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INDIANAPOLIS – One of the most competitive NFL rivalries over the past decade will continue again this Sunday as the Colts travel to the northeast to take on the 8-3 New England Patriots.
Since 2003, the teams have met three times in the playoffs, along with having eight encounters in the regular season.
The Colts are 5-6 in those 11 games, with the last six being decided by an average of 3.7 points per game. Indianapolis has won five of the last seven meetings.
Despite enduring a difficult season in 2011, Head Coach Jim Caldwell expects the same intensity that this rivalry has shown in previous meetings.
"The dynamics will be different, but just in terms of, obviously, having an opportunity to play against one of the best teams in the league that's playing extremely well," Caldwell said. "I think the guys will be looking forward to that."
One thing that will not be different heading into Sunday's game is the prolific Patriots offense.
Quarterback Tom Brady started the season with 517 passing yards in the opening game at Miami and has not slowed down since then. With the Patriots win over the Eagles last week, Brady now is tied with Johnny Unitas with 119 career wins as a starting quarterback.
The passing game has been what the Patriots have leaned on this season, and they rank second in the NFL with 319.1 yards per game through the air.
The offense is third in the NFL in scoring at 30.1 points per game, and its 429.5 offensive average ranks second in the league.
One of Brady's most consistent threats in the receiving department over the past five seasons has been wide receiver Wes Welker.
The speedy Welker plays as solidly as any receiver in the NFL. In his career with the Patriots, he has had 12 games with at least 10 receptions. Three times this season he has had games where he caught at least eight passes for 150 yards and a touchdown. He is one of six players ever to do that in a season in league history.
"They do a good job of moving him around for a number of different reasons, I would suspect," Caldwell said. "You can't just settle in and say, 'Hey, we're going to double-team him here or there,' because they can keep the doubles off of him. Also, they move him around due to match-ups as well. They try to get him matched up on your linebackers and depending on what kind of coverage that you're using, whether your nickel or your dime, how does he get isolated on your (middle) linebacker, how do they isolate him on your outside linebacker away from your nickel and things of that nature. They do a lot of creative things to give him an opportunity to do what he does best. He's so quick that he's really tough to handle."
Like he has always done throughout his career in Foxborough, Brady uses the tight end position extensively in the offense.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski has 11 touchdowns, which is just two short of the NFL record by a tight end for a season. Fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez has caught five touchdowns in 2011, despite fighting injuries. Sixteen scoring receptions by the duo account for more than half of Brady's 28 touchdown passes.
"Well, Rob's (Gronkowski) done a good job for us this year," Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "He did a good job for us last year. He's got good size and he takes a lot of pride in his blocking. He's a tough guy to match-up with down the field because he can run, he has good hands and (he) has good body control. He's a tough size match-up and a tough speed match-up for some of the linebackers, so he's done a real good job for us. Aaron (Hernandez) has made a lot of plays, too. He's doing excellent. He's got excellent quickness and hands, and he's got a good receiving skill set. (He's) a big guy that can also compete in the running game, too. They've done a good job and they've given us a good balance in our passing game that we, prior to the 2010 season, haven't had quite that much production out of our tight end position."
In the rushing department the Patriots use a pair of backs in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead.
Defending a multitude of players spread across the field will be the task of a Colts defense welcoming Mike Murphy as its new defensive coordinator this Sunday. Murphy has served with Indianapolis since 1998 as linebackers coach. He was given the added title this past Tuesday.
"Those two tight ends are just absolutely unbelievable because they give you so many huge match-up problems," Caldwell said. (Rob) Gronkowski and (Aaron) Hernandez, both guys can run and they're tall, but then (Wes) Welker just gives you another different dimension. He's quick and elusive. Then they run guys in and out at the running back position, between (Danny) Woodhead, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the whole bunch of guys that they run back and forth in there. They certainly give you a lot of issues on the outside, on the flanks. I think last week (Chad) Ochocinco did not dress, and that goes to show you (their depth). He's a good player and he can run. They have kind of different ways they attack different teams, and they utilize their personnel as well as anybody. If they see that you're adjusting one way, then they'll come out and give you other formations that may give you some other difficulties to get the match-ups that they want. They can strike you in so many ways, and (Tom) Brady's playing extremely well, 28 touchdowns at this time. He's spreading it around and doing a nice job, and they're running the ball pretty well. They can put pressure on you (with) no-huddle, quick-count, hard-count, they do it all."
Defensively, the Patriots rank 32nd overall in yards per game allowed and in passing defense. The numbers are skewed in large part because of the club's prolific offense. New England exceeded 30 points in each of the first five games, and they have topped that total in the last three games. With a scoreboard tilted in their favor, opponents are forced to try to keep pace. A truer indicator is New England ranks 11th in scoring defense.
The Patriots will face veteran quarterback Dan Orlovsky this Sunday. Orlovsky makes his first start in a Colts uniform, his first start since 2008 and only the eighth start of his seven-year career.
"I think he's a guy that certainly is comfortable within the framework of the system," Caldwell said. "I think he is a guy that's also been around the league awhile, so he's able to adjust and adapt to different sort of systemic problems that you may have or see from a defense (when they) give you different looks. He can adjust to those very easily. I think overall he's got a nice, strong arm, and we're anticipating that he's going to be accurate as well, and that's key. The big thing is, obviously, to stay away from turnovers, and he's got to play smart and not scared."
The Patriots have assured themselves of their 11th straight season with at least a .500 record. For the Colts, the chance to take another part in one of the game's best rivalries is motivation enough.
"It's one of those games where it's obvious that the rivalry is there. Let's just say that the rivalry is so intense that nobody is going to take it easy on anybody, no matter what the situation is," cornerback Jerraud Powers said. "That's just how rivalries go, and we're going to have our hands full. Tom (Brady) being Tom (Brady) once again, (Rob) Gronkowski is doing a tremendous job (and with Aaron) Hernandez, Deion Branch and Wes Welker, you've got a list of targets that (Tom Brady) can go to. (They have a) tremendous offense, and I think their defense is turning things around and playing way better than what I think they were playing in the first (half) of the year. It's going to be another tough match-up."
Patriots 31, Colts 28 – November 21, 2010
Down by 17 points in the fourth quarter, the Colts' chance for another historic comeback in the Patriots series came up three points short in Foxborough. Quarterback Peyton Manning accounted for all four of the Colts' touchdowns and threw for 396 yards. The Patriots jumped out to a 14-0 lead early, but Manning threw two second-quarter touchdown passes to bring the score to 21-14 at halftime. Coming out firing to start the second half, New England pushed the lead to 31-14 before Manning led the comeback attempt. Wide receiver Blair White caught five- and 18-yard touchdown passes in the final quarter before New England sealed the win with a late interception deep in its territory. Patriots running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead combined for 165 rushing yards to go along with Brady's 19-for-25 passing for 186 yards and two touchdowns.
Patriots tight ends against the Colts defense: In the past, the Colts are usually the ones with a plethora of tight ends at the disposal of the quarterback. Injuries have depleted the Colts in that department, though, and New England now boasts two of the best in the league. In 2010, Rob Gronkowski had 10 touchdowns and already has 11 this season. Fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez has five touchdowns of his own. They are the first tight end duo in league history to each record five touchdown receptions in back-to-back seasons. It remains to be seen how the Colts will defend the duo, but the tandem's production in the red zone will be cause for attention.
Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky against the Panthers defense: Heading back to the area where he played his college football (UConn), quarterback Dan Orlovsky will make his first start in a Colts uniform on Sunday. After playing sparingly through the first 11 games of the season, Orlovsky will have the reins from the opening whistle against the Patriots. Across the line, Orlovsky will see a defense that is ranked 11th in the league in scoring defense. Orlovsky could lean on fellow Connecticut product Donald Brown to balance out the offense.
-The last six Colts-Patriots games have been decided by an average of 3.7 points per game. New England leads the series, 6-5, in the 11 meetings since 2003, but Indianapolis has won five of the past seven series renewals.
-Colts offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo played his college football at Boston College.
-Colts linebacker Pat Angerer (111) leads the NFL in tackles.
-Indianapolis is averaging 4.4 yards per rush this season.
-Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney is 0.5 sacks away from 100 in his career. Should he reach the century mark in sacks, he would be the 26th NFL player to do so. Freeney is a native of Connecticut.
-The Patriots are 62-15 after Thanksgiving since 2001.
-Patriots Kicker Stephen Gostkowski has made 34 straight fourth-quarter field goals.
-Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker is averaging 7.1 catches per game, the best NFL average since 2007.
-New England's Matt Light, Niko Koutouvides and Rob Ninkovich all played collegiately at Purdue.
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell (on the rivalry with the New England Patriots):
"Obviously, there have been a lot of great games, and there have been a lot of hard-fought games. (The series) has had, probably, a different face on each and every one, because dynamics have changed. Whether we played there or here, and what was at stake for the particular game, there was always this time of year, typically, a lot at stake. That's what I think made the rivalry so intense, because both teams had typically played extremely well during the early part of the year and that was a very key game, just in terms of sort of setting the pace for the playoffs, where you're going to be seeded and things of that nature. It was always big, but it was a team laden with a lot of playmakers, so it was always pretty exciting."
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell (on what Dan Orlovsky brings to the table):
"Dan's been in the league a little while, and he's got experience in that regard. He was able to catch onto our system pretty quickly, even when he was here during preseason. One of the things that we all sort of marveled at was how quickly he was able kind of adapt and adjust, but I think that's the thing that you find out with the older guys in the league. They understand systems well, and they can just sort of do a real good job of being able to translate the information and function fairly quickly. What we anticipate him doing is being able to manage the offense. We do not plan to put all of the weight on his shoulders. We're going to have to spread things around a little bit, and do some things a little bit differently. Try to make certain that we use his strengths. He's a drop-back quarterback, but he can also get outside of the pocket as well. We'll try to utilize his abilities as best we can."
Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell(on the Patriots' tight ends):
"They are probably the best in the league, just in terms of a very, very talented group that not only can handle the line of scrimmage in terms of blocking, but are really great pass threats down the field. (Rob) Gronkowski is pretty effective, just in terms of getting after you a little bit there on the line. Also (Aaron) Hernandez is a talented guy, and (Tom) Brady uses everybody. He sprays that ball around, particularly down in the red zone. Those guys are tall targets that can jump and run. They are a very, very difficult match-up problem. That's the thing that they know, and one of the things that you do with those guys, particularly guys that can run at that position, is that you have the two tight ends in the ballgame, and you have to make a determination from a defensive standpoint (of), 'Okay, what do we do? Do we leave our base personnel in there with a regular linebacker, and then he's matched up with a guy who presents a real challenge in the pass game, or do we change it and put a little bit more of a fleet-footed guy, who may lack some size.' Then they're a threat to run the ball at you. So they do give you some problems in that regard."
Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky(on what he hopes to bring to the table)
"Hopefully a win. Whatever it takes to win would be the goal. Just to go run the offense. I'm not going to be Superman or anything like that. I'm just going to run the offense, try to get us in good situations, move the chains and go from there."
Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky(on his first start of the season coming against New England):
"(They are) a good team, and obviously, the tradition that they have over the last decade and the rivalry between these two organizations. It's exciting, and it will be a good challenge. They're playing well. They're hitting their streak, so it will be a good challenge for us."
Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick(on whether Wes Welker creates match-up problems for opponents):
"Wes is a good player. He primarily plays in the slot, like (Austin) Collie does for the Colts. Wes has had a very productive career. He was a punt returner in his past, so he has good 'run-after-catch' skills. He's quick and has good hands. I think any receiver, whether it's Reggie Wayne, Wes Welker, (Pierre) Garcon or whoever they are, those guys all have the ability within their own personal athletic characteristics to get open, catch the ball, create separation and run after the catch. They're all a little bit different, but they've all been productive and kind of have their own strengths and weaknesses. The bottom line is they're able to consistently produce in the passing game, and they have the skill set for it."
Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick (on whether the Patriots will prepare differently for Dan Orlovsky compared to Curtis Painter):
"We've seen a lot of (Dan) Orlovsky, and, of course, he's played in several games this year. I know (of) three or four games (that Orlovsky has played in). When we've seen him, certainly, we've scouted him from prior to this year, but we've seen him this year in the Colts system which is valuable because you can actually see him running their offense. Is there a difference between the two players? Sure, but they are both very capable players, and they've both played this year in the Colts offense, so you can certainly see both of them doing the things that the Colts do. They change plays, they adjust routes, they handle the check system at the line of scrimmage, and they're both good pocket passers, accurate, get the ball outside, down the field and make touch throws inside. They've both been very productive, and I've really been impressed with both guys. (Curtis) Painter's had a lot of really good plays. The Tampa game, he sliced them up when he saw their single-high coverages and got the ball outside to (Pierre) Garcon. Last week, getting the ball to (Reggie) Wayne. Orlovsky's had some opportunities to play at the end of a couple of games and has done well with those, too. I think both guys can definitely both run the offense, can be productive in the passing game and can attack defenses at all levels: short, intermediate, deep and both inside and outside. We'll be ready for both guys."
Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick (on assessing his defense performance thus far):
"Well, we'd like to give up less yards and less points. It is what it is, and we can't do anything about the 11 games we've played. But we're certainly looking to try to improve in all three phases of the game: offensively, defensively and special teams. We can improve defensively, obviously, by giving up less yards, by playing better on third down, giving up fewer points, keeping the offense further away from our goal line and not turning the ball over offensively, all of those things. We're just continually trying to get better on a week-to-week basis. We've had our moments. Some things have been good, other things have been not so good. We're trying to just correct them and play with more consistency and better technique and better execution every week. Certainly it will be a challenge this week against an explosive Colts offense that has a very good scheme, that really knows how to throw and run the ball and take advantage of bad looks on defense and expose them. The Colts' running game is as good as it's been in a decade, statistically. All of those backs have done a great job. I think that defensively we're really going to be put to the test because of the way the Colts play, and the way that if you're not in a good, sound look against them they'll get into a play that will kill you. You've got to defend the whole field against this team, and you can't just take away one thing. They have too many weapons and they're too good in their system at being able to attack it at a lot of different points."
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski(on playing in an explosive offense):
"The offense is great. It's so much fun to play here, and everyone's doing well. Everyone's doing their job. Everyone's clicking together and we're executing well, which is a great thing for the offense."
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski(on how he sees his role in the offense and Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez's role
"(We follow) whatever the game plan is. Coaches come in every single week, we go out to practice and we execute every game plan every week out in practice. Then when it comes to a game, we've got to bring what we had out at practice out to the game field. Whatever it is, whatever play (is) called and everything, that's what we've got to do. (We execute) what we learn in practice and bring it out to the game."