STILL A CHALLENGE

The Patriots don't have quarterback Tom Brady, and unlike last season, they're not undefeated entering Sunday's game with the Colts. Still, Colts players said this week, that doesn't mean New England isn't very, very good.

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Despite New Look, Patriots Still Very, Very Good, Colts Players Say
INDIANAPOLIS – They're without their usual quarterback.

And aside from the absence of 2007 National Football League Most Valuable Player Tom Brady, the New England Patriots look different than they did a year ago. They're without two other familiar names, too, and their record isn't as glowing as this time a year ago.

But Colts players and coaches this week said to make no mistake:

Even without Brady . . .

Even without Rodney Harrison and Laurence Maroney . . .

Even without an unbeaten record . . .

Even without those things, the Patriots are good. Very, very good.

"They're 5-2 and playing well and coming off a good win," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said as the Colts (3-4) prepared to play the Patriots at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 8:15 p.m.

"We'll still have a tough challenge."

The Patriots, after going through the regular-season unbeaten a year before losing in Super Bowl XLII, lost Brady to a knee injury in the season opener. After that, they were considered by many observers to have little chance of contending this season.

The observers hardly could have been more wrong.

The Patriots not only won their opener without Brady, they won their next game, too, and since a 38-13 loss to the Miami Dolphins at home in Week 3, former backup quarterback Matt Cassel – who hadn't started a game since high school until Brady's injury – has improved steadily.

New England followed its bye week with a 30-21 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, and after a nationally-televised loss in San Diego, they returned home to beat AFC West-leading Denver, 41-7, before rallying for a 23-16 victory over St. Louis this past Sunday.

That's three victories in four games. One of those victories came over a division leader.

That's contending, and Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said the Patriots have done so for the same reasons they have won the last five AFC East championships, and for the same reasons they won Super Bowls following the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons.

"New England does a great job of utilizing the strengths of everybody they have and minimizing their weaknesses," Dungy said.

The Patriots this season have lost more than Brady. Maroney, a first-round selection in the 2006 NFL Draft and the team's leading rusher last season, is on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, and Harrison – long one of the NFL's top safeties – is out with a quadriceps injury.

"It's a total team effort, and we always knew that," Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour said. "Over the course of the last few seasons, injuries are a part of the game and we understand that everyone has a stake in the football team. The only thing that you can go out and do is do your job. You can't try to take care of someone else's responsibility. And you have to make the plays when it's your time to make them."

Said Dungy, "They do it better than anybody I've seen. They don't seem to worry about adversity. They don't worry about who can't play. Frankly, we've taken a lesson from them. I've used them and illustrated them in the past, 'This is how they do it.' They get everybody ready to go. The healthy guys play as well as they can and the new guys do their job. They've done it great and have been an example for everyone over the years."

Dungy said that approach can be seen in the play of Cassel.

Cassel, who spent his college career at Southern California backing up Heisman Trophy winners Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer, spent 2005-2007 as a reserve with New England. He was the third quarterback in 2005 and the backup in 2006 and this season.

And while Dungy said the Patriots' offense is different this season than last, when Brady threw an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes, it's effective and improving.

"He has different strengths than Tom Brady, and they're playing to that and doing it," Dungy said. "They're moving the ball in a different way, and doing some different things. But, he's doing well and I think the more he plays the more chemistry he's developing with his receivers, with (Randy) Moss and (Wes) Welker. He's going to get it going.

"He throws a nice ball. You can see the progress. You can see him getting better week in and week out."

Cassel this season has completed 131 of 199 passes for 1,362 yards and seven touchdowns with six interceptions for a rating of 84.6. He was the AFC's Player of the Week in the Patriots' victory over Denver, and this past Sunday, he completed 21 of 33 passes for 267 yards and the game-winning touchdown pass in the victory over St. Louis.

"He certainly has played sharper the last two games I've seen on tape," Dungy said.

Randy Moss, who set an NFL record a year ago with 23 touchdown receptions, has caught 32 passes for 471 yards and four touchdowns this season, and Wes Welker has caught 49 passes for 466 yards and a touchdown.

"It's still effective," Colts middle linebacker and defensive captain Gary Brackett said of the Patriots' offense. "They're doing some different things and running the ball a little more with Cassel in there. He's still getting the ball to Welker and Moss on the outside and putting some points on the board."

The Patriots, after finishing first in the NFL in passing and 13th in rushing a year ago, are ranked 19th in passing and sixth in rushing this season. After averaging 115.1 yards rushing game last season, they are averaging 130.4 this season.

"They're doing some different things," Dungy said. "Obviously, with Brady it was really up-tempo and throwing the ball up-field a bit. He (Cassel) is getting rid of the ball really quickly and using all of his receivers. They're running the ball a little bit more than they have in the past, but I think he's growing into things."

Said Colts safety Bob Sanders, "They're still good. They're very productive and have very productive backs. Their receivers are good. They do an excellent job reading the field and getting the ball to those guys. They're running the ball more than they have, so we definitely have to step up against the run. We have to play hard, play fast, like we've been doing."

Defensively, the Patriots long have been of the NFL's best units, allowing the fewest points in the NFL from 2003-2007. This season, New England has allowed eighth-fewest points in the NFL, and in their five victories this season, the Patriots have allowed 12.8 points a game.

"We feel like we have a good football team and we can find a lot of different ways to win," Seymour said. "I think that's a sign of a good football team. Obviously it's hard to win without (Brady) at quarterback, but we feel like we have a good team, whoever we put out on the football field. I feel like we have some talented players and there are a lot of different ways to win a football game other than just putting up a lot of points."

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