In their biggest test to date, the Indianapolis Colts travel to long-time rival New England to take on the Patriots. Both teams are 6-3 entering the game, but the Patriots are 70-14 (.833) at home since 2002, best in the NFL. Here are five pivotal factors:
The Colts cannot afford to allow quarterback Tom Brady to have time to pick apart the Colts' relatively inexperienced secondary. So that means there needs to be some pressure to force hasty decisions. Let's just say it's one thing to pick off Blaine Gabbert, but another thing to jump Brady at home. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis could be on the field – together – which would be a major plus in establishing some sort of pressure. Will it be enough?
Big target, small target
Once Brady goes to the air, he has two favorite targets that will potentially wreak all sorts of havoc on the Colts: tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Wes Welker. Welker is seventh in the league in receiving, averaging 90 yards per game. Gronkowski ranks second in the touchdowns with eight. The Patriots lead the NFL in passing and total offense. This is a potent team. Who handles Gronkowski? Linebacker Jerrell Freeman? Safety Antoine Bethea? It's a problem.
New looks for Luck
There seems little doubt that Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his coaches will have something interesting planned defensively to try to rattle Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. Tricks and disguises were always part of the chess match with Peyton Manning over the years, and both sides had their moments with the edge. Luck has gotten better on the road over the season, and this Patriots defense is not one of its better ones. So maybe there's only so much Belichick can do. Luck cannot afford careless passes this week, however.
Get out and run
The Colts have to establish some sort of running game this week to eat clock, balance the offense and reduce the number of possessions Brady has to attack. The offensive line has shown improvement, as have the running back trio of Donald Brown, Vick Ballard and Delone Carter (with an occasional Robert Hughes). Brown presumably will be closer to 100 percent this week. They have to run the all to allow Luck time to operate. Crowd noise is a real issue that Luck must deal with, and a strong running game can tone down a crowd.
Make special teams count
Possessions will be at a premium, as will points. The Colts cannot afford to come up empty when they get to the red zone on offense. If the touchdowns aren't there, Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri – about to be booed by his former fans once again – must deliver. Pat McAfee needs a strong day punting, forced Brady into 85- or 90-yard drives whenever possible. Some field position off the return game would also be major boost for the Colts.