When the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts face each other, AFC supremacy is usually on the line. That's not the case this year, as each team has had to cope with a multitude of injuries and neither has dominated its competition.
The Patriots enter Sunday night's contest at Lucas Oil Stadium in the better shape of the two, looking to win their third straight game while the Colts try to avoid a third consecutive defeat.
Although these onetime AFC East rivals have not played in the same division since the NFL realigned before the 2002 season, they have forged arguably the league's top rivalry of this decade. This will be the sixth consecutive regular season in which New England and Indianapolis have played each other, and the fourth straight year the meeting has occurred in the first week of November.
The Patriots have taken three of the five regular-season games against the Colts since 2003, and those matchups have been of utmost importance. The winner of this game has gone on to host the AFC Championship game in three of the last five years and represented the AFC in the Super Bowl following four of the last five seasons.
This season's landscape is different, with each team having faced major hurdles in the first half of the regular season. With Tom Brady out for the year due to a knee injury and backup Matt Cassel at quarterback, New England (5-2) has managed to scrap its way into a tie with Buffalo for the East lead.
The prospects are worse in Indianapolis (3-4), where Peyton Manning has played every game but often looked out of sync after missing most of the preseason with a staph infection in his left knee. Monday night's 31-21 loss to unbeaten Tennessee dropped the five-time defending division champions four games out of the AFC South lead and below .500 through seven games for the first time since 1998 -- Manning's rookie season.
"In the grand scheme of things, winning the division is going to be tough to do," Colts coach Tony Dungy said.
Not much has come easy for the Colts in 2008. They've had to rally from fourth-quarter deficits to earn two of their three wins, with the lone exception a 31-3 rout of Baltimore in Week 6. The perennial All-Pro Manning has put up mediocre numbers, with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His 61.1 completion percentage and 79.0 passer rating are both his lowest since he was a rookie.
Manning completed 26 of 41 passes Monday night and threw for two scores, but he also got picked off twice and his 223 passing yards were a season low. The Colts' defense had trouble all night putting the ball back in the hands of Manning, allowing the Titans to convert on 7 of 13 third downs and control the ball for more than 34 minutes.
Now, instead of the inside track to home-field advantage, beating the Patriots would merely allow the Colts to avoid their first three-game losing streak since Oct. 21-Nov. 3, 2002.
"I hope we play a little ticked off," Manning said. "There's a healthy way to be angry and try to bounce back and do something about it."
Angry or not, Indianapolis may get a little more healthy this week. Dungy said three injured starters -- running back Joseph Addai, safety Bob Sanders and cornerback Kelvin Hayden -- all could return to face New England.
While the prospects of a division title are growing remote, Indianapolis is only one game out of a wild-card spot in a conference where no team other than Tennessee has looked dominant.
"We've got to realize that there's a lot of season left," tight end Dallas Clark said.
New England's season might have appeared over after Brady's injury in Week 1, but the inexperienced Cassel seems to be finding his footing. The fourth-year veteran, who hadn't started a game that counted since high school, has helped the Patriots put 64 points on the board to win their last two games. He threw for a career-high 267 yards in last week's 23-16 victory over St. Louis, going 4-for-4 on a decisive fourth-quarter drive culminating with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Faulk with 3:13 remaining.
"Matt's arm's always been great and he's extremely accurate," New England fullback Heath Evans said. "It's just been him getting more comfortable with everybody around him and more comfortable with the play calling."
Cassel also appears to be gaining comfort with receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker, who had seven catches apiece against the Rams. Moss, who managed only six receptions for 47 yards in Cassel's first two starts, has 12 for 171 yards and two scores the last two weeks.
Cassel has needed to show growth with the injuries plaguing the entire New England roster. Starting running back Laurence Maroney is on injured reserve and the status of his replacement, Sammy Morris, is uncertain after he missed last week's game with a knee injury. Without them, Faulk -- a 10-year veteran usually used only in passing situations -- shouldered the load and ran 13 times for 60 yards.
"It seems like you can always count on Kevin, no matter what phase of the game it's in," coach Bill Belichick said. "Whatever he can do to help us win, he'd do -- mop the floors, he'd mop them."
The Patriots' secondary is also riddled by injuries. Safety Rodney Harrison is out for the season, cornerback Deltha O'Neal missed most of last week's game after suffering a head injury in the first quarter and cornerback Ellis Hobbs hurt his shoulder against the Rams.
New England defeated the Colts 24-20 in Foxborough last Nov. 4, when Faulk caught a 13-yard TD pass from Brady with 3:15 to play. Addai gained 226 yards of total offense in that game, including a career-long 73-yard touchdown reception from Manning.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press