INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – The Indianapolis Colts have won a franchise-record 12 straight home games and are off to the third-best start of any defending Super Bowl champion.

So why are they underdogs at home this week? Blame that, as Indianapolis fans usually do, on New England.

“They’re a good team, they’ve played great football all year and we’ve played very, very well,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “It’s going to be a big game.”

Both teams enter Sunday’s game with glittering resumes.

New England (8-0) has beaten all of its opponents by at least 17 points. Tom Brady has a mind-boggling 136.2 passer rating, new receiver Randy Moss could break the franchise’s single-season record for TD catches this weekend, and only two opponents have topped 20 points this season.

Not bad.

Indianapolis is merely off to another 7-0 start, already has three road wins against division opponents and just finished a six-day stretch in which it routed Jacksonville and Carolina on the road. The Colts lead the league in TDs rushing (12) and their run defense has jumped from 32nd last year to 13th. In fact, the Colts – yes, the Colts – have allowed fewer points per game than New England (14.6 to 15.9).

Hum ho, say the so-called experts.

When debating, the focus always seems to be more on New England’s chance to go 16-0 than whether the Colts can defend their home turf against a team they have beaten three consecutive times. The oddsmakers installed New England as a 41/2-point favorite over the Colts.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a three-time Super Bowl winner, thinks that’s no way to treat a champion.

“They’ve won a lot of games through the years, they won a championship last year and nobody’s beat them in a long time,” he said, speaking for the minority. “So there’s nobody doing it better than they are.”

The truth is, the Colts and Pats are in a league of their own.

They’re tied for the league lead in turnover margin at plus-11. The Colts have beaten stronger opponents, while New England has mastered the art of fast starts. The Colts have the league’s No. 2 pass defense, the Pats the No. 1 pass offense.

The numbers indicate these teams have also traded identities. New England is now the team throwing all over the field, and the Colts are the team methodically cranking out victories.

As Dungy knows from his own experience, the pundits always seem more enamored of the team scoring more points.

“We went through that at one point in ’04 where we scoring a lot of points and we went up there and got three points,” Dungy said, referring to the Colts’ divisional round playoff loss in Foxborough.

Still, the Colts would rather lay low than find themselves in the glaring spotlight for a fourth consecutive year.

There are explanations for why New England has received so much attention and for the perception that New England is far superior. Those range from playing in a bigger media market to the high-profile changes the Patriots made during the offseason. The Pats added an entirely new receiving corps in Moss, Donte’ Stallworth and Wes Welker, and signed free agent linebacker Adalius Thomas.

Three Super Bowl wins in four years helps promote that image, too.

The Colts, meanwhile, reverted to their standard philosophy of moving lesser-known backups and draft picks into the lineup to offset defections and retirements.

Both approaches have worked perfectly. The Patriots are scoring points at a record clip, and the Colts have become more physical on both sides of the ball.

How that plays out Sunday is anybody’s guess. But how it’s playing out in the media is obvious.

“We need to understand we have to play the game and not the media game,” Colts president Bill Polian said on his weekly radio show Monday night. “The media will do its job, but we can’t get caught up in all that.”

Instead, they’d rather earn the respect on the field, and Sunday’s game will give them another chance.

“The point spread is there to get the betting right, it’s not something we worry about,” Dungy said. “New England is a different challenge for us because they’ve got a lot of guys who can make plays. So far, so good, but it’s going to be tougher against these guys.”

AP-ES-10-30-07 1832EDT

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