Before Andrew Luck's bad shoulder made it at least conceivable that he would miss another game and before, even, deflated footballs swallowed the offseason, set the NFL against one of the most accomplished players in its history and gave birth to the biggest grudge match of the year, there was a simpler concern for the Indianapolis Colts as they contemplated the New England Patriots: Can the Colts' defense slow down the Patriots at all?
That is a lot of ifs for a defense that has had a lot of whiffs in four games against the Patriots since 2012 -- when Luck became the quarterback. The Patriots have outscored the Colts 189-73, including the 45-7 thrashing in the AFC Championship Game last season. The Patriots have scored at least 42 points in all four games, averaging 47.3 points per game, 29 more points per game than the Colts average.
Perhaps most astonishing is the Patriots' utter dominance with the run when playing Indy. They have scored 15 rushing touchdowns and averaged 193 rushing yards per game (on an average of 39 carries per game). Against the Colts, they have rushed 55 percent of the time, while rushing just 40 percent of the time against all other opponents. In the last three games alone, the Patriots have rushed for 657 yards. Memorably, last season the Colts made Jonas Gray look like Jim Brown for one night, when he rushed for 201 yards and four touchdowns. Then Gray overslept and was never heard from again. By the time the playoffs began, it was LeGarrette Blount's turn and he ran for 148 yards and three scores.
In the wake of those games, Colts owner Jim Irsay made no secret of his desire for his defense to get more physical. The effort took an early hit when defensive tackle Art Jones was lost to an ankle injury before the season even began. Then Josh Chapman, the starting nose tackle, was cut. The new-look defensive front -- with rookies David Parry and Henry Anderson on the line -- has held up well. Last week, they held Arian Foster to 41 yards on 19 rushes. This week, they're set to face Dion Lewis (barring further trouble with an abdominal injury), who was briefly in Indianapolis last season and who has 418 yards from scrimmage in four games this season.
"Not to compare, but we are doing everything right," said Adams, who was named the AFC's Defensive Player of the Week after he had two interceptions, two passes defended and five tackles against the Texans last week. "We are holding our blocks and getting our linebackers free. We have faced good runners up until this day, and I think we did a fairly good job. That won't stop -- Dion is a good back, a shifty back and that's a good test for us. He's slippery. Blount had a great game against us in the playoffs. Our game is we have to make them one dimensional, we have to stop the run."
It has been an odd, somewhat disappointing start for the Colts, who began the season as a popular pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl but who lost their first two games as Luck struggled behind a porous offensive line. But the Colts have won their last three -- two with Matt Hasselbeck under center as Luck recovered from the shoulder injury -- all against division opponents. The start has surprised everybody, Adams admitted, who, in a bit of positive spin, thinks the Colts will peak at the right time. He wonders where teams that start hot will be in Week 10 or 11. Still, the rocky beginning to the season -- replete with speculation that coach Chuck Pagano might not survive if the Colts do not make a run to the Super Bowl -- has given this game even greater meaning for the Colts.
"In this league, you don't want to use things as a measuring stick," Adams said. "We are 3-0 in our division, and this is another conference game and they are big tests. This is a big game for us. I'm not saying it's a do-or-die situation. I know we're progressing. I see progress every week.
"We're without Andrew Luck two games straight, but we still won those games. You can look at that as a positive. We stepped up. Now we're getting pieces back. We know what we have now. I want to say I'm curious about a measuring stick."
The Colts have gone out of their way this week to insist that this is just another game, mostly to not acknowledge the elephant in the NFL: The undefeated Patriots seem to be on a Deflategate-fueled mission to obliterate opponents. The scandal all began in Indianapolis and there is little doubt that the Patriots would not mind embarrassing the Colts in their first meeting since the AFC Championship Game.
Pagano's message to his team was to stay focused on the task at hand this week, and the Colts have been careful not to engage in any talk about deflated footballs. It is worth noting that if the Patriots would sooner forget Deflategate, so would the Colts, who remember the game that started it all with much worse memories.
"Honestly, I wouldn't say we've ignored it. I'd say it wasn't in my mind at all," Adams said. "I say that because of the fact that it was talked about and it kept being talked about, and our names were being mentioned and we had a bad loss. It was like an excuse. They really beat us, beat us bad. It's like, 'Let's stop talking about Deflategate because it brought back memories of the loss.' I don't blame it on the ball. We got our butts handed to us.
"If they said they have got to make a point, well, we do, too. We're 3-2. We've got to make more points than they do. We've got to win a game. If they are using that as motivation, that's fine. We have our own motivation. We have to show people we are for real."
Three more things to watch around the NFL in Week 6:
1) A game to determine first place in the NFC East. Seriously, that's Giants-Eagleson Monday night, and it is as much a testament to New York's improved defense and Philadelphia's determination to run the ball as it is to the Cowboysreeling without Tony Romo. Both offenses are coming off their best performances of the season in Week 5, so this game could hinge on the defenses. That should favor the Giants, whose rush defense is second in the league with a very big caveat: linebacker Jon Beason, the linchpin of the defense, left last week's game with a concussion and it is not clear if or how much he will be able to play. The pass defense also sustained a hit, with cornerback Prince Amukamara out a few weeks with a pectoral injury. The running game is critical for the Eagles, who have averaged 155 yards rushing in their two victories, but just 52.3 yards in their three losses. The other injury to watch: Odell Beckham Jr.'s hamstring bothered him during the victory over the 49ers, and while trainers said early in the week he was responding well, any setback for him is a setback for the entire offense.
2) It might seem like the Bruce Arians Bowl, but the game between Arizona and Pittsburgh is likely to boil down to the Cardinals' defense against Mike Vick and Le'Veon Bell. The Steelers announced on Friday that Ben Roethlisberger will miss his third straight game with a knee injury. Even with the return of receiver Martavis Bryant, the Steelers will have to be careful with what they allow Vick, who has connected on just one pass that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, to do. The Cardinals already have 11 interceptions -- three more than any other team -- and they have at least one sack in each of the last 14 games. So expect a heavy dose of Bell, who has been spectacular in his three games, going for more than 125 yards from scrimmage in each of them. This is a tough task for the Steelers on a short week against what might be the NFL's most complete team.
3) The Carolina Panthers are undefeated, but a game in thunderous Seattle still feels like a litmus test for their conference title viability, even though the Seahawks are clearly not right at 2-3. The 'Hawks will get Marshawn Lynch back, but their offensive line better figure out how to block for Russell Wilson (Seattle has already allowed 22 sacks). This is probably not the game the Seahawks finally figure out what to do with Jimmy Graham. The Panthers' defense has allowed just 86 yards total in receiving yards by tight ends this season, the fewest in the NFL. And the Seahawks have scored a touchdown on just seven of 54 offensive possessions. Wondering how the Panthers will score? It probably will have to be the Cam Newton show again. He already has 43 carries and two rushing touchdowns this season, to go with seven touchdown passes. One more interesting wrinkle to watch: Is there any hangover after the Seahawks blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to the Bengals?