The New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts had one of the NFL's greatest rivalries when Tom Brady was dueling against Peyton Manning.
That animosity could be rekindled this Sunday when rookie Andrew Luck and his version of the Colts takes aim at Brady and the Patriots for the first time.
Luck has guided the Colts to four consecutive wins and has won six of his first nine career starts, passing for 2,631 yards and 10 touchdowns while rushing for 159 yards and five scores, already a franchise record for quarterbacks.
Last Sunday against Jacksonville, the Stanford product rushed for two TDs in Indianapolis' 27-10 win.
"This win was huge," said Luck, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft. "We wanted to keep our winning streak going. This is a good step in the right direction, but no one looks back at the fact that you were 6-3 in the middle of the season. It's what we do at the end of the season."
The Colts used their 22-17 home loss to the Jaguars in Week 3 as fuel to start fast and cruise throughout most of the second half in Jacksonville as they improved to 5-1 under interim head coach Bruce Arians, who is piloting the team while Chuck Pagano battles leukemia.
"(Pagano) is fighting for his life and it's nothing more than asking, 'How about we go fight for every game and extend this season until he can come back?'," Arians said. "We have a date we're all hoping that he can lead us down the tunnel on Dec.30 if all things go well and if not we need to have this season extended until he can do that."
With Luck under center, the Colts have already doubled their win total from Manning's rookie season in 1998. His streak of four straight 300-yard passing games did come to an end in the Sunshine State but Luck used his legs effectively in the red zone and shook off two turnovers to guide the Colts to their first four-game winning streak since the end of the 2010 season.
Luck ended up completing 18-of-26 passes against the Jags, including eight for 96 yards to favorite target Reggie Wayne. Darius Butler, an ex-Patriot, finished with two interceptions, including one for a touchdown, in the victory.
"I'm really pleased that we have him," Arian said of Butler. "He's a playmaker and had a great game. He's obviously the AFC Defensive Player of the Week and it builds great confidence for him going up against the challenge that he has this week in coming up there."
New England is also coming off a win last Sunday, albeit by the skin of its teeth when Devin McCourty's interception of a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass in the end zone with 28 seconds left prevented a Pats collapse, as New England held on for a 37-31 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
Following a 27-yard field goal by New England's Stephen Gostkowski, the Bills took over with 2:06 remaining in the game. Fitzpatrick led a drive to the Patriots' 15 before throwing the ball directly to McCourty.
"No matter what happens in the game, there's nothing bigger than a turnover," said McCourty. "When the game gets toward the end, those big plays change the game."
Brady threw for 237 yards and two touchdowns on 23-of-38 passing versus Buffalo for the AFC East-leading Patriots, who won their third consecutive game and 11th straight against the Bills at Gillette Stadium.
Stevan Ridley ran for a game-high 98 yards and a score on 22 carries, while Danny Woodhead ran for one touchdown and caught a pass for another score for New England.
"It was tight," said Brady. "I'm glad we came away with the win. We fought hard, we certainly had more opportunities out there to score more points, but we didn't and the defense made a couple great plays there at the end."
The Patriots lead their all-time series with the Colts by a comfortable 44-28 margin and are 7-2 at home against Indy since 2000.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Luck has more than lived up to his billing as the best pure quarterback prospect since Manning or perhaps John Elway. His 6-3 record as a starter is the best a No. 1 overall pick has ever put together through nine games.
"The kid, he continues to amaze," said Wayne. "Hopefully I can help add on to his legacy that he's about to build."
A lot of quarterbacks have the arm strength or the athleticism to succeed in the NFL. Few have the intangibles, the things that are quickly recognized by most but not easily quantified. When asked to grade himself at the midpoint of the season Luck gave himself a C and he remained on more than a even keel after the Colts win in Jacksonville.
"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."
Luck and Wayne have been one of the NFL's top offensive duos in 2012. Wayne, who leads the NFL with 7.7 receptions per game and is second with 103.4 receiving yards a contest, was often dominant with Manning throwing to him and has only upped his game with Luck, something that could pose a problem for a Patriots defense which is susceptible to giving up big plays.
"I don't really see Reggie Wayne much differently than I saw him in the past," Belichick said. "He was good then; he's good now. There were some issues last year with their quarterbacking and passing game and all that but I didn't see any drop-off in Reggie Wayne as a football player. I don't know, maybe I missed it. He's always looked pretty good to me."
Fitzpatrick is certainly more experienced than Luck bur far less talented and he rang up 337 yards and two TD passes versus New England last Sunday. The embattled Pats defense also gave up a mind-numbing 35 first downs and 481 total yards to the Bills. Overall, New England has been giving up an alarming 285.3 yards per game through the air in 2012 and has allowed 19 touchdowns passes.
"I would throw the statistics out because they've got 23 turnovers," Arians said. "And when you lead the league in turnover ratio by 16, you're going to be in first place. They've always been a bend-don't-break group and feasted on turnovers ever since I could remember. There were only a few years when they were totally dominant, but they've always been as well coached as anybody in this league."
Help could also be on the way from talented but troubled cornerback Aqib Talib, who was acquired by the Pats from Tampa Bay on Nov. 1 and is expected to make his debut against the Colts.
"We're just trying to catch him up," Belichick said when asked about his new cornerback. "He's been in here every day. Three days in a row he's been in here early, working hard, trying to get caught up. We'll see how it goes."
Luck is convinced that the Patriots will go the traditional route against him and place an emphasis on hurrying him as much as possible.
"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. That'll be a focus all week."
Offensively New England has few problems. The balanced, high-scoring Pats average an NFL-best 33.2 points per game and 430.3 yards per contest.
Brady has completed at least 60 percent of his passes in 10 straight games and All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski has really heated up recently, snaring 17 balls for 255 yards and five touchdowns in the last three games.
"Well he's a big target and he's been productive for us as well," Belichick said when asked about Gronk. "He's had some opportunities and he's done a good job of taking advantage of them. Rob works hard, he's a big, physical, tough football player, competes well. He's been productive for us as well."
Perhaps the biggest improvement for the Patriots has been their revamped running attack headlined by Ridley, who has 225 yards and two TDs in his last two contests.
Conversely the Colts defense has been stout over the past month, allowing just 14.0 points a game over its last four outings although New England's offense poses a much tougher test than previous opponents like Cleveland, Tennessee, Miami and Jacksonville.
This is the 10th consecutive season the Colts and Patriots will meet but obviously the first time Belichick and New England will get a good look at Luck, who could deliver quite a statement by finding a way to beat the game's best coach and one of the best quarterbacks of all-time.
That's unlikely in Foxboro, however. Luck will have plenty of opportunities moving forward to eventually take down Belichick, Brady and the Pats but this contest will serve as a difficult lesson for the promising young signal- caller.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 30, Colts 20