PREVIEW: Patriots - Colts
Just like it was for most of the past decade when the two franchises dominated the AFC, there will be plenty at stake on Sunday when the Patriots face the Colts at Gillette Stadium.
Indianapolis and New England have met 13 times, including three in the postseason, since Tom Brady made his first NFL start against the Colts in 2001.
But they've met only once when both teams did not have a winning record. That came last season, when Peyton Manning missed the campaign after neck surgery and Indianapolis was 0-11.
This year, with rookie Andrew Luck leading the offense, the surprising Colts (6-3) have made a rapid return to playoff contention with a four-game winning streak heading into Sunday.
Luck has done just about everything Indianapolis asked in his first season, completing 208 of 362 attempts and ranking eighth in the NFL with 2,631 yards while throwing 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
After he was picked off three times in his first game, the 2012 No. 1 overall pick has thrown more than one interception just once in his last eight contests.
Luck, who had an NFL rookie record 433 yards against Miami earlier this month, went 18 for 26 for 227 yards with an interception and a fumble versus Jacksonville on Nov. 8. However, he found another way to get it done with two rushing scores in a 27-10 victory.
Luck has run for 159 yards and five touchdowns, ranking among the league's top rushing quarterbacks.
''He's gotten better each week,'' Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. ''He does a real good job of avoiding the rush but also keeping his eyes downfield and not just pulling the ball down and trying to run or kind of panicking in the pocket. He has a lot of poise.''
Reggie Wayne has enjoyed a rebirth with Luck under center, ranking first in the NFL with 7.7 receptions per game and second in the league with 103.4 yards per contest.
The Luck-Wayne tandem could prove a tough matchup for a New England defense that has had trouble limiting big plays. The Patriots (6-3) rank near the bottom of the NFL with 285.3 yards per game and 19 touchdowns allowed through the air.
New England gave up another 337 yards and two touchdowns to Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick in a 37-31 shootout win on Sunday. They also allowed a franchise-record 35 first downs and 481 total yards.
New England should get help from cornerback Aqib Talib, who is expected to debut with his new team after he was acquired from Tampa Bay on Nov. 1.
Luck, though, believes the Patriots will try to come after him.
''They have very good edge rushers on the sides," Luck said. "They do get to the quarterback and even if it's not a sack, they sort of harass, force a quarterback out of the pocket. So, that'll be a focus all week.''
While its defense remains a big concern, New England has no such issues on offense, a unit that leads the NFL in points (33.2) and yards per game (430.3). The Patriots have averaged 37.0 points during a three-game win streak that has them in position for a fourth straight AFC East title.
Brady didn't have his best performance on Sunday, completing 23 of 38 for 237 yards and two touchdowns. But the two-time MVP completed at least 60 percent of his passes for the 10th straight game.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski continues to one of Brady's favorite targets, with 17 catches for 255 yards and five touchdowns in the last three games.
The Patriots have also found success on the ground, rushing for 400 yards during their winning streak. Stevan Ridley has come on strong with 225 yards and two TDs on 37 carries in his last two games.
Although the Colts have held opponents to 14.0 points over the last four games, those opponents - Cleveland, Tennessee, Miami and Jacksonville - have some of the league's weakest offenses.
New England has won two straight at home against the Colts, including last year's 31-24 victory.
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