INDIANAPOLIS –In many ways the Colts turned a page from history to the future on their roster this year.
As Indianapolis faces New England for the tenth straight regular season, it will do so with only 18 players who played for the club prior to this year. By comparison, New England has 35 players who were with the club prior to 2012, while another – wide receiver Deion Branch – has a previous body of work with the team.
The competitive nature of the long-standing rivalry will spawn many comparisons before the teams kickoff this Sunday at 4:25 p.m. in front of a majority of the nation.
An area that is very distinguished for New England is the tight ends, particularly with the successes of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski and Hernandez are two of the four players at the position for the Patriots, and they are two of the most effective in the NFL.
Gronkowski (46 receptions for 611 yards and eight touchdowns) and Hernandez (17 receptions for 143 yards and two touchdowns) are off to productive starts to the season. They combined for 169 receptions, 2,237 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011 (Gronkowski, 90-1,327, 17; Hernandez, 79-910, seven), the highest tandem totals by tight ends in history.
In 2010, Gronkowski had 10 scoring receptions and Hernandez had five, and they stand as the only duo in NFL history to have five or more touchdowns in consecutive seasons.
During the years of the rivalry, Indianapolis fielded tight ends such as Marcus Pollard, Dallas Clark and Jacob Tamme, but a building process in Indianapolis that includes 17 new coaches and a new general manager has meant a reconstruction of that unit in 2012.
Indianapolis spent second- and third-round picks on tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, young players who, along with the October addition of Weslye Saunders, have interim field leader Bruce Arians pleased with the position. Though the Colts may not get the same production at the moment as New England does, the trio gets plenty of action.
"I think we'll probably use them a little differently, but they have the potential to spread out, play in tight, block on the line of scrimmage or in the backfield and catch a lot of balls," said Arians. "I think as we continue to evolve, we could be a pretty dynamic tight end (team)."
Allen has started each game, while Fleener has been slowed recently with a shoulder injury. Saunders has had his playing time expand recently, and the club is running the ball as effectively as it has all season. (Additionally, Indianapolis activated tight end Kyle Miller from the practice squad on Monday.)
"We have three of them right now that are pretty dynamic," said Arians. "I think it's a pretty good talented room. The big thing for them to realize is that there's not enough footballs to go around. You've got to block to get on the field."
Allen is third on the club with 25 receptions for 280 yards and two scores. Fleener has 21 receptions for 222 yards, and Saunders has one reception for 11 yards.
While the New England trio is playing in a veteran offense, the three young Colts players are toiling in a system as new to the team as the players are to the league.
The NFL calendar has moved from September and October to November, and the Colts' record has mushroomed from 2-3 to 6-3.
Teams are starting to separate, and the Colts are one of a handful of AFC teams with six or more wins. Allen is starting to see the nature of games change.
"That's what I'm learning to expect," said Allen. "I felt it, and it started a couple of games ago at the halfway point. I felt the intensity of the game just go up a notch. This is for real now. Teams are trying to make that last playoff push."
Allen was a Mackey Award winner last year at Clemson, an award named after one of the Colts' all-time greats, John Mackey. Allen himself has some knowledge of the series between the Colts and Patriots. Though he has not played in it, he is anticipating Sunday's action.
That action will come against a team for which Allen has a regard, along with the venue in which it plays.
"(I'm) so excited. I've heard a ton about Gillette Stadium and the elements up there and how cold it can get. It might be snowing," said Allen. "Then once you have to face them, the defense (is) going up against one of the best quarterbacks of his era.
"Defensively, they have a lot of guys that can disrupt the game in (Brandon) Spikes, a couple rookies, Chandler (Jones) and Dont'a Hightower. We have a lot of preparation to get through this week, but I'm sure we'll be ready."