Both the Patriots (7-2) and the Colts (6-3) had the benefit of the bye week to prepare for this Sunday night's big AFC battle in Indianapolis. That time off was all that could slow down New England's recent offensive surge, with the team riding an impressive five-game winning streak into this meaningful, marquee matchup. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski hit the bye as two of the hottest players in the NFL for a New England offense that now ranks third in the league in points. But Andrew Luck's Colts have been almost equally as impressive, leading the NFL in scoring while having won six of their last seven games following an 0-2 start to the season. The Patriots pre-bye blowout of the Broncos positioned Bill Belichick's squad as the team to beat in the AFC. But there is a long time between now and the playoffs, and Sunday night's game could have postseason seeding ramifications. The Patriots want to stamp themselves as the clear top team in the conference. The Colts hope to squeeze their way into the conversation with Denver and New England. It's a big game displaying an aging Hall of Fame passer and the supposed future of the passing game. It's an extension of the long-standing rivalry between the two franchises with a bit of a new feel. It's the best game of the weekend. As you try to distract yourself waiting not-so-patiently for the primetime kickoff, enjoy this India(na) Pale Ale Patriots at Colts Pregame Six-Pack!
- Gronk on!** - Gronkowski has smashed and dashed his way into the MVP conversation with the way he's transformed the Patriots offense over the last five weeks. As NBA superstar LeBron James observed, Gronk is "a big Motherf----r." He's once again proven himself arguably the most dominant offensive force in the NFL today. He's declared himself back. His numbers have declared that he's the straw that stirs the New England drink on offense. He's also a guy who should instill fear in the entire Colts defense. Indy's pass defense ranks 27th in the NFL. Their red zone defense is 32nd in the league. Brady should attack those weaknesses by continuing to go at Gronk as often as possible. The strength of the Colts defense is on the outside at corner. Darius Butler is a question in the slot. Old friend Sergio Brown - who's really a special teamer - is a major question at safety and even a returning Laron Landry isn't much better. Nor are Indy's linebackers. Gronkowski should find plenty of room to work in the middle of the field to lead the New England passing attack. And if Chuck Pagano's team goes all-in to try to take Gronk away, it will certainly open up plenty of other options for Brady to work with elsewhere in the passing attack. It's Gronk's field, the other 21 guys are just playing on it.
- Luck off** - Luck is arguably the best young quarterback in the game today. He's putting up huge numbers - leading the NFL in passing yards and ranking second in touchdown passes - while carrying the bulk of the load for the Colts winning ways. He's a big, strong, accurate playmaker who has the ability to extend plays with his legs. The one real weakness to Luck's game is his tendency to throw a few too many interceptions. That's been an issue in his past trips to New England. It's been an issue this season, although his nine picks isn't exactly worthy of downgrading his status as one of the best in the game. The Patriots have the best turnover differential in the NFL and have notched 18 takeaways. If New England can force Luck into mistakes - he's also lost two of his six fumbles on the season - it would go a long way toward turning a potential shootout into a more comfortable situation for the road underdogs. That was certainly part of the success Belichick's defense has had in the past, forcing seven interceptions in two meetings with Luck. But he's an older, more experienced player now with a much deeper cast of weapons. Luck is more dangerous than ever, but interceptions still remain his kryptonite.
- Protect the 12** - The Colts general theory on defense is to man up on the outside and blitz the quarterback. That's not generally a great tactic against Brady. While the Patriots offensive line has been a bit better in recent weeks - it's certainly settled down with the left-to-right five of Nate Solder, Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell and Sebastian Vollmer - it's far from an impenetrable front. The Colts don't sport a true elite edge rusher with Robert Mathis hurt and Dwight Freeney now entrenched elsewhere. But Indy still has notched 24 sacks on the season spread around 10 different guys, including six guys with three or more sacks. It's a pressure front that can come at you from a variety of areas. That will test the line's communication. It will test Brady both mentally and physically. It will also probably be the only way the Indy pass defense is going to be able to slow down No. 12 or try to force him into a few mistakes that might alter the landscape of the game. The Colts back end isn't nearly good enough to just line up and cover against Brady, Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Shane Vereen and the rest of the Patriots passing attack.
- Middle men** - While the Colts don't have the top-end elite talent in terms of pass-catchers that the Patriots faced with the battle with the Broncos before the bye, Indy may actually bring a deeper group to this matchup. T.Y. Hilton is the young No. 1 receiver averaging nearly 17 yards a catch. Reggie Wayne is now more of a possession guy at his age and coming off a torn ACL, but he still is second on the team to Hilton with his 42 receptions. The tight end duo of Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener has combined for 48 catches and 11 touchdowns. Allen's seven touchdowns are a team high from a guy who New England didn't see last winter. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw has been very productive out of the backfield to the tune of 34 catches and six touchdowns. All told Luck has eight receivers with 17 or more catches. Eight guys who've caught a touchdown. And nine targets with a reception of 20 yards or longer. That's a very deep, productive, complementary passing attack that will challenge the Patriots pass defense - both vertically and horizontally -- and maybe spread it as thin as any unit the group has faced this fall. The matchups on the outside probably favor New England, but the versatile weapons at tight end and running back are an area that will challenge the Patriots linebackers, safeties and extra defensive backs. Jamie Collins owned Fleener last January. Patrick Chung has been better in coverage this year than we've seen previously. Devin McCourty has been solid. Add in New England's secondary surplus with the likes of Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler and Alfonzo Dennard and this is a battle of depth vs. depth. But the area that Luck may look to attack - much like Brady could do when he's got his chances to toss the rock - is the middle of the field. Hilton and Luck are the names of the Colts passing attack, but Allen and Bradshaw might be just as important to stopping the Indy assault.
- While there is an argument to be made that two of the best quarterbacks in the game today will be attacking each other on the Lucas Oil Stadium scoreboard Sunday night, it's practically a fact that the NFL's top two kickers will be doing the same. Aging legend and former Patriots Super Bowl hero Adam Vinatieri has hit each of his 20 field goal attempts this fall, literally kicking Father Time dismissively in the proverbial uprights. Stephen Gostkowski has an NFL-best 24 field goals, his only miss of the year coming thanks to a bad snap. The two are the only players with 20 field goals or more on the season - a testament to their skill as well as the offenses with which they play. There certainly is the possibility that these two teams could find themselves in a shootout. There will likely be plenty of chances to score points, some of those coming on field goals. And if odds makers are right, it's certainly possible that this game could come down to a late field goal that might be the difference in the outcome. Both teams would have to feel good in that situation.
- Road ahead** - One of the big talking points this week - especially in talk-radio circles - was New England's road record and supposedly limited success away from Foxborough. Sure the Patriots have been a .500 road team for the most part of late. They've also been one of the most dominant home teams. So when you win seven or eight games a year at home and are annually in line to win 12-plus games, it means those losses are likely to come on the road, where it's quite obviously harder to win. It's why Vegas gives three points in consideration of the location of the game. All that said, the Patriots have a bit of a daunting road run in the next month that starts with this trip to Indy and then really ramps up two weeks later with consecutive road games against Green Bay and San Diego. This could be the most important of those road games given the potential playoff ramifications and seeding possibilities. Beating Luck and the Colts in Indy would certainly qualify as a marquee road victory. It would certainly have to quiet some of the Patriots most obnoxious road critics. It would also be a very nice step onward toward the No. 1 seed in the conference. It won't be easy. Road games never are, especially against teams playing at a high level. It can be argued this is a huge game for the Colts as they look to stamp themselves as a top-tier team in the AFC and NFL. Indy is the favorite. So it will take an upset for the Patriots to garner the impressive road win. Despite what some seem to think, it's a road upset that the Patriots are clearly capable of pulling off.
Put simply, it's pretty easy to envision either of these two teams winning this key AFC contest. It's also likely that a good number of points are going to be scored with two of the top three scoring attacks in the NFL facing off inside Lucas Oil. I'd be willing to set the over/under for total touchdown passes at eight in this duel of No. 12s. Brady vs. Luck III is in the young gunslinger's house this time. As is the case with all games, it comes down to matchups and turnovers. I like the Patriots matchup of Gronkowski against the middle of the Colts defense as much as any matchup to date this season. Either Gronk is going to kill the middle of the Indy defense or Pagano is going to sell out to stop him and open things up elsewhere. Either way, it's an advantage for the road squad. In terms of turnovers, I also have to give the advantage to the Patriots. New England forces turnovers. The Colts turn the ball over more often, paced by Luck. That's another positive factor for the road underdogs. The one thing I do question is the Patriots ability to deal with all the weapons that Luck throws at a defense, including his ability to run a little bit and keep drives alive against a front that will be without Chandler Jones yet again. The Colts have the best third-down defense in football. They have the worst red zone defense in the game. The bottom line is that I think the Patriots Gronkowski-led offense is at the point there you can pencil it in for 30-plus points against any team it faces. The Colts are just a couple weeks removed from allowing Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers to put up 51 points. I think that's more indicative of the Colts defense than the decent games it had against the likes of the Bengals, Ravens and Titans. Brady will throw for 300 yards. He will throw at least four touchdowns. Vereen could have a big night in yards from scrimmage. And I expect a turnover or two - or forced punts - to derail the Colts impressive attack enough to allow New England to pull off the 38-27 road win. It should be fun. It should see plenty of plays made by both teams. And it should re-establish the post-bye Patriots as arguably the best team in football.