INDIANAPOLIS — “Hello old friend, it’s really good to see you once again.”
It’s hard to believe the Patriots’ last visit to Indianapolis was in 2015, with coach Bill Belichick having joked that he never received a warm reception in the city until his unsuccessful decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 in 2009.
Those were the epic years of the Tom Brady/Peyton Manning rivalry, when the teams seemed like AFC East division rivals even though they no longer were (the Colts moved out of the division in 2002 as part of the NFL’s realignment). They met every year from 2003 to 2015 — either in the regular season or playoffs.
“There’s always an element of history in the NFL, more so with fan bases. It was a pleasure to watch those growing up,” said Patriots offensive lineman Ted Karras, an Indianapolis native who won two high school state championships at Lucas Oil Stadium.
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“The rivalry this week is that we have two good teams, and we’re both vying for big-time stakes. Everyone is going to bring their best and see what happens.”
It’s a new era for Patriots-Colts, marking the first time since 1997 the game won’t feature Brady or Manning (it was Drew Bledsoe vs. Jim Harbaugh at quarterback that year).
The Patriots (9-4) enter on a seven-game winning streak, which is the longest in the NFL, as Mac Jones has become the fourth rookie quarterback in the Super Bowl era to win seven straight starts. Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers, 13, 2004), Dak Prescott (Cowboys, 11, 2016) and Kyle Orton (Bears, eight, 2005) have the longest winning streaks for a rookie quarterback.
Jones, 23, is well-versed on the history of Patriots-Colts and Brady-Manning.
“I love watching those type of games, but this year is this year. They have a great quarterback, too, now,” he said, referencing Carson Wentz. “We’re just excited to go to a great atmosphere and get a chance to compete with a great team.”
Wentz, the No. 2 overall pick in 2016, has revived his career under fourth-year Colts coach Frank Reich, his former offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Similar to the Patriots with Jones, the Colts (7-6) have surrounded Wentz with a strong supporting cast so he doesn’t have to carry too much of the burden. The Colts lead the NFL in takeaways (29), turnover differential (plus-13) and yards per rush (5.1 avg.), and Wentz is taking care of the football (just five interceptions).
“It’s really a well-balanced football team that [general manager] Chris [Ballard], Frank and their staffs have put together,” Belichick said. “It’ll be a big challenge for us. It’s a team we don’t know very well that we haven’t played in a little while here.”
Dan Orlovsky explains why Carson Wentz will face the biggest moment of his career Saturday night when the Colts host the Patriots.
The Patriots have won the past eight meetings with the Colts, and Reich has called Saturday night a measuring stick type of game for his team, saying: “It’s an opportunity to prove that we’re for real, to prove that we belong here where we’re at.”
The Colts are 2-5 against teams with a winning record this season and 5-1 against teams .500 or worse. They are teetering on the edge of a playoff berth, with ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) giving them a 79% chance to qualify with a win against New England, but dropping to 39% with a loss.
The Patriots are the AFC’s current top seed, and can clinch home-field advantage if they win their remaining four games — at the Colts, home against the Bills and Jaguars, and on the road against the Dolphins.
ESPN’s FPI gives the Patriots a 66% chance to earn the top seed with a win against the Colts, but that number drops to 26% with a loss.
While it’s their first meeting in Indianapolis in six years, and their first game since the Patriots recorded a 38-24 home win in 2018, it all feels familiar.
Patriots-Colts with a lot at stake.
Just like old times.
“It’s been a great rivalry. Not a lot of love for us in Indy, fan-wise,” Karras said. “So it’s going to be a lot of fun, a great atmosphere.”