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First and 10" column takes you around the league. Here's his look at the remaining Week 9 of the 2005 season.
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (ABC, Monday, 9 p.m. ET) | Scouting report
Monday night's Colts-Patriots game is the most anticipated of the year, and there are some interesting twists to the rivalry this time around. For once, the Colts don't have everything to lose if they can't beat the Patriots.
Since 2003, the Colts and Patriots have met four times with something on the line, and the Patriots won all four. The regular-season losses cost the Colts the chance to play at home in the playoffs. The playoff losses propelled the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
Bill Belichick realized once he got into the season that his team was in for a tough fight. The schedule was ridiculously tough, with a five-game stretch from Week 2 to Week 6 in which the Patriots faced five non-division teams that won an average of 11 games last season. The Patriots limped into their Week 7 bye at 3-3, with a roster damaged by injuries. They had lost safety Rodney Harrison, left tackle Matt Light and halfback Kevin Faulk. Their secondary was patched together weekly because of injuries. Defensive tackle Richard Seymour had missed games with a knee injury and running back Corey Dillon struggled with an ankle injury.
The Colts, meanwhile, have lived a charmed life. They have faced only one team that currently has a winning record, division rival Jacksonville. Their 7-0 record came at the expense of teams with a combined record of 17-34. But that has helped solidify the Colts' confidence. The defense fought through its own injuries but ranks fourth in the league for fewest yards allowed (277.9) and is allowing an NFL-low 11 points a game.
Perhaps the most interesting thing happening with the Colts is how they are responding to being "Belichicked" on offense. Opposing teams have copied what Belichick has done so often to the Colts' offense. Knowing how efficient Peyton Manning can be slicing a defense apart through the air, defenses have dropped seven and eight men into coverage, taking away Manning's ability to go downfield.
Under those circumstances, Manning has no chance to repeat his 49-touchdown season. No problem. Manning cares more about the seven wins than the seven points and he is content handing the ball off to Edgerrin James and letting James be the team's most valuable player in the first half of the season. James leads the NFL with 801 rushing yards because Manning is seeing so few defenders in the defensive box in front of him and simply handing the ball off to James.
The interesting twist in Monday night's game is what strategies Belichick comes up with this time against the Colts. How will the Patriots be able to execute them? Because of a lot of different factors, this hasn't been a typical Patriots defense. It's given up 128.4 yards a game on the ground. Problems in pass coverage have let the Patriots fall to 26th in the NFL in total defense (359.1 yards per game) and points allowed (25.7 per game).
The return of Tedy Bruschi came at a perfect time. His presence helped seal the victory over the Bills, the only true team left in the AFC East to challenge the Patriots for the division title. With that victory Sunday night, the Patriots took a 1½-game lead and shouldn't have to worry about winning the division. But despite Bruschi's presence, the Patriots still gave up 394 total yards and 147 rushing yards.
At this point, the Patriots' biggest concern is getting a higher playoff seed. But they seem to be destined to get a third or fourth seed, which would add an extra game to their bid to win a fourth Super Bowl.
No doubt, this game will be the biggest challenge to the Colts' defense. Despite problems running the ball because of injuries in the backfield, the Patriots remain explosive on offense with Tom Brady leading the way. He's better than ever. He's completing 63.1 percent of his passes and he's getting the ball downfield to David Givens and Deion Branch.
This has the chance to be a high-scoring game.
The Patriots need to win just to keep the seeds of doubt in the minds of the Colts. If these teams meet again, it will be in the playoffs, probably in Indianapolis. Keeping doubt in the minds of the Colts' players is important, which is why Tony Dungy knows he needs to take advantage of the situation and get this victory.
He won't find a better time to beat the Patriots. They still haven't gotten their defense together. By January, it could be a different story because Belichick will find ways to get this defense to peak at some point.
In some ways, the Colts come into this game with nothing to lose, but they also come in with more to gain. If they win, they would have a four-game edge over the Patriots in the playoff standings. They would gain a slight psychological edge if they win. But the Patriots are the Patriots. They have been the obstacle the Colts haven't been able to jump to get to the next level. Can they jump it this week?
This game should be fascinating to watch.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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