Game of the season


"Colts, Patriots square off on Sunday

The numbers are boggling. The last two undefeated NFL teams will go head to head: the 8-0 New England Patriots battling the 7-0 Colts. You have to go back to 1970 to find a similar match-up between two unbeaten teams. And last year’s playoff game between this pair was arguably more memorable than the Super Bowl itself.

Sunday’s 4:15 p.m. game in Indianapolis will be watched by NFL fans everywhere. Indeed, between now and then the hype machine will be stoked to such an overheated level, it will be difficult for even the most disinterested among us to avoid feeling at least a little collateral intensity.

Who would have guessed that Indianapolis and New England would wind up sparring partners in what has turned out to be one of the great rivalries in contemporary sports? But in Manning versus Brady and Dungy versus Belichick, that’s exactly what we’ve got.

In the case of those rival quarterbacks, you not only have the chance to see two Hall of Fame athletes at the height of their powers, you’ll see a contest between ego (Brady) and egolessness (Manning). To sense the difference all you had to do was watch last weekend’s games. Brady and Manning were both lifted for subs before the final gun. But where Manning seemed concentrated on the course of play, whether he was on field or not, Brady strutted along the sidelines with a frat-boy’s self-satisfied grin on his face.

As for Dungy and Belichick, it’s like the difference between Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon. One coach is a man of principle, the other isn’t above resorting to dirty tricks.

Although Indianapolis has held its own against the Pats in regular season games over the years, there’s no question that New England has had a way of having the Colts for dinner in the playoffs. That’s what made last year’s AFC Final so sweet. The Colts came from 18 points down in an extraordinarily exciting game to get past their nemesis and roll on to victory in the Super Bowl.

Now, while both teams are undefeated, oddsmakers favor the Patriots by 4.5. In the off-season, the Pats acquired a fistful of star players, including the volatile receiver Randy Moss, and retooled their offense, placing a new emphasis on the passing game. The team responded as if it had been shot with a massive dose of steroids, turning into a scoring juggernaut that some observers say may be the most formidable team in pro football history.

The Colts also underwent a makeover in the off-season. They started by losing several starters to free agency. But rather than sign players from other teams to fill the holes, they relied on their organization, promoting from within. Many thought this would put them at a disadvantage. The opposite has happened. Young players have taken hold and, if anything, the Colts are a better team now than they were at this time last year.

Although the Colts are the defending Super Bowl champs, they are the underdogs in this game. New England is expected to win. But should Indianapolis prevail, expectations in this pro football season will undergo a tectonic shift, a tilt leaning toward Indianapolis that will probably stay that way until the Colts meet the Patriots again — in the playoffs.