When it came to AFC supremacy over the past decade, no matchup was more anticipated each season than Indianapolis against New England.
In January of 2004, the teams met in the AFC Championship in Foxborough pitting the 12-4 Colts and the 14-2 Patriots.
A year later, again in the playoffs, it was again the 12-4 Colts against the 14-2 Patriots in Foxborough.
And in the 2006 AFC title game, both teams sported 12-4 records when they squared off in Indianapolis
In each instance, the home team won. And in each instance, that team went on to win the Super Bowl.
This season it's, well...different.
While the Patriots come into Sunday's home tilt at their typical 8-3 and with a two-game lead in the AFC East, the Colts have fallen back quite a bit.
Rather than pursuing perfection as they did through 14 games only two seasons ago, Indianapolis is desperately trying to avoid the ignominy of reversing that pursuit this season.
Through 11 games in 2011, the Colts have won exactly none.
And with the Patriots followed by Baltimore, Tennessee, Houston and Jacksonville on the schedule, let's just say it looks good for those speculating on purchasing blue and white Andrew Luck jerseys in the future.
The extreme fall from grace prompted personnel changes early in the week at Colts headquarters, where defensive coordinator Larry Coyer was fired and second-string quarterback Dan Orlovsky was elevated to starter in place of the chronically-struggling Curtis Painter.
"It's not an easy day," Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell said when making those announcements. "Anybody that would tell you any differently is cold- hearted and callous, and that's not me."
Caldwell and Coyer have been familiar since the 1970's, when Caldwell played at Iowa and Coyer was an assistant coach. Coyer joined the Colts in 2009 and had the defense ranked eighth in the NFL in points allowed (19.2) that year, but the unit's performance has gotten progressively worse the last two seasons.
Indianapolis is last in the league in that stat so far in 2011, allowing 29.7 points over its 11 defeats, and ranks just 29th in yards allowed (389.4).
"I've known him a long time, he coached me in college," Caldwell said of Coyer. "A good man, hard worker and I certainly appreciate everything he's done for us. I think we can make a change, and you're going to see some results."
Records or no records, New England head coach Bill Belichick was having no part of the supposition that the Patriots might be looking past the Colts based on the winless mark.
He chastised a reporter for inferring just that during a question-and-answer session on Wednesday.
"I don't agree with that," Belichick said of the assessment. "So you can go ahead on your soliloquy about that, but I just don't agree with that. You don't think you can gauge a team based on how a player blocks [Colts defensive ends] Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis? I mean, who else would you gauge it against? What? Are you kidding me?
"Covering [wide receivers] Reggie Wayne, [Austin] Collie and [Pierre] Garcon -- you don't think you can gauge your coverage based on those players? I don't care what their record is. You don't think there's better receivers around than them? Better pass rushers than Freeney and Mathis? I mean, I'm not sure what games you're watching here."
The Patriots hold a 43-28 advantage in their all-time regular-season series with the Colts and halted a two-game losing streak in the set by holding on for a 31-28 home victory during Week 11 of last season. Indianapolis rallied for a thrilling 35-34 win over New England at Lucas Oil Stadium the previous year, overcoming a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit in a contest best remembered for Belichick's ill-fated choice to attempt a fourth-down conversion in his team's own end in the closing minutes, and also dealt the Pats an 18-15 loss in Indiana in 2008. Prior to last year's defeat, the Colts had left with a win in two straight stops at Gillette Stadium, following up a 40-21 triumph in 2005 with a 27-20 decision the subsequent season.
The Colts and Patriots have also met three times in the postseason, with New England claiming a 24-14 verdict in the 2003 AFC Championship and a 20-3 win in a 2004 AFC Divisional Playoff prior to the Colts' 38-34 home ousting of the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship.
Including the playoffs, the Patriots are 33-14 against Indianapolis since the Colts moved from Baltimore following the 1983 season.
Belichick is 11-8 against the Colts all-time, including an 9-6 record while with the Patriots, while Jim Caldwell has split two prior matchups with both Belichick and New England.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Orlovsky will make his first start since 2008 with Detroit. He completed 7- of-10 passes (70 percent) for 67 yards and an 88.3 rating after relieving Painter in last week's 27-19 loss to Carolina. Running back Joseph Addai had a rushing touchdown in his last meeting with New England, which took place in 2009, while backfield mate Donald Brown had a season-best 80 rushing yards and a 5.7 average last week. Wayne (47 receptions) had a season-best 122 receiving yards in the setback to the Panthers and needs three catches to have at least 50 for the ninth consecutive year. Wayne has 18 catches for 233 receiving yards with three touchdowns in his past two games against the Patriots as well. Garcon (655 receiving yards) needs 130 receiving yards to surpass a career-best of 784 set in 2010, while tight end Jacob Tamme had a season-best in catches (6) and receiving yards (75) in his last game.
On the New England defense, linebacker Rob Ninkovich aims for a third straight game with a sack and cornerback Kyle Arrington has an NFL-best seven interceptions in 2011. Eleventh-year end Andre Carter has nine sacks among his 45 tackles and has added a forced fumble.
Statistically speaking, the Colts' offense is 30th in scoring (13.6 ppg), 31st in total yards (280.0 ypg), 28th in passing (181.0 ypg) and 25th in rushing (99.0 ypg). On defense, the Patriots are 11th in points allowed (20.3 ppg), last in total defense (409.8 ypg) and against the pass (307.5 ypg) and 12th in rushing yards allowed (102.4 ypg).
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
New England has totaled 109 points in its past three games (36.3 average), while quarterback Tom Brady needs just one win to surpass Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas (119) for the sixth-most regular-season victories by a starting signal- caller in NFL history. In his past three games, Brady has passed for 924 yards with eight touchdowns, no interceptions and a 121.4 quarterback rating. He had his 41st 300-yard passing game in last week's 38-20 win at Philadelphia and needs three touchdown throws to top Unitas (290) and Warren Moon (291) for sixth-most in league history. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has 20 rushing touchdowns since 2010, tied for third-most in the NFL. Wide receiver Wes Welker (5,679 career receiving yards) needs 48 receiving yards to surpass Irving Fryar the for third-most in club annals and posted his third game of the season with at least 100 yards and two touchdowns last week. Since entering the NFL in 2010, tight end Rob Gronkowski ranks second in the league with 21 touchdown receptions, trailing only Detroit's Calvin Johnson (24). He has six touchdown receptions in his past four games.
On defense, Freeney needs a half-sack to become the 26th player with 100 in a career since the stat became official in 1982, while bookend Mathis needs a half-sack to reach 80 for his career. Mathis also seeks a third straight game with at least one sack. Middle linebacker Pat Angerer leads the team with 111 tackles and recorded his first sack of the season in last week's loss to the Panthers.
By the numbers, the Patriots are third in scoring (30.1 ppg), second in total yards (429.5 ypg) and passing (319.1 ypg) and 15th in rushing (110.4 ypg). The Colts' defense is last in points allowed (29.7 ppg), 29th in yards allowed (389.4 ypg), 18th against the pass (238.7 ypg) and 31st in rushing defense (150.6 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Welcome to the pressure-cooker, Dan Orlovsky. The former backup will make his first start in three seasons against a less-than-menacing New England defense, but isn't likely to win in a shootout scenario. That means the Colts will have to make radical improvements on defense under new coordinator Mike Murphy.
The prolific Brady is climbing the career ranks in passing yards, touchdowns and wins, and looks likely to pass a few names courtesy of a Colts defense that's near the bottom of all major categories.
A new defensive coordinator and new starting quarterback spells chaos at an unwelcome time for the Colts, who face an opponent who might be into the idea of running up scores on a longtime nemesis.
A low-end defense, a journeyman quarterback making a first start this decade and an opponent averaging more than 30 points per game with a propensity toward carrying grudges toward past thorns signals certain doom for the Colts. Add in New England's home-field advantage, and it's remarkably difficult to envision a circumstance in which Indianapolis truly competes.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 38, Colts 17