Here are the five most important things to watch for in this week's game.
Aqib Talib's debut and impact on the defense
The former first round draft pick and newest member of the New England Patriots sat out last week's contest against the Bills while serving out the completion of his four-game suspension for the use of Adderall, a banned substance in the NFL. This week, he's set to make his Patriots' debut and will likely start at cornerback. Most fans in New England have viewed the troubled former Kansas Jayhawk as the savior of one of the league's worst passing defense. He very well could become a huge factor in the defense moving forward, but I wouldn't expect it to come immediately as Talib adjusts to playing in a new defense. As opposed to being matched up against the rival team's number one receiver, which, in the case of Indianapolis is the incomparable Reggie Wayne, I'd expect No. 31 (the digits he's been seen wearing in practice this week) to be assigned the job of blanketing the No. 2 target with lots of one-on-one assignments. With Donnie Avery still banged up, Talib will likely be matched up against rookie speedster T.Y. Hilton.
Can the Patriots establish ground control with Stevan Ridley?
Stevan Ridley hasn't blown anyone away with his numbers this season, but he has been solid and provided a good compliment to Tom Brady and the passing attack. This week, the sophomore tailback from Louisiana State University will have a very favorable match-up. In nine games this season, the Colts have allowed 1,083 yards on the ground, good for the 20th ranked rush defense in the entire NFL. They've also allowed a total of nine rushing scores to opponents. The Colts have a couple of young players with bright futures in the middle of their defense, but it will take a couple of seasons for them to develop into great NFL run-stoppers. Anything less than 110 yards and a touchdown for Stevan Ridley this week should be considered a disappointment.
Tom Brady should have a field day...
The Colts currently sit around the middle of the pack in the statistical category of pass defense, allowing 2,072 yards and 15 touchdowns through nine games. However, against the only two opposing quarterbacks that could be considered "elite" or above average, the Indianapolis defense has struggled mightily. On opening weekend against the Chicago Bears, quarterback Jay Cutler threw for 333 yards and two touchdowns against the Colts defense, en route to a 41-21 win for his team. Even in the Colts' most impressive victory of the season, over the Packers at Lucas Oil Stadium, the defense allowed Green Bay signal caller Aaron Rodgers to throw for 235 yards and three scores. The most recognizable face of Indy's young secondary is former Miami Dolphins' standout Vontae Davis who starts at cornerback and is typically matched up against the opposition's number one receiver. This week, Tom Brady and the dynamic New England offense will get their first crack at this new-look Indy defense.
... But Andrew Luck will match him
When he was drafted back in April, football pundits everywhere dubbed Andrew Luck as the next Tom Brady. This Sunday, he'll have his first chance to play against the man he's been compared to for the past seven months. There's little doubt in this scribe's mind that Luck will one day become the face of the NFL and one of the most successful quarterbacks of his generation. The part that most - including myself - are finding hard to believe is how quickly he's burst onto the scene as a star. With six wins already, Luck has helped to double Indy's win total from a year ago. In the first half of his rookie campaign, he's exposed plenty of defenses far more capable than that of the Patriots for big days in the passing game. I wouldn't expect that to change against a historically porous New England secondary.
Possible playoff preview on display at Gillette?
This season has been a rare year of mediocrity in the AFC. As of today, there are only six teams with a record of .500 or better. Both the Patriots (6-3) and Colts (6-3) are two of those six teams in prime playoff position. With the Colts unlikely to catch the 8-1 Houston Texans, Luck and co. may find themselves in one of the two AFC wild card spots. Meanwhile, the Patriots should be able to take advantage of a weak division and secure home field for the wild card round. Put two and two together and we could very well see a rematch between these two teams come January, but with a lot more on the line. There's still lots of football left, but this scenario remains a distinct possibility.
Prediction: It'll be eerily similar to last week against Buffalo, but Andrew Luck isn't Ryan Fitzpatrick. Colts win a close one, 34-31.
Sunday, Nov 18, 2012, 4:25 PM EST
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