(Nov. 1, 2005) -- At the midpoint, only one is perfect.
"Perfect" as in undefeated. And the Indianapolis Colts -- the NFL's lone unbeaten team at 7-0 as the season hits the halfway mark -- want to keep it that way in Week 9 after a bye. But wouldn't you know it? Their opponent this Monday night is their chief tormentor of the past several years -- the Super Bowl XXXIX champion New England Patriots.
More on that later. For now, let's put the Colts' accomplishment in its due perspective. This is only the 36th time in the NFL's 86-year history that a team has started a season at 7-0 (the Colts' best start ever). To put that "36" in context, since the NFL's inception in 1920, there have been 1,705 clubs that have played at least seven games in a season (counting the number of teams each season). That 36 who went 7-0 computes to .02 -- two percent of all NFL teams.
So the Colts' 7-0 is rare indeed.
"We need to have that stretch run," says head coach Tony Dungy. "In November, you want to be playing your best and coaching your best."
November in the NFL begins this week:
CAROLINA PANTHERS (5-2) AT TAMPA BAY BUCCNEERS (5-2) STORYLINE: Winner could take first in the NFC South.
The division is in a three-way tie for first (Atlanta), making it the NFL's strongest division with three clubs at .714.
The key matchup could be between a 65-year-old and a 26-year-old. In other words, what will Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin devise to stop what just might be the league's hottest receiver, Steve Smith? After a team-record 201 yards in Week 8, Smith leads the NFL in catches (50), receiving yards (797) and receiving TDs (8). "He's good, and we try to feed him as much as we can," understates Panthers QB Jake Delhomme.
This is a hot rivalry. Since the Bucs swept the season series in 2002, the first year of the NFC South, the Panthers have won the last four. The six games have been decided by an average of 7.7 points. "It's Tampa Bay," says Panthers S Mike Minter. "Say no more. That's it."
ATLANTA FALCONS (5-2) AT MIAMI DOLPHINS (3-4) STORYLINE: Battle of the backs.
Atlanta has the NFL's top running game, led by Warrick Dunn, who is sometimes overshadowed by the exploits of QB Michael Vick. But Dunn is the NFL's fourth leading rusher (732 yards) and has the highest average per carry (5.4) of the league's top 10 rushers. Thanks to the "DVD" attack of D unn, V ick and RB T.J. D uckett, the Falcons have four 200-yard rush games this year, tops in the league.
"I'm not saying Warrick is another Walter Payton, but they are a lot alike," says Falcons head coach Jim Mora. "Walter Payton never took any big hits, like Warrick. He knew how to twist his body at impact to avoid the big hit."
The Dolphins last week made a reality of the preseason vision of new head coach Nick Saban -- a potent tandem rushing attack. First-round draft pick Ronnie Brown, with 106 yards last Sunday, leads NFL rookies in rushing and rush TDs with 544 yards and three scores. Ricky Williams added his first solid outing of the season, compiling 82 yards on 17 carries. That spelled 188 rush yards for the Fish. "We were very effective using both of those guys," says Saban. "We're learning and growing on how we do that."
OAKLAND RAIDERS (3-4) AT KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (4-3) STORYLINE: The Raiders are coming on!
They lost their first three -- one to KC -- but have won three of their past four. And the comeback has much to do with LaMont.
Oakland's second big offseason acquisition after WR Randy Moss, RB LaMont Jordan kept asking for more carries. When he got them, starting on October 2, Oakland started to win. When Jordan carries 20 times a game, the Raiders win. He has averaged 87.8 yards in the past four games, with two 100-yard performances.
The Chiefs use a dual rush attack in Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson, who have combined for 850 yards and, together, tie San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson for the most rushing TDs in the AFC (10).
The QBs are as efficient as they come. Oakland's Kerry Collins (2), Kansas City's Trent Green (3) -- seeking to become the first Chiefs QB to post six victories in a row over Oakland -- and Denver's Jake Plummer (3) have the fewest interceptions of quarterbacks who have started every game.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (4-3) AT WASHINGTON REDSKINS (4-3) STORYLINE: Throw out last week!
That's what these two NFC East rivals say. One week after offensive fireworks for each, they each got pummeled in Week 8 (Eagles lost to Denver, 49-21; Redskins shut out by Giants, 36-0).
"There is adversity in every season," says Eagles head coach Andy Reid, speaking for himself and Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs. "You have to work through it and find the answer."
That answer could come in the passing game. Wide receivers Santana Moss of the Redskins (18.5) and Terrell Owens of the Eagles (16.2) lead the NFL top 10 in average yards per catch. Philadelphia tops the league in passing (295.7 yards), but Washington is No. 1 in pass defense (152.7)
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (7-0) AT NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (4-3) STORYLINE: Can Indy get over the hump?
The Patriots have won six in a row against the Colts. This will be the fifth time in the past three years they have played. Their last three games have been in Foxborough. Two of them have halted the Colts' playoff advancement. New England has outscored Indy 44-17 in those playoff matchups -- the 2003 AFC championship and the 2004 divisionals. Last year in the divisional playoffs in sleet and with a 16-degree wind chill, the Patriots held the NFL's highest-scoring offense to no touchdowns.
So…here we go again. And the Colts are ready. But not too ready. "It's that time," says their quarterback, Peyton Manning. "We know it's an important game and people are excited about it, but we have to approach it the same way we approach every game."
The difference this year? It might be the Colts' rejuvenated defense. In the past two playoff games between the clubs, Indy's defense was ranked No. 29 (2004) and No. 11 (2003) in the NFL. They come into Monday night as the league's No. 4 defense, leading the NFL in sacks (26). Colts DEs Robert Mathis (eight, tied for the league sack lead; sack in club-record seven consecutive games) and Dwight Freeney (six) are the only players from the same team in the NFL top 10 in sacks.
Pats QB Tom Brady, leader of the league's No. 2 pass offense, will be eyed by a fellow Michigan Wolverine, LB Cato June. Second in the league in interceptions (5), June is already more than halfway towards the NFL season record for INTs by a linebacker (8, Bulldog Turner, Chicago Bears, 1942; Archie Matsos, Buffalo, 1960; and Stan White, Baltimore, 1975).