This time the hype could be worth it.
Sunday's game in Indianapolis between the Colts and New England Patriots is truly a midseason Super Bowl. That's because the winner is likely to get home-field advantage in the AFC; home-field advantage will be truly important; and the AFC champion is likely to be a huge favorite in the real Super Bowl on Feb. 3 in Arizona.
These are the NFL's two remaining unbeaten teams: New England has eight wins and Indianapolis seven. But there's a real oddity: the Patriots are favored by nearly a touchdown on the road against the defending Super Bowl champions, a team that's beaten them three straight times, including 38-34 in last season's AFC title game.
This season has been all about the Patriots, from the fines on Bill Belichick and the team for illegally taping the opposition to a weekly dominance that's led to suggestions they have been running up the score, most recently in last week's 52-7 demolition of Washington.
The numbers are truly awesome. The Patriots haven't won by less than 17 points, haven't scored fewer than 34 in any game, and Tom Brady's 30 touchdown passes put him on course for 60 for the season, 11 more than Peyton Manning's record, set in 2004. One reason: the addition of standout wide receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth, a huge upgrade from last season's lackluster group.
Being underdogs seems to have relaxed the Colts, who were the spotlight team when they remained unbeaten deep into 2005 and 2006. Indeed, they are the first team ever to start 7-0 three straight times.
``I know one thing: getting a little less public scrutiny or media scrutiny is pretty good,'' coach Tony Dungy. says. ``You don't have as much in terms of distractions that way.''
In Foxborough, Belichick has been his customarily dour self.
Asked about Manning and Brady, the two best quarterbacks in the NFL this season and among the best ever, he was about as complimentary as he ever gets.
``Yeah, they're pretty good. I think they're both at the top of their game. Great players, great leaders, smart guys,'' he said. ``They make a lot of plays. Know how to manage the game. Won a lot of games.''
Whichever wins another one on Sunday is probably a lot closer to another Super Bowl victory than the winner of most midseason games.
In other games Sunday, Denver is at Detroit; Carolina at Tennessee; San Diego at Minnesota; Washington at the New York Jets; San Francisco at Atlanta; Cincinnati at Buffalo; Jacksonville at New Orleans; Green Bay at Kansas City; Arizona at Tampa Bay; Seattle at Cleveland; Houston at Oakland; and Dallas at Philadelphia.
Baltimore is at Pittsburgh on Monday night.
Miami, the New York Giants, Chicago and St. Louis are off.
Dallas (6-1) at Philadelphia (3-4)
This Sunday night game is probably Philadelphia's last chance to become a factor in the NFC East, which it entered the season favored to win.
Despite last week's 23-16 win in Minnesota, the Eagles remain last in the division behind the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins. They will need the kind of production they got last week from Donovan McNabb, who threw for 333 yards against the Vikings' poor pass defense.
``We can't really go on winning one, losing one, especially with the situation that we're in,'' cornerback Lito Sheppard says.
The Cowboys spent the bye week locking up Tony Romo for the next six years with a $67 million contract that includes a $30 million guarantee. Romo has been the major factor in the Cowboys' climb to the top of the NFC.
Sideshow: Terrell Owens returns to Philadelphia, where he had one good year and one that was as turbulent as it can get.

Baltimore (4-3) at Pittsburgh (5-2) (Monday night)
The Ravens were off last week. They hope they'll get back quarterback Steve McNair, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and defensive tackle Trevor Pryce for at least part-time duty. They're a little less optimistic about another of their injured stars, tight end Todd Heap.
The Steelers had their injuries earlier. ``We are getting better and better each week,'' said wide receiver Hines Ward, who made his first two touchdown catches in last week's win over Cincinnati after missing two games with a knee injury.

Denver (3-4) at Detroit (5-2)
The Lions are starting to look legitimate despite being outscored 90-24 by Philadelphia and Washington in their two losses. Their win in Chicago last week made them the prime (only?) challenger to Green Bay in the NFC North. Kevin Jones' return from injury has added a running dimension to the passing of Jon Kitna and his standout receivers.
Denver's ``shutdown cornerbacks,'' supposedly the strength of the team, were victimized for Green Bay's two touchdowns in the Packers' 19-13 overtime win Monday night.

Green Bay (6-1) at Kansas City (4-3)
This is the kind of scheduling NFL coaches hate: a short week for the Packers, who go back on the road to play a team that had a bye week. But KC's Herman Edwards thinks it might be an advantage for Green Bay.
``The way they won that game, they would prefer to play today,'' the coach said of the Packers' overtime win in Denver. ``They want to play today: `We're hot right now. Let's keep going.' ''
Although they are tied for first in the AFC West and beat San Diego, the Chiefs don't have anything close to the Chargers' firepower. But their defense, led by end Jared Allen, has been solid.

Carolina (4-3) at Tennessee (5-2)
The Panthers lead the desultory NFC South despite losing 31-7 to the Colts last week. Their record defies the norms in all sports: 4-0 on the road, 0-3 at home. More predictable: 43-year-old Vinny Testaverde, who got off the couch to beat Arizona, has a sore right Achilles' tendon. David Carr, who has a bad back, returns at quarterback.
The Titans have allowed the fewest yards rushing in the NFL, more than making up for Vince Young's second-year struggles at quarterback. LenDale White ran for 133 yards last week in the 13-9 win over the Raiders, the most since his days teaming with Reggie Bush at Southern Cal.

Jacksonville (5-2) at New Orleans (3-4)
The Saints have bounced back from their 0-4 start with three straight wins and are only a game behind Carolina in the NFC South. Drew Brees has had eight TD passes and only one interception since starting the year just the opposite with one TD and nine INTs.
The Jaguars managed to win 24-23 in Tampa with Quinn Gray at quarterback in place of the injured David Garrard. And WR Matt Jones, who was inactive as the third quarterback against Indianapolis two weeks ago, made a one-handed catch for the winning touchdown.

Seattle (4-3) at Cleveland (4-3)
As usual, the inconsistent Seahawks sit atop the AFC West, which they'll probably win again at 9-7 or 8-8. But they remain banged up. Even after their bye, the training staff ordered extra days off for QB Matt Hasselbeck, WR Deion Branch and two offensive line starters so they had more time to heal.
The Browns are one of the NFL's pleasant surprises, although their last two wins were against the NFL's two winless teams, Miami and St. Louis. Still, Derek Anderson is second in the NFL with 17 touchdown passes, nine to Braylon Edwards.

Cincinnati (2-5) at Buffalo (3-4)
The Bengals are a major disappointment, the Bills a relatively nice surprise.
If not for somewhat improbable last-second field goals by Denver and Dallas, Buffalo could be 5-2. But they're shuffling quarterbacks.
Trent Edwards, a third-round rookie quarterback, was the starter. He injured his wrist last week and J.P. Losman, who started the season, threw an 85-yard pass to Lee Evans for the only touchdown in a 13-3 win over the Jets.
Cincinnati's problem is defense, but Marvin Lewis also is taking heat for kicking a field goal instead of going for a touchdown just before the half in a 24-13 loss to the Steelers last week. Too conservative, the critics said.

Houston (3-5) at Oakland (2-5)
Two teams that have returned to their usual place in the NFL universe.
``The last month has been poor and it's been poor because we've made it poor,'' Gary Kubiak says of his Texans, who have lost five of six and had a play for the lowlight reel in San Diego last week: punter Matt Turk flopped chasing an errant snap and the Chargers' Antonio Cromartie fell on the ball for a touchdown.
Oakland reached the Titans 26 late in a 13-9 loss last week. A false start, a sack, two incomplete passes and a drop by Mike Williams followed. Williams was cut two days later.

Arizona (3-4) at Tampa Bay (4-4)
The Cardinals keep running into their dismal history, specifically with injuries at quarterback that have limited their ability to use such talented offensive weapons as Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Edgerrin James. Kurt Warner, playing with a dislocated left elbow, almost pulled out a win in Washington before their bye, but Neil Rackers' 55-yard potential winning field goal curved wide.
The Bucs have lost three of four as injuries to running back Carnell ``Cadillac'' Williams and left tackle Luke Petitgout have taken their toll. Jeff Garcia, nearly perfect in a 4-2 start, threw three interceptions last week in a home loss to Jacksonville.

San Diego (4-3) at Minnesota (2-5)
The Chargers seem to have overcome their disappointing start, beating Denver, Oakland and Houston by a combined 104-27 to get back where they were supposed to be. They're tied with Kansas City for the AFC West lead. More important, they's starting to look like a team that might challenge New England and Indianapolis in the playoffs.
Minnesota has just two strengths: run defense and rookie RB Adrian Peterson, who doesn't get the ball nearly enough. He's leading the league in rushing with 740 yards despite carrying just 18 times a game.

Washington (4-3) at New York Jets (1-7)
The Jets finally did the obvious and benched Chad Pennington for second-year-man Kellen Clemens. Health permitting, Clemens will probably play the rest of the season in an effort to determine if he is the future quarterback.
The Redskins are bound to be angry after their 52-7 thrashing in New England. But this should be a lot easier because the three AFC East teams other than the Patriots have exactly one win against non-division opponents.

San Francisco (2-5) at Atlanta (1-6)
Two former high draft picks at QB, Alex Smith for the 49ers (No. 1, 2005) and Joey Harrington for the Falcons, (No. 3, 2002, Detroit). At least Smith has a future, but he's just coming back from a separated throwing shoulder and clearly played in pain during last week's 31-10 loss to New Orleans.

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