While the supporting casts around Tom Brady and Peyton Manning keep changing, it’s hardly surprising to see the two superstars leading first-place teams into their latest November showdown.
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Manning will guide the banged-up Indianapolis Colts into Foxborough on Sunday for another highly anticipated clash with Brady’s New England Patriots, who hope to build on a dominating road performance and stay unbeaten at home.
"They (the Pats) are a good team, arguably playing as well as anybody and it’s a tough place to play," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. "It’s always been a huge rivalry because both teams have been playing well whenever we’ve met, so there’s a lot at stake."
One reason is the timing of the matchup between the NFL’s winningest clubs of the past decade, which is taking place in November for the sixth straight year. While the Colts have won four of the previous five, Brady missed one due to injury and is still 7-4 in 11 career meetings with Manning, including two wins in three playoff games.
Last year’s finish was especially dramatic. The Patriots led by 13 with 2:30 remaining, but the Colts came back to win 35-34 at home Nov. 15 – aided by New England coach Bill Belichick’s controversial decision. The Patriots tried to ice the game by going for it on 4th and 2 from their own 28-yard line, but came up short.
"I haven’t thought about it at all since probably that game, since that night," Brady said. "I’m always confident that we’re going to be able to make the play."
Both quarterbacks have overcome a fair share of turmoil this season – especially Manning, whose Colts (6-3) hold a one-game lead over Tennessee and Jacksonville in the AFC South despite being decimated by key injuries.
Tight end Dallas Clark, wide receivers Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez and running backs Joseph Addai and Mike Hart have all been missing from Indianapolis’ offense. Safeties Bob Sanders and Melvin Bullitt and a trio of starting linebackers also are ailing.
"Every game is about surviving," receiver Reggie Wayne said after last Sunday’s 23-17 win over Cincinnati. "Every game is going to be tough, no matter who we have out there, if we have the original starter or the new starters. (Opponents) are going to look at it just like it’s the plain old Colts out there, no matter who is out there. They are trying to survive also."
Clark and Gonzalez remain out, while it’s unclear if Addai, Hart or Collie will return. Tight end Jacob Tamme has helped minimize the damage from Clark’s season-ending injury, totaling an NFL-high 24 catches in the last three games for 245 yards and two touchdowns.
Still, the passing game struggled against the Bengals. Manning had season lows in passing yards (185) and completion percentage (55.6), and he was held without a touchdown pass for the second time this year.
"We just have to keep working and find a way to score more points and keep our defense out of those pressure situations," Manning said. "They came up big all day and we have to try and do our part."
The four-time NFL MVP lost his first seven career starts at New England – two in the playoffs – totaling nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions. But he has thrown for 647 yards with five TDs and two INTs in his last two visits, Indianapolis victories in November of 2005 and ’06.
Brady, however, has won his last 24 regular-season home starts, one shy of Brett Favre’s 25 with Green Bay from 1995-98 – the most since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
The Patriots (7-2) are 4-0 at home and tied with the New York Jets atop the AFC East despite starting several rookies on defense and operating with a revamped offense following the departure of Randy Moss.
Both units sputtered during a 34-14 loss at Cleveland on Nov. 7, but New England bounced back with an impressive 39-26 win at Pittsburgh last Sunday night as Brady threw for a season-high 350 yards and three touchdowns – all to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski.
"We made big plays when we needed to make them," Brady said. "It’s an exciting game for us in this locker room. We haven’t been this happy in a long time. We’re pretty good when we execute the right way."
No opponent had reached 100 rushing yards or 300 passing yards against the Steelers this season, but the Patriots did both.
"If we learned from that (Cleveland) game, and if that loss helped us do things better in this (Pittsburgh) game or in future games, then that’s an unfortunate positive that we could take out of that game," coach Bill Belichick said. "There’s such a fine line in this league between being good and being bad that, in a lot of cases, it doesn’t take a lot for that differential to show up, one way or the other."
Neither New England nor Indianapolis has been bad very often over the last decade. Since the start of the 2000 season, the Patriots’ 133-54 record – including postseason – is the NFL’s best, while the Colts are second at 130-56.
With both teams winning their divisions almost every year during that span, they’re meeting in the regular season for the eighth consecutive season – the longest current streak between non-divisional opponents.
"(The Colts) will be another big challenge," Belichick said. "It would be nice to sit around and celebrate … for a while, but there’s just no time for that."