Week 6 was originally supposed to signal the return of Tom Brady. Instead, it could mark the return of Andrew Luck.
The overriding and oversaturated storyline remains: Sunday night’s meeting at Lucas Oil Stadium between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts is an AFC championship rematch, and it seems all involved are ready to move past the idea of deflated footballs.
Brady was initially suspended four games by the NFL for his alleged role in the so-called "Deflategate" scandal on his way to a fourth Super Bowl title in 14 seasons. He overcame that on a federal court’s decision and has instead been putting up MVP numbers with footballs that presumably have his opponents’ approval.
"Again, that’s history," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "What we’re going to focus on is today. … We’re focusing on us."
The game at the center of the investigation was the Patriots’ Super Bowl ticket-punching 45-7 win over the Colts on Jan 18, but the victories that have followed have been just as impressive even under a watchful eye.
New England has a shot at its first 5-0 start since running the regular-season table in 2007 – the only objective being heard from the Patriots entering the rematch.
"I’m always pretty motivated so it will be an exciting game," Brady said. "They’ve got a good team, they’ve won three straight, they’ve made some changes this offseason so they’re a confident team. It will take a great effort to beat them.
"We’ll work hard at practice and hopefully get us prepared to go out and beat a good team on the road Sunday night."
Brady guided last Sunday’s 30-6 win in Dallas after a bye, completing 20 of 27 for 275 yards and two touchdowns. He leads the NFL in rating (121.5) and yards per game (346.8), while he and the Colts’ Matt Hasselbeck are the only quarterbacks without an interception.
The consistent flow of fresh tools – made by Brady or provided for him – continues to evolve with running back Dion Lewis acting as 2015’s find and a complement to traditional offensive options Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.
The running game figures to be key with the Colts surrendering 219.0 yards per game and 5.05 per carry in the last three meetings. Their rush defense for the season, however, has been better while limiting opponents to 3.84 per carry.
"We’re different up front," Pagano said.
The versatile Lewis has ceded carries the last two weeks to the bigger LeGarrette Blount, who has 31 compared to Lewis’ 14. Lewis, however, has 13 catches for 89 yards and scored an impressive touchdown against the Cowboys.
"We have a lot of guys that can play a lot of different positions," receiver Danny Amendola said. "We’re just trying to continue to get them in position to make plays and we made enough (Sunday) to win the game and we’re going to try to continue to do so."
A concern that might have emerged in the Dallas game was Brady’s protection. He absorbed five sacks for the first time in just under two years after averaging 1.76 over a span of 29 games, though Indianapolis’ six sacks are tied for 29th ahead of Miami’s one.
Brady might now need to watch his back for the rest of the season. The Patriots placed left tackle Nate Solder on injured reserve Wednesday after he left the Cowboys game with an arm injury.
”Nate is a big part of our team and the group in the locker room,” Edelman told members of the Indianapolis media on a conference call. ”He’s a guy that’s a true professional. All that means is that other guys have to step up.”
New England countered that disruption in Dallas with zero turnovers for a second straight game, and its two for the year lead football while its plus-5 differential is tied for fifth.
Indianapolis, meanwhile, ranks 31st at minus-7 in large part because of Luck.
Luck (shoulder) returned to practice earlier this week as a full participant, but Hasselbeck has provided the team with quite a reprieve from Luck’s struggles. The Colts (3-2) won both games in his absence with Hasselbeck throwing two TD passes in a 27-20 win at Houston on Oct. 8.
The team listed Luck as questionable on Friday’s injury report after he did limited work in practice for the past three days.
The Colts have won three straight after an alarming start in which Luck threw seven interceptions, tying Tampa Bay rookie Jameis Winston for the league’s most. Indianapolis’ preferred starter’s 6.0 percent INT rate is the highest in the NFL.
Whoever starts will have to figure out a pass defense that’s limited its last three opponents to 196.3 yards per game, though the Colts’ offense has started to display some of the tools it hoped would put it over the hump – even if those tools seem over the hill.
Andre Johnson caught six passes for 77 yards and two scores against the Texans, while Frank Gore has rushed for 237 yards and three TDs during the win streak. The Colts re-signed running back Ahmad Bradshaw on Wednesday.
Still, the offense ranks 24th in scoring (19.8 points per game) and 23rd in total offense (334.8) a season after being in the top six of each.
The playoff win was New England’s sixth straight in the series by an average of 21.0 points with Luck starting the last four, but only one has come in Indianapolis. Past performance is of no concern to Pagano.
"This team hasn’t played that team, right?" Pagano said. "Got no relevance."
After Brady’s terrific start, the same might be said about footballs.