This Sunday's matchup against the Indianapolis Colts marks the New England Patriots' biggest challenge this season. The seemingly annual Colts game is always a yardstick by which to measure each season's Patriots team.
The Colts are coming off a road loss to AFC South division rival, the Tennessee Titans, in which they played terribly in the second half. The Patriots beat an improving Rams team at home that gave them everything they could handle. Despite playing two very bad games vs. Miami and San Diego, the Patriots are tied for first place with the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East with a record of 5-2.
Even though this is the halfway point of the season, it is not too early to call this game a "must win" game for the 3-4 Colts. Already, they are four games behind the Titans and cannot afford to fall further back in the playoff picture.
The Patriots Defense vs. Peyton Manning - it is imperative that the Patriots front seven shuts down a weak Colts running game. Granted Pro Bowl RB Joseph Addai is returning from injury, but even before getting hurt, the Colts had difficulty running the ball. By shutting down the run, the Patriots defense takes away Peyton Manning's ability to run the play action pass plays that have been so effective for him throughout his career. The Patriots secondary is weak and if Manning is able to run play action effectively, the Patriots defense will get torched.
Matt Light vs. Dwight Freeney and Mark LeVoir vs. Robert Mathis - the Colts like to get after the quarterback, particularly on their home artificial turf where they have an extra burst of speed, plus the backing of the crowd. Patriots QB Matt Cassel has shown improvement the last two weeks in his ability to move around in the pocket. Cassel needs to continue his progress and get rid of the ball quickly.
Patriots RB's vs. Bob Sanders - when healthy, Bob Sanders is THE biggest difference maker on defense in the NFL. He's a terrific player with no regard for his body. Because of his take no prisoners style, Sanders is hurt every year. While this is his first week back from a high ankle sprain, I still expect to see him on the field for most of the game. Sanders is the best run defender in the NFL, capable of shutting down a running game almost by himself. The Patriots will likely be getting Lamont Jordan back, and that is good news for them. Kevin Faulk did an admirable job last week, but he's not a RB who can carry the load for the long haul.
I like the improvement of Cassel the last few games. The Patriots are allowing him to make more plays, as opposed to having him just manage the game. However, this game will present an immense challenge for him to make fast reads and get rid of the ball.
Sunday night's matchup means more to the Colts than the Patriots. I expect the Colts to play with a sense of urgency and considering the Colts will be playing at home, Colts President Bill Polian will have the audio system pumping in phony crowd noise to make things difficult for the Patriots on offense.
I also have serious concern about the Patriots secondary. They allowed several big plays last week to the St. Louis Rams. Their play last week won't cut it vs. the likes of Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Marvin Harrison, and Anthony Gonzalez.
Colts over the Patriots - 38-13