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Saturday, Sep 23, 2017
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Who's The Best Of The Best?

The big, bad Patriots are strutting into America's heartland, and the bullies of the NFL plan another three-hour rampage when they make a stop at Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon for the most highly anticipated regular-season matchup in league history. This is the first time two unbeaten NFL teams have met this late in the regular season. 'I think they should put that game on Tuesday night, so we can all watch it,' Bucs coach Jon Gruden said of the 4:15 p.m. encounter. The Patriots (8-0) have been so dominant, they are listed as five-point road favorites over the defending Super Bowl champion Colts, who are off to a 7-0 start and have won 12 consecutive games overall.
Despite posting three consecutive wins against New England, the Colts find themselves home underdogs for the first time since Coach Tony Dungy arrived in 2002. 'They've won a lot of games through the years, they won a championship last year and nobody's beat them in a long time,' said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, 'so there's nobody doing it better than they are.' Wanna bet? With Tom Brady on pace to shatter Peyton Manning's single-season record of 49 touchdown passes, New England averages a startling 41.4 points per game. Belichick, whose videotaping shenanigans against the Jets in the season opener forced his club to forfeit a likely first-round draft pick next April, now finds himself being criticized for running up the score. He inserted Brady back into the game at Miami two weeks ago with the Patriots ahead by 21 points in the fourth quarter. And after the Redskins were dismantled 52-7 Sunday, some Washington players wondered why New England was still trying to convert fourth downs late in the rout. Belichick offers no apologies, and it's unlikely the Colts will find themselves victimized to that degree at the RCA Dome, where Manning has not been sacked in 96 pass attempts this season. 'Like Coach Dungy always says, these are the kinds of games you want to play in,' said Manning, who rallied Indianapolis from a 21-3 deficit against New England in last year's AFC title game. Since that devastating 38-34 setback, Belichick and personnel guru Scott Pioli have been on a mission, adding linebacker Adalius Thomas and wide receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth. 'Belichick's a great coach who surrounds himself with good people,' said Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, who believes the winner of Sunday's game could duplicate his 1972 perfect season with Miami. 'He and Pioli are a formidable combination.' The only people more excited about this showdown than CBS executives are the ticket brokers who expect good seats to fetch more than $1,000 apiece by kickoff. With an average victory margin of 25.4 points, the Patriots have yet to be challenged. 'A few weeks ago, I made the statement this was the best team I've ever seen,' NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said. 'I stand by that statement.' Brady and Manning enter the game at the peak of Hall of Fame careers, and both boast talented supporting casts. Moss and Welker are excelling in new surroundings, while Brady enjoys solid protection from an unheralded offensive line. Reggie Wayne has stepped up his game as Manning's primary target while Marvin Harrison recuperates from a bruised knee. Joseph Addai gives Manning a versatile back to rely on, and tight end Dallas Clark is very effective in the red zone. 'Both Manning and Brady use their eyes magnificently,' Bucs quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett said. 'They are masterful at looking defenders off. There's some luck involved, but both of these teams have the potential to go undefeated. We had a heck of a team in San Francisco in 1984, but we stumbled against Pittsburgh one Sunday afternoon and finished 18-1. Could one of these teams run the table? Absolutely.' Belichick was determined to add some offensive firepower in the offseason, but it was New England's defense that failed to respond in the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots wilted in the second half as Manning kept firing completions under little duress. By the time Marlin Jackson intercepted Brady to secure one of the most remarkable comebacks in NFL playoff annals, New England defenders barely had enough energy to walk off the field. Bullies don't expect to be challenged, but the Colts have every reason to feel disrespected by TV pundits and Las Vegas bookmakers alike. Typically, Dungy is downplaying a riveting midseason showdown that has prompted 36.5 hours worth of coverage this week by the NFL Network. 'It's a big game, but it's still a regular-season game,' Dungy said. 'What it will prove is who's the best team on Nov. 4.'

Reporter Ira Kaufman can be reached at (813) 259-7833 or ikaufman@tampatrib.com.

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