INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -The Indianapolis-New England matchup is usually the AFC's title bout.
MVP Peyton Manning vs. MVP Tom Brady. Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Belichick against Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy. The league's biggest heavyweights, and most successful teams of the decade, in another classic slugfest.
Suddenly, the perceptions have changed.
Brady is out for the season, Manning is struggling, the Colts' stranglehold on the AFC South is gone. The Patriots are trying to fend off Buffalo in the AFC East. It's turned into a rivalry without the revelry.
``Absolutely it's different, especially with where we are right now,'' Colts Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday said. ``We've got to find a way to get a win, and they're still neck-and-neck in their division, so all the elements are there.''
nd filled with attractive matchups.
That's not how it used to be.
They've met in two of the last five conference championship games, and last year the Colts and Patriots opened November with the Battle of the Unbeatens, a contest rife with subplots.
Brady was chasing Manning's single-season touchdown record while leading a team with a chance to get the first perfect record since the '72 Dolphins. The Colts, at 7-0, were trying to defend their Super Bowl title and for 3 1/2 quarters the champs had the challengers down. Kevin Faulk's 13-yard TD reception with 3:15 left wound up giving New England a 24-20 victory.
Make no mistake, the rematch in this seemingly annual, and sometimes semiannual, rivalry may have lost some luster - but not the high stakes.
Indy (3-4) has lost two straight and is trying to fight through a logjam of mediocre teams to get back into the playoffs. The Colts are already four games behind unbeaten Tennessee in a division they've ruled for half a decade, and head into the toughest part of the schedule with a slumping offense.
A win over their bitter rivals may be just what the Colts need to get righted.
``NFL football is really still all about November and December,'' Dungy said. ``If you're playing well at that time of year, then that is what counts. The Giants proved that last year. Pittsburgh did a couple of years ago. You don't want to dig yourselves in too much of a hole, but certainly the season isn't over on Sept. 30 or Oct. 30 even.''
Injuries have forced changes in New England, too.
The aerial show that helped Brady go from a three-time Super Bowl winner to a league MVP last season has evolved into more of a grind-it-out attack since Brady's season-ending knee injury in Week 1. But they've also lost starting running back Laurence Maroney for the season, and replacement Sammy Morris is still battling a knee injury.
Defensively, the Pats are trying to plug other holes, most notably in the secondary, where Pro Bowl safety Rodney Harrison was lost for the season and starting cornerback Ellis Hobbs has spent the week fighting through a shoulder injury.
As usual, the Patriots have survived. New England (5-2) has won two straight and only the Titans, Giants and Panthers have more wins this season.
``Obviously, it's hard to win without No. 12 (Brady) at quarterback, but we feel like we have a good team, whoever we put on the field,'' defensive tackle Richard Seymour said. ``I feel like we have some talented players. There are a lot of different ways to win a football game other than just putting up a lot of points.''
But they may need more points to win a second straight time in Indianapolis.
Seymour believes the Colts will break out of their slump; he just hopes it doesn't happen Sunday.
``You can never relax against this football team,'' he said. ``They fly around, they play fast and they play quick. They play so fast and they can score points so quickly, and their defense can create a lot of turnovers.''
In that sense, Sunday's game could be a lot like the other eight played in this series since 2002.
Minus, of course, Brady and all that hype.
``It's obviously not two undefeated teams,'' Manning said. ``They're playing well, though. They've battled through some adversity this year with some of the injuries, which is impressive, and, obviously, we need to find a way to get a win.''

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