FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For the third straight game, the high-scoring New England Patriots are preparing to face a backup quarterback.
And this one plays for a winless team.
The Indianapolis Colts plan to give Dan Orlovsky his first start of the season Sunday against an improving Patriots defense. Two weeks ago, the Patriots beat Kansas City, 34-3, with Chiefs quarterback Tyler Palko making his first career start. Last Sunday, they beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 38-20, with Vince Young filling in for an injured Michael Vick.
Now it’s Orlovsky’s turn, a formidable task because the Patriots’ pass rush is improving at a time of the year when they rarely lose.
In the past 10 seasons, they have the NFL’s best record in December, 32-5, under Bill Belichick.
“Coach Belichick has always stressed that the best teams get better this time of year,” Tom Brady said Wednesday. “You want to be a good finisher. If you play poorly down the stretch, you’re not going to give yourself much of a chance to accomplish any of the goals that you set at the beginning of the year.”
The goal this week is simple — beat another pro team — regardless of its record.
The Colts are 0-11. The Patriots are 8-3, tied for the best mark in the AFC, but their players planned to prepare like they do for every other game.
“They’ve heard me talk about (it) every week, saying we don’t care about the record, and we don’t,” an unusually animated Belichick said. “What difference does it make how somebody played two weeks ago against somebody else? Who cares? Us or anybody else, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is how we and the Colts perform against each other on Sunday.”
There’s an excellent chance the Patriots will perform better, much better.
Orlovsky would be the third quarterback to start in place of Peyton Manning, who hasn’t played all season following neck surgery in September. Kerry Collins played the first three games then went on injured reserve with a concussion. That’s when Painter got his chance and played well early.
But he faltered with a quarterback rating below 51.0 for four consecutive games. Then, after throwing two interceptions in the end zone in the last five minutes in a 27-19 loss to the Carolina Panthers last Sunday, coach Jim Caldwell had seen enough.
He’ll face a defense with 15 sacks in its last five games after getting just 10 in its first six.
“You’re never content,” said defensive end Andre Carter, tied for second in the AFC with nine sacks. “You’re always trying to say, ‘OK, how can we get better, whether it’s stopping the run or rushing the passer.’”
The offense Orlovsky will direct is the same one Manning ran, Belichick said.
“No huddle. They go at a fast pace. It’s hard to substitute,” Belichick said. “You have to be ready to play defensively with whoever you have on the field. … Painter and Orlovsky, both of them, whoever has been in there, they’ve both done a good job of changing plays, taking advantage of looks.”
Orlovsky was drafted in the fifth round by Detroit in 2005 and started seven games on the Lions team that went 0-16 in 2008. He didn’t play again until 2010, when he appeared in one game with Houston without throwing a pass. This season, he’s come off the Colts bench three times and completed 14 of 21 passes for 122 yards.
So there’s not a lot of film of him for the Patriots to study.
“The thing about Orlovsky is this isn’t his first start ever,” New England safety James Ihedigbo said. “He’s had opportunities to start before and he’s been in the NFL for seven years now so he’s a pretty experience backup. He’s definitely a smart quarterback. He’s a strong, big guy, has a strong arm in terms of getting the ball out and he knows their system.”
That gives him an edge on Palko.
The Chiefs’ backup had thrown just 13 passes in four career games when he started against the Patriots in place of Matt Cassel, out for the season with a hand injury. He completed 25 of 38 passes for 236 yards but threw three interceptions and no touchdowns and was sacked three times.
The following week, Young started against the Patriots while Vick sat out with two broken ribs. Young threw for a career high 400 yards in his first start in almost a year, but the Eagles squandered an early 10-0 lead.
Now the Patriots must prepare again for two quarterbacks in case Painter gets into the game.
“It helps a lot because during the season there’s always something that’s going to happen as far as personnel, who you’re playing or injuries on your own team,” linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. “So you’ve just got to deal with it.”