Commentary

Pats-Colts rivalry has layers of intrigue

Containing Clark, Freeney among New England's primary concerns on Sunday night

Originally Published: November 13, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

As great as the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning matchups have been through the years, the aftermath of these meetings has been compelling as well.

Both organizations learn and transform themselves from these games because they know the odds favor a rematch in the playoffs. When they meet on Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, both teams will be playing for playoff seeding and home-field advantage. But you also must appreciate the subtle things that happen as a result of these games.

Years of trying to defend Manning convinced Patriots coach Bill Belichick to adjust his offense to counter the Colts. Belichick decided a few years ago to switch to a pass-heavy offense with Brady. In doing so, he was able to ease the inevitable transition for a defense that was getting older. The idea was to control the ball on offense in order to keep his defense off the field.

The strategy worked for a perfect regular season and a trip to the Super Bowl in 2007. Despite the loss of Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour and others, the Patriots rank a respectable seventh on defense mainly because they aren't on the field that much.

Brady has the head-to-head edge on Manning, with a 7-3 record that includes the postseason. It wasn't the same last year with Brady out and Matt Cassel in. Still, the Colts continue to make headway in this series, winning three of the past four games against the Patriots.

One of the keys on Sunday night will be how Patriots safety Brandon McGowan covers tight end Dallas Clark, who is second in the league with 60 receptions. Each year, Belichick tries to find the right veteran to handle Clark in the slot. Harrison had that assignment for several years. Most cornerbacks aren't big enough to contain a talented tight end with run-after-the-catch ability. (Check out the profile of Clark by ESPN.com's Jeffri Chadiha here.)

The other key matchup will be Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney against Patriots left tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Left tackle Matt Light hasn't practiced in weeks because of a knee injury and is probably going to miss this game. That leaves Vollmer, a 6-foot-8 rookie. Freeney has sacks in nine consecutive games, one shy of tying an NFL record.

Because Freeney is short and plays at such a low level of gravity, he's a matchup nightmare for tall tackles. Once he gets under the pads of a tall blocker, Freeney can win the battle with strength or his spin move. Belichick naturally must commit a tight end or running back to help Vollmer against Freeney.

Manning and Brady know the importance of getting touchdown drives in this game, which has been a season-long issue for the Patriots. With 15 touchdowns in 34 trips into the red zone, the Pats are one of the worst red zone teams in the league, too often settling for field goals. The Colts couldn't finish drives in Week 9 against Houston, which allowed the Texans to come back and almost win.

Here's the rest of this week's First and 10:

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer
James Lang/US PresswireCarson Palmer and the Bengals have returned to their 2005 form.

1. Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers: Both teams are in good position to make the playoffs, but this game brings back memories of 2005. The Carson Palmer-led Bengals came into Pittsburgh with an 8-3 record after beating the Ravens and took control of the AFC North with a 38-31 victory. The Bengals won the division, the Steelers got the wild card. The Steelers' veterans remember that and will try to prevent it from happening again.

It's taken all this time for the Bengals to recover from their playoff loss to the Steelers that season. Palmer has bounced back with a great season. The defense is restocked with good young players. But the Steelers live for the big games, and this is their biggest of the season. Ben Roethlisberger is getting better as a leader and a quarterback each week. This should be a classic. The Steelers have won 14 of the past 19 games against the Bengals, including five of the past six.

2. Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers: Tony Romo has been criticized for his failings in December and January, but he can be called Mr. November. He has won 13 November starts in a row, the longest streak of November wins by a quarterback since 1950. Overall, he has thrown 35 touchdown passes in November games.

The Wisconsin native comes to Lambeau Field at a tense time for the Packers. Fans are irate about the Packers' 4-4 start, the two losses to Brett Favre and the offensive line's inability to protect Aaron Rodgers, whose sack total has grown to a league-high 37 in eight games.

3. Philadelphia Eagles at San Diego Chargers: The Chargers are getting hot at the right time. San Diego QB Philip Rivers has a nice groove going with wide receiver Vincent Jackson and tight end Antonio Gates. Linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips are also getting hot. Merriman has four sacks in the past two games; Phillips has five sacks in the past five games. Their successful rushes are taking some pressure off the Chargers' cornerbacks, who have struggled all season. The baffling question about the Eagles is why they have become so bad in close games.

4. Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals have a chance to knock the Seahawks out of playoff contention Sunday. It probably didn't help the Seahawks that wide receiver Nate Burleson guaranteed a Seattle victory. Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett will remember that as he slides through the Seahawks' struggling offensive line. Still, it's not out of the question for Matt Hasselbeck and the Seahawks' offense to put together a good game and knock off the Cardinals, who have struggled at home (three losses in four games).

The problem facing the Seahawks is twofold. First, even if the Seahawks win, they would trail Arizona by a game and the Cardinals have the NFL's easiest closing schedule. Second, the Seahawks haven't done well on the road and have already lost to the Cardinals (27-3 in Week 6).

5. Denver Broncos at Washington Redskins: The Ravens and Steelers executed the game plan that can beat the Broncos. The recipe on defense is to keep Denver's receivers in front of the corners to limit yards after the catch and expose Kyle Orton's inability to throw more than 20 yards downfield. The game plan on offense is to go no-huddle and prevent Broncos defensive coordinator Mike Nolan from making last-second adjustments before plays.

The Redskins' defense is good enough to handle the first part. The Redskins' offense isn't good enough to take advantage of the other strategy, which should give the Broncos a good chance to improve to 7-2. Still, it's a dangerous game for the Broncos because they are on the road and heads are spinning because of the two-game losing streak.

6. Jacksonville Jaguars at New York Jets: Records sometimes can be deceiving. Both teams are 4-4, but the Jets have a shot at the playoffs. The rebuilding Jaguars have a better record than their talent because they've beaten lowly St. Louis and Kansas City. Jets coach Rex Ryan should have the big edge. His hard-hitting defense is ranked No. 2 in the league, giving up just 273.4 yards per game. New York QB Mark Sanchez will have a full complement of healthy wide receivers, which should give him a chance to improve his average of 14 completions a game. This is not a good matchup for the Jaguars.

[+] EnlargeMichael Turner
Marvin Gentry-US PRESSWIREAtlanta RB Michael Turner has hit his stride, which is bad news for the Panthers' defense.

7. Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: Winning three of the past four games between the teams, Atlanta seems to have the edge on the Panthers. In a 28-20 win over Carolina in Week 2, Matt Ryan threw for three touchdowns. Carolina has improved significantly since then against the run. But Atlanta's running game has made big strides recently, with Michael Turner breaking out of a six-game slump with 317 yards in the past two games. The combination of Turner's running and Ryan's passing will make it tough for the Panthers, who lost linebacker Thomas Davis for the season this week because of a knee injury.

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Miami Dolphins: Things have changed dramatically since the Buccaneers and Dolphins last met in 2005. Bill Parcells revamped the Dolphins' roster with tougher, more physical players, and Tony Sparano has developed a run-oriented, trick-play offense that led to 11 wins in 2008. A tougher schedule and an inability to match up against elite quarterbacks has dropped Miami to 3-5 this season. Rookie QB Josh Freeman did a nice job in his first start for the Bucs in Week 9, a comeback win over the Packers.

9. Buffalo Bills at Tennessee Titans: Although it's way too late to make a playoff push, the Titans are on a roll with Vince Young at quarterback. Tennessee has scored 64 points since Young took over as starter, albeit against so-so competition (San Francisco, Jacksonville). Running back Chris Johnson is on pace for a 1,900-yard season, which is amazing considering he's averaging only 18 carries a game. Trent Edwards returns at quarterback after missing two games with a concussion for the Bills.

10. Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders: It's a reach for First and 10, but at least this game will be more competitive than Saints-Rams, Vikings-Lions or Ravens-Browns. In Week 2, the Raiders won 13-10 in Kansas City, and their offense may be healthy for a change. Darren McFadden, Chaz Schilens and Robert Gallery healed during the bye week and should play. The Chiefs may have stumbled onto a starting receiver, former Charger Chris Chambers. He scored two touchdowns in his Chiefs debut in Week 10 after being claimed on waivers last week.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer