INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Defensive tackle Montae Reagor sees a different Indianapolis Colts team this season.

They’re off to a franchise-best 7-0 start, have allowed a league-low 77 points and are scoring an average of nearly 36 points over their past four games. But Reagor doesn’t believe it’s the impeccable numbers that have given the Colts a new identity heading into New England – it’s experience.

“I think we’re more seasoned,” he said. “I think we’ve learned to play at different times, in different situations.”

Most Colts fans consider Monday night’s matchup the game of the year.

Indianapolis has lost six straight to the Patriots (4-3), including the last two years in the playoffs. Two-time MVP Peyton Manning has lost all seven of his games at New England.

A win Monday night would make outsiders think all is well in Indy. Lose, and the questions that have been posed since January, will start all over.

Coach Tony Dungy has insisted since the summer, and especially this week, that a season cannot be dictated by one game, and players seem to have bought into the philosophy.

“I’m not necessarily going to say it’s symbolic of anything,” linebacker David Thornton said. “A lot of people are building this up more than it should be. This is a new season.”

The changes, though, are clear.

The Colts have proven they can run the ball effectively, rely more on short passes and stay patient enough to win games. Manning has even acknowledged he’s often changed passing plays to running plays at the line because of what the defense appears willing to give up, and shootouts have become a distant memory.

Defensively, the Colts have made dramatic improvements. They lead the NFL in sacks (26) and rank fourth in the NFL in red zone defense, and only three AFC teams have forced more turnovers than the Colts (16).

They hold a three-game lead over New England in the battle for home-field advantage, and the Patriots are playing with a lineup that has been ravaged by injuries.

All those factors could help the Colts this week, but then there are those nightmarish memories.

In January, Manning, who set an NFL record with 49 TD passes in 2004, was 27-of-42 for 238 yards with no touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 69.3.

In the 2004 season opener, Edgerrin James fumbled twice inside the Patriots 20, Manning threw an interception at the goal line and took a late sack that led to a missed field goal by Mike Vanderjagt – a field goal that would have forced overtime.

In the AFC Championship two years ago, Manning was picked off four times and the Colts had five turnovers.

During the 2003 regular season, the Pats stopped Indianapolis four times at the goal line in the game’s final minute to hold on for a win that gave them home-field in the title game.

Those images remain vivid in the Colts’ minds.

“You always want to forget about it, but it is in the back of your mind,” Reagor said. “They’ve sent us home the last two years.”

Dungy believes that the Colts’ new style could create a whole different ballgame.

“We’re playing well, No. 1, and No. 2, we’ve been able to win games a lot of different ways,” Dungy said. “You never know how a game is going to transpire, but we think we can win however the game unfolds.”

And Reagor is convinced that, win or lose, Indy’s newfound approach will lead to a strong second-half run.

The first test comes Monday night against an old nemesis.

“It’s a team we want to beat, of course,” Reagor said. “But it’s not going to stop us if we lose, I’m pretty sure everyone has the same attitude.”

AP-ES-11-02-05 1834EST

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