As promised, we have a preview of this week's Patriots game, which just happens to be the biggest game of the 2009 NFL Season thus far. Yesterday we had a little bit of fun with the Brady vs. Mannning debate, but now it's time to get serious. And seriously, after taking a look at the photo above, how is there any debate?
Tom Brady = Three Super Bowl Titles, tons of NFL records, super model wife.
Peyton Manning = Fail.
First Down: Receivers vs. Secondaries
Tomorrow night, NBC will be cranking the Brady/Manning hype machine to full tilt, but in all likelihood both players are going to be their usual phenomenal selves, cancelling the effect of the other out. The fact of the matter is that this game will come down to the non-quarterbacks on the field and how they match up with each other, and so for our first down, I'd like to take a look at how the receivers for each team stack up against their opponents on defense.
When Indy's got the ball, Dallas Clark will obviously be New England's main point of concern. As much as I like to hate on the Colts, there's no denying that the man has torn it up this season. However, a man getting very little national accolades in New England's secondary, Brandon McGowan, just happens to be a tight end killer. He's already contained Tony Gonzalez and Kellen Winslow this season. While Clark may be his biggest challenge yet, I think it's pretty safe to say that McGowan won't like him run wild like he did vs. Houston. If Dallas Clark doesn't have a big game, it's going to be very difficult for the Colts pull out a victory.
On the flip side, New England has Randy Moss and Wes Welker going up against... and....
Truth be told, I'm usually pretty confident in the Patriots when they're facing the Colts. However, it's generally a "nervous" optimism. I feel like I'm setting myself up to be blindsided like an overconfident Survivor contestant by saying this, but I'm not nervous at all about tomorrow's game. I just can't fathom how Indianapolis's injured secondary is going to contain New England's arial onslaught. You throw Bob Sanders back into the mix, and suddenly the butterflies return. But the fact remains that tomorrow night Randy Moss will be going up against a rookie and we all saw what he did to Miami's newbie Vontae Davis.
Second Down: The Line
If there's one area where the Patriots look weak in this matchup vs. Indy, it's their offensive line. Matt Light won't be playing and Dan Koppen is questionable. New England finds itself in a similar situation to the Colts secondary as they'll be throwing a rookie lineman into the fire aganst Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. The big difference is that New England's rookie lineman just happens to be a 6'8" gargantuan from Germany. Sebastian Vollmer will certainly have his work cut out for him facing the Colts' pash rush, but so far the first-year player has barely missed a beat. It's going to be important for the Pats' O-line to meet the challenge, otherwise Brady won't have the time he needs to go for the long plays down field against the Colts' patchwork corners.
If Freeney and Mathis have their way, then suddenly the very unbalanced scale starts to tip back in the Colts favor. Thankfully, New England has the ability to do damage without the long-ball thanks to Kevin Faulk and Wes Welker. This could also be a big chance for Laurence Maroney to finally cement his standing as the team's top back by gashing the Colts for some big runs. If the Patriots can execute on the short stuff, it will take a lot of pressure of the offensive line and open up some game-changing opportunities to hit Moss long.
Third Down: More than Pride.
A lot has been said about how this isn't a must-win game for either team. Granted, both of these teams will likely be playoff-bound regardless of the outcome, but that doesn't mean it's not important. There's more than just rivalry and bragging rights on the line tomorrow night. Whoever wins this game will become the defacto front-runner for the #1 seed in the AFC. A Colts win puts them essentially four games in front of the Patriots thanks to tie-breakers and keeps both Denver and the winner of the Steelers/Bengals matchup at arm's distance. However, a New England victory puts only a game's separation between them and the Colts, who don't have the easiest schedule ahead of them. Suddenly, the Patriots are in the driver's seat and could very well be able to stumble against the Saints in Week 12 and still take the #1 seed with a 13-3 record.
For the Colts, a win equals a first round bye and home field advantage likely throughout the playoffs. For New England, it's an opportunity to keep their momentum going and continue a tear reminsicent of their 2003 championship season. Last week's game vs. Miami was a big game for the Patriots in that it solidified their standing as a playoff team. Tomorrow night's game brings the stakes to a whole different level. It's no longer about becoming a contender. It's about setting yourself up to be the champ.
Patriots 27, Colts 13