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Andrew Luck's toughened-up Colts will be tested by Patriots

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NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» Dallas' looming Dez Bryant decision.
» What's next for Adrian Peterson.
» Taking stock of the NFL's London experience.
And much more, beginning with the coming moment of truth for Indy's grand plan. ...

The next step for the Colts has always gone through the Patriots -- or, at least, it has for the past decade-and-a-half or so.

Now, though, the idea isn't so much to step over New England as it is to step on their nemesis.

Crazy? Well, the way the Patriots played two weeks ago against Indy's old quarterback -- and the way the past two meetings between the Colts and Pats have gone -- it sure seems far-fetched to think Indianapolis will impose its will on the visiting powerhouse Sunday night. But if you're assessing where the Colts are trying to go and where they've been as they get ready for another showdown with New England, there's no better way to explain the concept.

"That's the whole idea, be as physical as possible," said Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo, one of the holdovers from the old regime. "Ultimately, when you finish a game, you want the team you're playing to know they just played you. Regardless of the outcome, win or loss -- and you wanna win -- you want that team to not wanna play you again. That's the stamp we wanna leave on every game. Get off the field and have that team not want to play you again."

That's pretty much exactly what Colts owner Jim Irsay had in mind when he plucked general manager Ryan Grigson from Philadelphia and coach Chuck Pagano from Baltimore nearly three years ago.

Perturbed that Indy had only won one title with Peyton Manning while less flashy outfits in New England, New York and Pittsburgh took home multiple Lombardi Trophies, Irsay planned to build differently around his second lottery ticket in 15 years. He'd give Andrew Luck more of what Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning had in their title-winning seasons (balance), even if it meant giving him less of what Peyton Manning had during his time with the Colts (a potent offensive artillery).

The effort has definitely not been a failure thus far, not with two playoff appearances and a postseason win already under Luck's belt and a 6-3 record on the books for 2014. But it's also not there yet. The Colts were outclassed by Peyton Manning and Roethlisberger earlier this season, and they've been manhandled twice by the Patriots since Pagano, Grigson and Luck arrived.

So yes, Sunday matters. It's a referendum on how far that vision has come and how far it has to go -- with one of the primary motivators for its existence lining up across from the Colts in silver, blue and red.

Indianapolis corner Darius Butler, himself a former Patriot, put it bluntly: "The thing that resonates with the team -- build that three-phase beast, that monster." As for what that monster is, Butler said, "to win playoff games and championships, you gotta run the ball and stop the run, regardless of how much of a passing league it is."

Build the Monster has been the catchphrase, and it's indeed apparent in how the Colts have invested in personnel.

Among the 12 highest-paid guys on the team, eight are defensive players and six play either on the offensive line or in the defensive front seven. That's a far cry from how Indy was constructed in the past. After years of featuring light defensive fronts, pass-blocking offensive linemen and teams built to play from ahead with speed, the Colts entered 2014 with a league-high 15 300-pounders and, by several measures, football's heaviest roster.

It hasn't shown through on the field every week. The defense has held four opponents under 20 points, but it also ranks 18th in the NFL and was eviscerated by the Steelers in Week 8 and the Broncos in Week 1. Likewise, the Colts have had four games of over 125 yards rushing and four games under 100.

So consistency is needed. But the Colts trust that those flashes are real.

"Not gonna be perfect all the time," Butler said. "One day, the offense might have a bad game and the defense needs to hold a team to 10, 13 points. There might be a day like when we played Big Ben, he gets hot, and the offense needs to put up points. And the special teams has been playing well all year; it's a three-phase thing. And when we're all clicking, we think we can beat any team in this league."

It's an optimistic point of view, for sure. It's definitely a different plan. And this is the week when it's supposed to come to fruition.

The Patriots teams that used to haunt the Colts were typically edgier and more physical -- more suited for a street fight -- than Indy. Whether that's changed remains to be seen. What we know now is that, at the very least, the Colts have conceded there's merit to doing things a little differently than they have in the past.

"It's all hands on deck, everybody in," Reggie Wayne told me. "That's how you build a monster."

And, they hope, how you take one down, as well.

Four downs

1) Dallas' Dez conundrum. Five drafts ago, one thing seemed to be well established when you asked around about Oklahoma State star Dez Bryant: The worst thing for him would be to get drafted by one of the Texas teams located near his hometown of Lufkin. The Cowboys rolled the dice anyway, and it's paid off to the tune of 349 catches, 4,897 yards and 48 touchdowns in his first 69 games as a pro. But it hasn't always been easy. Dallas has done its best to keep a close eye on Bryant -- whose childhood was downright tragic -- off the field and surround him with a support group that won't let him slip. The team has, indeed, been nervous during the times when he had the ability to stray, most notably during the 2011 lockout, when the brass was literally cut off from its star rookie by rule. One club source said to me at the time: "A lot of it is not his fault; it's because of the way he was brought up. He's got a good heart, and the best intentions, but all this stuff happens, and it takes away from that." And some of that has lingered. The thing is, with a monster contract likely on the horizon, it's important to remember the responsibility that goes with those big dollar figures. Players in any locker room keep score by salary and pay keen attention to how their most richly compensated teammates are treated (not unlike a lot of other workplaces). When Bryant gets his new deal, his status will naturally change. And in some ways, the way his team handles him will have to as well.

2) Chiefs finding a way up front. The turning point in Kansas City's win over Buffalo last Sunday was easy to find: a 39-yard touchdown by Jamaal Charles in the fourth quarter, scored on a toss on fourth-and-1. It cut the hosts' lead to three and set the stage for Kansas City to reclaim the line of scrimmage in the game's waning moments. Accomplishing that against Buffalo, which currently leads the NFL with 39 sacks, meant something -- a lot, actually -- to the Chiefs' reworked offensive front. "I think it's one of those things; they want to face the best and prove they're a great offensive line," fullback Anthony Sherman told me. "In individual drills, getting the fundamentals down, and working together (as a) team, everyone does a great job. It's been the next guy up, and they've stepped up to the challenge." That much is abundantly true. Left guard Mike McGlynn signed in late August, right guard Zach Fulton was drafted in the sixth round in May and right tackle Ryan Harris joined up in July. They replaced a trio -- in Branden Albert, Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz -- that reaped contracts totaling over $86 million in the offseason. Of course, things won't get any easier this week, not with a visit from Seattle on tap.

3) Cards equipped to weather the storm. Want to know why Arizona saw fit to give defensive coordinator Todd Bowles a raise? How about this: Despite being without three of the five or six most integral pieces of his defense (Darnell Dockett, John Abraham, Daryl Washington) and despite having lost another heart-and-soul player to free agency (Karlos Dansby), the Cardinals currently rank fifth in the NFL in points allowed. That resilience isn't limited to the defense, which is why it's tough to think the Cardinals won't be able to withstand the loss of Carson Palmer to a torn ACL, at least as far as the regular season is concerned. Arizona averaged 22.67 points in backup Drew Stanton's three previous starts this year, which is just a bit less than what it posted over Palmer's 22 starts for the team (24.27). So how do the Cards keep overcoming the hits? Looking beyond the next man up cliché that all 32 teams push in these spots, there are things that Bruce Arians does functionally to prepare. One has to do with practice reps. When the roster is at 90, Arians will routinely split the team in half and conduct two practices, as a college team would (49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has also been known to do this), to maximize the work everyone gets. So while Stanton has less than a fifth of the regular-season attempts Palmer does over the past two years, he's getting valuable work elsewhere. "The idea," Arians told me, "is to keep coaching them."

4) Seahawks taking steps forward. For the time being, Seattle seems to have righted the ship, winning three straight after starting 3-3. A big reason why, according to those there, has been the Seahawks recognizing their new lot in NFL life. The Seahawks found out awfully quickly that being the defending champions means taking every contender's best shot. "We're the hunted now," defensive end Michael Bennett told me. "Now, people play us, and they look forward to that, and we had to get used to seeing that level every week. ... Every week, you see teams don't make the same mistakes against you they do against other teams; they're changing things, they're doing things differently. And it's good, because it's more competitive; it's fun like that. But it's a change. We play against the Rams and they run a fake punt, and have the (trick) kickoff return. Generally, you're not gonna get that in a (regular-season) game." In that sense, what happened Sunday was a good sign of progress for Seattle. The champs took the Giants' haymakers early and pulled away late. Ultimately, that gives Seattle something to build on.

Three checkdowns

1) With Adrian Peterson's hearing set for Monday before arbitrator Shyam Das, the magic words are still "time served." The Vikings running back, who remains on the Exempt/Commissioner's Permission List after pleading no contest to one count of misdemeanor reckless assault, will sit out his ninth game Sunday, which is 50 percent more than the six games without pay prescribed for a first offense under the revised domestic violence policy. Because Peterson has been paid during his absence, there will be some sentiment to position the missed games as time served. A fine (to amend the "paid" part) and reinstatement would be another possibility.

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2) The showdown between Arizona and Detroit features two coaches who have quickly turned around their programs, and it's probably worth noting here the ages of the guys in charge: The Cardinals' Bruce Arians is 62 and the Lions' Jim Caldwell is 59. One guy was once seen as a lifetime assistant, while the other was a retread. Maybe the lesson here is that experience counts.

3) One storyline to watch is the developing potential for a fairly intriguing 2015 free-agent quarterback market. Philadelphia's Mark Sanchez, Cleveland's Brian Hoyer and Houston's Ryan Mallett, who are all on the final years of their contracts, might not be franchise saviors, but teams that have stockpiled talent elsewhere could be interested in them as quick-fix options at the game's most important position.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (vs. Nebraska, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC): With Todd Gurley on the shelf, Gordon might well be the top back in America in addition to being the best in a strong line of Badger tailbacks who have recently matriculated to the NFL. "He doesn't have a whole lot left to prove," said one AFC college scouting director. "It's just a big game to show up in, with a lot on the line, against a tough, fast, physical defense." One veteran executive said Gordon plays "a little bit like Shady McCoy, and this will be a good test for him." The nation's leading rusher has 1,501 yards and 19 touchdowns through nine games -- he's topped 200 yards in three of those -- and 11 catches for 83 yards and two scores out of Wisconsin's ground-oriented attack. Meanwhile, Nebraska brings a run defense that ranks in the top 20 nationally, a front-line star D-lineman (Randy Gregory) and a top back of its own (Ameer Abdullah), to whom Gordon can be compared.

2) Mississippi State LB Benardrick McKinney (at Alabama, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): At 6-foot-5 and 249 pounds, McKinney has more size than most linebackers who project as three-down players in the pros. Because of that -- and because of a skill set that another AFC college scouting director said makes him look like a "Rolando McClain or poor man's Brian Urlacher" -- he's got a shot to eventually go late in the first round. As is often the case, the Alabama tape will likely be the first one scouts look at, to see how he handles a massive line, tailbacks T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry and quarterback Blake Sims. "He runs their defense, and he's got the task of stopping the run game and being effective shadowing the QB, making sure he stays in the pocket," said the second AFC director. "This is a huge game for him."

Extra point

The NFL now has three more London games under its belt. And coming off the experience, the league is continuing to see the kind of progress needed to buoy its hopes of having a franchise there full time by 2022.

"We had three great games, they sold out, they were executed well," said NFL executive vice president of international Mark Waller. "We feel more strongly about it than we did three months ago."

As is the case with any undertaking of this magnitude, there were positives and negatives to the league's 2014 efforts in London, which included the move from two to three games at Wembley Stadium.

First, on the positive side, the early window game (Lions-Falcons, which started at 9:30 a.m. ET) worked "incredibly well," according to Waller, both for UK fans used to Sunday afternoon starts for Premier League games and stateside fans looking for more football. It also prompted fans in England watching the over-the-air product at 1:30 p.m. GMT to keep watching games on cable into the night, a big positive. So it's likely that at least one of next year's three games will have an early kickoff, though that needs to be worked out with U.S. broadcast partners.

Second, support from leading UK political figures like Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, London mayor Boris Johnson and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Sajid Javid for an NFL team to land there permanently is growing. And third, while there's a ways to go, there was more involvement from the British media than there has been.

On the flip side, the concerns over the condition of the Wembley turf after games has grown (a slicker surface is better for soccer, while football requires steadier footing), and the needs of the English national team remain paramount at the stadium. The other thing that will be looked at as a result of this year's games is how the NFL handles its clubs over there, who'd often rather just stay in one place during the trip.

Overall, the way Waller sees it, 2014 was another win for the league in London.

Next year, the introduction of games in back-to-back weeks (Lions-Chiefs in Week 8 will follow Bills-Jaguars in Week 7) will further test Wembley's turf and logistics, and adding an in-division contest (Jets-Dolphins in Week 4) will take the stakes to another level.

So what's next? Well, first of all, the reason the NFL didn't further contemplate adding another game in 2015 was largely logistical: The Rugby World Cup made availability tight at Wembley for next fall. On that subject, Waller said he'd "be very disappointed if we're not playing more than three games there in 2016."

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Then there are more ways of testing not just the London market but also teams going over there. One step will likely be taking the automatic bye away -- something owners would have to vote on -- to see how visiting clubs could handle it. Another would be to put December games in London, not only to see the reaction from fans there, but also to understand further how competitive balance will be affected.

And there's no beating around the bush anymore; this is with an eye to the eventual London franchise.

"The piece where we need to focus now is football competitiveness, in order to assess whether putting a team over there will work, and whether that team can be competitive," said Waller. "I'm confident we can play more games, and that we could have more games played by the same team, and we need to take it to the next level."

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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