FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. The unbeaten Indianapolis Colts vs. the New England Patriots, who have only one loss.

The hype vs. the reality.

There are plenty of subplots to tonight’s game between two of the NFL’s best teams – Adam Vinatieri’s first against the team for which he kicked two Super Bowl winning field goals, Manning’s struggles against the Patriots and Brady’s growing comfort with his new receivers.

Floating above all that is the perception that it may be the NFL’s biggest game so far this season.

“You would love to hype this thing up like it’s the AFC championship, but it’s really another game on the schedule,” Brady said. “We’re really not even halfway through the year.”

But what about his matchup with Manning, the NFL’s top-rated quarterback? Brady, after all, is coming off his best game of the season – 372 yards passing and four touchdown strikes in a 31-7 rout at Minnesota.

“If that’s what it takes to get people to watch the game or whatever, that’s fine,” Manning said, “but it will be about a lot more than that. It’s about who blocks better, who tackles better.”

There’s no denying that the game is more important than most. And they’ll have a good surface to play on: The Patriots put new turf up the middle third of the field, replacing the slippery, sandy surface that Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said, “was terrible, to say the least.”

Indianapolis (7-0), New England (6-1) and Denver (5-2) represent the class of the conference. The only NFC team with a better record than those three is Chicago (7-0).

The Patriots lost to the Broncos 17-7 in the third game of the season. The Colts came from behind last Sunday to beat the Broncos 34-31 on Vinatieri’s 37-yard field goal with two seconds left.

“That was the first time that I have had the opportunity to really help the team out,” said Vinatieri, who signed as a free agent after 10 years in New England. Could it come down to that on Sunday?

“It would be fun if it was that way,” he said.

A New England win would tie the Patriots’ best start through eight games. They were 12-1 in 2004 on their way to their third championship in four seasons.

“If you think things are going well and you need a measuring stick, this would be the game,” Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel said.

A victory by the Colts would make them the only team to start consecutive seasons at 8-0 since the 1929-31 Green Bay Packers did it three straight years. It also would give Manning and Tony Dungy the franchise record for most wins by a quarterback-coach tandem at 56-16. Johnny Unitas and Don Shula were 55-20-3.

“It’s such an important game and it’s been an important game every time we play these guys,” Manning said. “What’s happened in the past is really kind of irrelevant and who plays the best this Sunday night will win.”

The teams will meet in Foxborough for the fifth straight time, including New England’s wins in the 2004 AFC title game and the 2005 first-round playoff game.

Recent history is definitely on New England’s side. Brady is 6-1 against the Colts; Manning is 3-10 against the Patriots, often looking confused by the defensive alignments.

But midway through last season, Manning threw for three touchdowns and 321 yards in a 40-21 win in Foxborough that ended the Colts six-game losing streak against the Patriots.

“He wasn’t befuddled last year,” Harrison said. “Maybe he struggled at particular times. We look for his best on Sunday.”

Manning couldn’t have been much better last Sunday when he threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns and led the Colts to scores on all five of their second half possession to overcome a 14-7 halftime deficit.

Dungy said Manning has improved since throwing an NFL record 49 touchdown passes in 2004.

“Since then, everybody has looked at us and done a good job of doing their homework to adapt and do different things,” Dungy said. “I think that he’s been more adaptable. He’s taken care of the ball better every year, and really just has a better grasp of our offense every year.”

Manning has thrown 14 touchdowns and just one interception in his last six games. The Colts have scored at least 30 points in each game. The Patriots haven’t allowed more than 17.

“They play in front of you, make you make the turnover or miss a protection here and then they jump on it,” Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark said.

The Patriots simply bypassed Minnesota’s strong run defense Monday night by passing over it. Now the circumstances are reversed: Indianapolis has given up the most yards rushing this season, so Brady is more likely to hand the ball off to Corey Dillon and rookie Laurence Maroney, a solid double threat.

But the focus will be on Manning and Brady, perhaps the two smartest, most accurate and hardest working quarterbacks in the NFL.

“You have two guys who get put in the showcase in just about every game because they do so much for their team. It’s just the flavor that you like. Julius Erving or Larry Bird?” Dungy said. “They’re both tremendous players.”


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