Peyton Manning is no longer in Indy, but the Patriots (6-3) and Colts (6-3) will still battle on Sunday in a game that puts two AFC playoff contenders head to head. Andrew Luck is the new star of the Indianapolis passing attack, with the No. 1 overall pick helping turn around a team that very much earned that top pick in last spring's draft. The emotional story of Colts head coach Chuck Pagano's ongoing battle with cancer is well known, and Indy has clearly used that emotional motivation this fall. This is a huge measuring stick game for the upstart young team from Indiana, and another game for the Patriots to prove that they can take care of business when they are supposed to. While you're soaking in all the Luck hype and booking your tickets for his 2030 induction in to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, get ready for his battle with a actual definitive future Hall of Famer by drinking in this Colts Edition Friday Six-Pack!
1. Talib's role? – Aqib Talib has been practicing all week and is clearly expected to be added to the 53-man roster in time for Sunday's late afternoon kickoff against the Colts. Now, the question is what kind of role Talib will have in his first game in a New England uniform and how that will improve the defense. The general consensus is that Talib is at his best in man coverage on the outside. He's sounded pretty confident this week that given his career experience he would be able to handle anything that the Patriots coaches might ask him to do. New England hasn't often matched up corners with receivers over the years, even dating back to Ty Law's time as a Patriot. But it could certainly be argued that such an approach might be warranted given the Talib addition and the previous performances/struggles of the current secondary. I'll be stunned if Talib isn't activated and doesn't play a big role on defense for the Patriots against the Colts. What that role will be, though, is a question that has me very much intrigued at this point.
2. Wayne's world – As much as Andrew Luck is getting all the hype and praise, veteran receiver Reggie Wayne is being a big overlooked. The veteran playmaker decided to return to the Colts (there was even some talk that he could have landed in New England) as a free agent this offseason. Seems like the right call as he leads the NFL with 69 receptions and 931 yards. He has nearly twice the production of the Colts No. 2 target, Donnie Avery. He's getting the job done in the Colts new Steelers-like offense in which Bill Belichick says Wayne is basically filling the old Hines Ward role. The Patriots usually focus on taking away an opponent's top weapon – see Larry Fitzgerald's production in Week 2 – and this week that is Wayne. Could we see Talib match up with Wayne? Will Talib cover Avery with the Patriots using double-coverage on Wayne? The Colts sport the NFL's No. 8 passing attack, and Wayne is a big reason for that. We all know that the Patriots pre-Talib pass defense has had its issues. Will Wayne take advantage of that or will we leave this game praising the unit for taking away Luck's top target?
3. Health concerns – Never good when three starters on offense miss practice for most of the week, especially when the unit was already without another starter. Wes Welker and Dan Connolly returned to practice on Friday, and Aaron Hernandez was out there on a limited basis all week. But that trio remains questionable for Sunday's game, while Logan Mankins is listed as doubtful after missing practice all week. NFL Network reported via Twitter that Hernandez was expected to sit out against Indy. Welker may play, but I think there is a chance that he's limited on some level. That really cuts into Tom Brady's targets and could change the success of the offense. (Could Visanthe Shiancoe have a bigger role this week?) And as well as the interior line backups have played all season, it's never good to have this many injuries to one side of the ball or to one area. Health will never be an excuse, but it's always an issue to keep an eye on when a team's injury report is as long as New England's is at this point, littered with key names.
4. Butler and Co. – The Colts will be without both starting cornerbacks, although Darius Butler is the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week after his three turnovers last week against the Jags. Still, Brady should be licking his chops at going after Butler, who the quarterback has beaten often on the Gillette Stadium practice fields. The Colts pass defense ranks 15th in the NFL. And the Patriots injuries on offense could limit the production through the air, but still I'd like to see Brady challenge the edges of the Colts secondary and look to get an early lead through the air. Can you imagine if Butler had another big day and made plays against the team that drafted him? That would be quite a story. But to me it sounds a lot more like fiction than potential reality. More likely is that Brady shows the world why Butler has bounced around a bit in his early NFL career and treats him in front of 68,000 fans like he used to on the training camp fields behind Gillette Stadium.
5. Numbers or results? – The Colts, and to some degree Andrew Luck, are a very interesting team when you compare their numbers to their results. Luck has turned a terrible team into a winning, 6-3 playoff contender. He's the talk of the football world with praise being heaped on faster than me putting food on my plate at a buffet. But Luck's numbers aren't all that impressive. He has 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He completes less than 58 percent of his passes. His rating is barely above 79. He doesn't shine on third down. Not at his best in the fourth quarter. He takes chances with the ball. So will he be able to move the ball consistently against the Patriots secondary? Who doesn't? But does he have what it takes to win? That's a question. His team has scored as many as 30 points just once. They give up more points than they've scored over the course of the season. They have a minus-9 turnover ratio. It's amazing that all equates to an impressive record – the same 6-3 record the Patriots have at this point in the year. Like the Patriots, the Colts have also played a number of tight games. But in the end can they put enough points on the board to hang with the Patriots? Probably not. Can their defense, which allows opposing passers a combined rating for 96.5 on the season, keep Brady in check? Probably not. The Colts will probably live up to their numbers more than their record in this one.
6. No rush – New England's tackles have done a very good job this year proving themselves against weekly challengers. They have another book-end test this week with veterans Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Both have battled injuries and are in slightly new roles in the Colts new-look 3-4 front. Mathis has had the more productive year with six sacks, while Freeney has just two. Both have made careers out of not only getting to the quarterback, but forcing fumbles once they get there. They can literally ruin an entire game on one or two plays. Former first-round pick Jerry Hughes is also in the mix with four sacks. So Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer will once again have to bring their top performances to ensure that Brady isn't harried and hurried. The rush really hasn't been a problem all season. It needs to stay that way.
As probably became clear in my tone through the six points above, I don't think the Colts are really a team worthy of having the same record as the Patriots at this point in the season. I mean they lost to the Jaguars for crying out loud. They are a nice story, the kind of sports story that all fans can root for considering the situation with Pagano. But in the end this isn't a question of emotion or good stories, it's about talent and making plays on the field. Across the board, I think the Patriots have the advantage in most areas. I expect New England to be able to run the ball and throw it on Indy. I think Brady will build a lead that Luck will not be able to overcome. The rookie passer will likely throw for a lot of yards, as most opponents do against New England. But with the Patriots likely limiting Wayne's damage and holding a lackluster rushing attack in check, Luck won't be able to put enough points on the board to get into a 30-something shootout. The Colts have a four-game winning streak that will come to an end, while the Patriots will extend their own streak to four in a row with a 38-27 victory over the upstart visitors. And I actually think it could end up being more lopsided that than, but recent performances have made me a bit gun shy about predicting the Patriots to blow out any team, especially one that's been as competitive as the Colts have been all year.