Manning-less Matchup Holds Little Intrigue

It won't be the same without Peyton Manning. Try as he might, Curtis Painter has evoked no memories of a younger Manning. If Painter even plays on Sunday would it make the game any more interesting? Probably not.

Brady-Painter doesn't have same ring as Brady-Manning

   When the NFL schedule came out last spring, Sunday's matchup between the Patriots and Colts in Foxborough was slated as a prime-time battle between two likely AFC playoff contenders and their two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

   However, Peyton Manning's neck injury has robbed the rivalry of most of the interest in the latest installment. The game was bumped from "Sunday Night Football" into a regular 1 p.m. EST start. Indianapolis' 0-11 record prevents the game from being any sort of measuring stick game for New England.

   The Patriots, coming off a 38-20 dismissal of the Eagles and another backup quarterback, Vince Young, head into the meeting with the Colts mostly looking to maintain momentum on both sides of the ball.

   It's unlikely that Curtis Painter and the Colts' punch-less offense will attack New England's questionable defense even as much as Young and the Eagles' skills players did.

   It's also unlikely that an Indianapolis defense that ranks near the bottom of league in many categories is going to slow down a Tom Brady-led attack that once again has its swagger back and has scored 34 or more points in each of the last three weeks.

   The Patriots simply are focused on trying to get better on both sides of the ball at this point, at a time when Bill Belichick's team does generally play its best football.

   On defense, that means continuing to improve, despite injuries, in key areas such as opponents' scoring, red zone and third down.

   On offense, it means trying to get as balanced as possible both in terms of running and passing, as well as spreading the ball around through the air.

   "We have a long way to go. Eight (victories). That's not going to win anything in the National Football League," Belichick said.

   The coach clearly wasn't ready to make any long-term assessment of his team, its recent improvements or its chances come January.

   "I don't know anything about the big picture," he said. "The big picture right now is Indianapolis. I'll leave that to the experts. All the rest is a bunch of garbage."

   LINEUP WATCH: The offensive line has had a number of moving parts in recent weeks, and not surprisingly, Tom Brady's protection has been a bit inconsistent. Left tackle Matt Light limped off with an ankle injury Nov. 21 against the Chiefs. Center Dan Connolly missed Sunday's win over Philadelphia due to a groin issue. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer left the Eagles game with an ankle injury, forcing rookie Nate Solder once again into action on the right side. In fact, other than guards Logan Mankins and Brian Waters, Brady's front five has been a work in progress all season.

   BY THE NUMBERS: 1997 -- The last time the Patriots faced a Colts team that didn't have Peyton Manning at quarterback prior to this Sunday's meeting with Curtis Painter in Foxborough. This is also just the second game in the Patriots-Colts rivalry since 2001 that wasn't a meeting of future Hall of Famers Manning and Tom Brady. The other came when Matt Cassel filled in for the injured Brady in Indianapolis in 2008.

   --S Patrick Chung was inactive against the Eagles, missing his third consecutive game due to a foot injury.
   --LB Brandon Spikes missed his third straight game with a knee injury.
   --LB Dane Fletcher missed his fifth straight game with a thumb injury.
   --CB Devin McCourty was downgraded to out prior to the Patriots flying to Philadelphia. He missed his second straight game with a shoulder injury.
   --WR Chad Ochocinco (hamstring) missed his first game as a Patriot after popping up on the injury report and missing practice Friday.
   --C Dan Connolly (groin) was downgraded to out prior to New England's trip to Philadelphia. He missed a game for the first time this season.
   --QB Ryan Mallett was the only healthy player among New England's seven day of game inactives against the Eagles.
   --RT Sebastian Vollmer left the second half of New England's win over the Eagles with an ankle injury and did not return. He limped out of the visitors' locker room in Philadelphia wearing a walking boot.

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