FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - 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 might 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 at Gillette Stadium, replacing the slippery, sandy surface that New England safety Rodney Harrison said, "was terrible."
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 a week ago 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 again tonight?
"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 consecutive years.
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
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