FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For the ninth straight season, the New England Patriots will face the Indianapolis Colts — a strange streak since they play in different divisions.
But this matchup of long-time powers is unlike any of those others. The Colts enter Sunday’s game with no wins, no Peyton Manning and a quarterback with no starts this year.
And no chance against a team tied for the best record in the AFC?
“You can’t go in there and go ‘Oh, we’re the Patriots. (They’re) the Colts. Yeah, we’re going to win this game and move on,’ ” Tom Brady said. “That’s not the way we approach it and that’s not the way it works. Not in the NFL.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick was concerned about preparing for the Colts not how they did against other teams.
“We never really worry about a team’s record,” he said. “We just worry about trying to get ready to play them and the matchup that we have on Sunday. That’s all that really matters.
“The Colts have been competitive, been in just about every game.”
Going into the fourth quarter, Indianapolis has led twice, been tied once and trailed by seven or fewer points in four games. In last Sunday’s 27-19 loss to the Carolina Panthers, the Colts drove into scoring position twice in the last five minutes when a touchdown and a 2-point conversion would have tied the game. But Curtis Painter threw two interceptions in the end zone.
So coach Jim Caldwell is changing starters, going with Dan Orlovsky, a member of the Detroit Lions team that went 0-16 in 2008.
“He’s been around,” Caldwell said. “He’s got some experience under his belt. He’s also a guy that is smart and he’s been able to grasp the system pretty well in terms of the operation.”
In each of the last eight seasons, the Colts and Patriots both finished with at least 10 wins.
But now the Colts are 0-11 and the Patriots, 8-3 after dominating their last three opponents, are three-touchdown favorites. Oh, and Brady was named AFC offensive player of the month on Thursday.
And just two days earlier, Colts defensive coordinator Larry Coyer was fired and replaced by linebackers coach Mike Murphy.
“Distractions are what you allow them to be. If you don’t allow it to be a distraction, then it won’t be,” Orlovsky said. “We know what we’re up against, It’s a really good football team, so I think most guys will be focused on that.”
The Patriots put some of their focus on finding ways to praise a winless team.
“When you’re having a season like they’re having, obviously no one wants to be in that situation,” Brady said. “But I’ll tell you this: they play hard. They have a lot of pride. They’ve been in a lot of close games. They haven’t won them, but they’re in them.”
Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork came up with this: “It’s not a terrible football team. It’s just (that) they haven’t made enough plays. I’m pretty sure they’re preaching every week, ‘If we just do the little things a little better, the outcomes will be different.’ ”
Some things haven’t changed in the annual rivalry.
Colts defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are still dangerous pass rushers. Receivers Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie can be productive — if they have a quarterback to get them the ball. Without that, the Patriots can concentrate on stopping the running game.
“They’ve got guys that have made plays for years, so I really don’t know what the answer is” to their record, Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. “Some of their games have been really close, especially the Pittsburgh game.”
The Steelers won that 23-20 on Sept. 25. Four weeks later, the Steelers beat the Patriots 25-17.
The Patriots also lost their next game, 24-20 to the New York Giants for their third two-game losing streak in nine years. But in the three games since then, New England has outscored opponents by a combined 109-39. Now comes Indianapolis, which has allowed the most points in the league.
“We need to get a win,” Colts center Jeff Saturday said. “It couldn’t be better for us to get the first one against the Patriots, especially going up there on their home turf. I have a ton of respect for how those guys are playing right now. It’s going to be a major challenge for us.”
When Belichick talks to his players, shows film and holds practices, the opponent’s record doesn’t matter. He even departed from his usual monotone and became animated when asked repeatedly about how he convinces his players to prepare for a winless team like they do for every other one.
“They’ve heard me talk about every week, saying we don’t care about the record, and we don’t,” he 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.
“That’s all that matters. Who cares who won three weeks ago in some other game with some other players? It doesn’t matter.”
Caldwell tries to take the same approach with the Colts — forget about the record and remember that the next game presents another chance for their first victory.
“What does matter is this particular game,” he said. “Obviously, there are lot of fans who are interested in it on both sides because of the rivalry over the years and I think that’s what kind of fuels it. Everybody’s got an interest in our sport, which is great. But for coaches and the players, our focus is on trying to get ready for this next game.”