Last week the Patriots faced Texans backup quarterback Tony Banks. The week before that it was a Dallas offense without Joey Galloway. Before that, it was a Denver offense without Jake Plummer. No such luck this week. The Colts three-headed offensive monster of Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James should all be in uniform this Sunday when the Patriots visit the Colts at the RCA Dome.
But, hey, it's not like the Patriots haven't overcome their share of injuries. They're not apologizing to anyone for their 9-2 record or seven-game win streak that includes wins over playoff contenders Tennessee, Miami, Denver and Dallas to go along with an early-season win over the Eagles.
In fact, the Patriots wins have comes against teams that have a combined 54-45 record while their two losses were against teams that sit at a combined 8-14. They have beaten three first place teams and two second place teams. They have saved their worst for the worst which won't be the worst thing come Sunday in Indianapolis when they take on a 9-2 Colts team in a game that could have huge playoff seeding implications.
The Patriots defense will face its biggest test of the season this week, or at least the biggest since it outlasted the Titans, 38-30, to start the team's seven-game winning streak. But unlike the last two weeks when the Patriots faced teams they haven't seen in a while, or in the Texans case, ever, New England is familiar with a Colts team that it shared a division with just two seasons ago.
"They have a lot of guys we've seen before," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said, "and as we all know they are real explosive offensively. I think they have gotten a much better balance out of their receiving corps in terms of overall production. Of course, Marvin Harrison is still the guy, but their other receivers have performed and been very productive for them too. Reggie Wayne and Harrison have about 1,500 yards (actually 1,524) and the tight end situation looks pretty good with the rookie Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard, who I think will probably be back this week."
With the exception of Clark, the Patriots have played against all of Indy's key weapons and experienced success doing so. Manning has had mixed results against the Patriots with a 2-6 record, including a 1-3 mark against them with Belichick as New England's head coach. In those four games against Belichick's Patriots, Manning completed 89-of-142 passes for 1,135 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions while his Colts were outscored 129-76. Also, in those three losses, the explosive Colts were held to 17 points or less while they reached 30 in the lone win.
Belichick, who would never admit so publicly, actually lives for the challenge of scheming against top quarterbacks like Manning, who is having an MVP-type of season. Manning did enjoy some moderate success against the Jets when Belichick was an assistant under Bill Parcells in New York, but he also has had his share of struggles against the Patriots defensive guru, like when he was picked off three times in a September 2001 game in Foxborough with two of those getting returned for touchdowns. But Belichick knows Manning can dissect even the best defenses, which his seventh ranked unit is now among.
"He does a lot of things well," Belichick said. "First of all, he is accurate. He gets rid of the ball quickly, he is smart and he reads defenses well. He knows where to throw the ball and where to stay away from. If you do those things, you have a pretty good chance at that position. You are going to hit your share."
He's hit more than his share this season, completing an amazing 67.4 percent of his throws for 3,105 yards with 19 touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 98.8 passer rating that is second only to his division rival -- Tennessee's Steve McNair.
The Patriots defense, which has held three opponents to fewer than 10 points during the winning streak and has allowed an average of just 14 points per game over that span, has held opposing quarterbacks to a cumulative 57.7 passer rating, allowing just six touchdown passes with 17 interceptions. The Patriots have forced four quarterbacks into their lowest ratings of the season, including McNair, who had a 68.8 rating against New England, and have not allowed a passer rating of higher than 68.8 since the Jets Vinny Testaverde posted a 74.2 in a Week Three loss to New England.
The Patriots No. 1 objective against a Colts offense that has scored the second most points in football will be to prevent big plays. "We're going up against a team that is probably as good as any in terms of making big plays consistently on a week-in-week-out, year-after-year basis. We will really have our work cut out for us this week."
The Patriots defense has cut down on big plays allowed compared to last year when it seemed every team hit them either on the ground or through the air. One reason is better tackling while a second is speed in the secondary. The Patriots allowed three 30-plus-yard touchdown passes last year and haven't allowed one in that range this year. They also allowed 62 runs of 10 yards or more last season, including 15 of 20 or more and seven of 30 or more. This season, New England has allowed 24 runs of 10 yards or more and one of more than 20, that a 23-yarder by Washington's Trung Canidate.
"We had to be one of the slowest teams in the league in the secondary last year," Belichick said. "I think we are faster this year, but that wouldn't take much."
Speed or no, it will take one of the Patriots better efforts to slow down the high-riding 9-2 Colts on their fast turf surface at the RCA Dome.
SERIES HISTORY: 64th meeting. Patriots lead series 39-24 and have won three of the last four and 10 of the last 12 with a 4-2 mark in Indianapolis during that time. Both of the Colts wins in the last 12 meetings -- home victories in 1999 and 2000 came with Peyton Manning at the controls. New England is 12-6 all-time at the RCA Dome.