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November 17. 2012 8:37PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Indy still has a long way to go

After they rooted hard against the horseshoe for more than a decade, the Indianapolis Colts have become a team even Patriots fans can appreciate this season.

Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck has been a likeable savior for a franchise that hit bottom as it transitioned past New England nemesis Peyton Manning. The obnoxious Bill Polian was axed from his job running the organization. And the team has rallied around the plight of Chuck Pagano, the head coach who was diagnosed with leukemia in September and has left the club to fight his cancer.

A tale of upstarts and inspiration, the Colts are a really good story.

But they've yet to prove that they're a really good football team.

Indianapolis does arrive at Gillette Stadium this afternoon sporting a record of 6-3, and could very well return to Foxborough seven weeks later for a wild-card playoff game. It has won four straight, which is tied for the longest active winning streak in the NFL, and which has opened up a two-game cushion between the Colts and their nearest competition for a place in the postseason.

However, looking deeper than the surface of the standings reveals a team that - while certainly handling its business - Indy still has plenty to prove before it can really be considered a contender.

After a 1-2 start that sandwiched a squeaker over Minnesota between losses to the Bears on the road and Jaguars at home (it remains Jacksonville's lone win this season), the Colts rallied from a 21-3 deficit to beat the Packers, 30-27, in the first game that followed Pagano's diagnosis. They get full credit for that impressive victory, even if it came during Green Bay's early season slump.

But they followed that by getting trounced against the ground-and-pound Jets, 35-9 - and though they've won every game since there's not a convincing, they've-arrived statement in the bunch. They barely beat the Browns, who are 2-7. They trailed 13-6 with three and a half minutes left before beating the Titans, who are 4-6, in overtime. They got a late field goal to beat the Dolphins, who are also 4-6. And then they beat the Jaguars, who at 1-8, are the front-runners for the first pick in April's draft.

Of course, a team can only play the schedule it's presented. And the Patriots lost to a Cardinals' team that has since been proven crappy, then struggled to escape with wins over sub-.500 squads like the Jets and Bills. In this bottom-line business, then-bottom-feeding Indianapolis has found a way to get to the weekend before Thanksgiving with the same record as the New England team that played a Super Bowl in its city just last February, and thus the Colts' shouldn't be disparaged for winning only once by more than six points. Nor should their clutch performances late in many of these contests be discredited.

Though the numbers call into question whether it's all sustainable, especially against better competition. Even without having played a winning team since that clash with the Packers, the Colts have been outscored by 15 points on the season. Their offense has proven an ability to move the ball, but it has been largely inefficient, ranking fifth league-wide in net yards (387.3 per game) but just 22nd in scoring (20.7 points). And while Luck has certainly been solid, his 79.1 passer rating puts him 26th in the NFL, and a 10-to-9 ratio of touchdowns-to-interceptions means there have been too many reminders that he is indeed a rookie.

Their defense, meanwhile, has been no better than mediocre. They rank 15th in points (22.3) and 18th in total yards (350.6) allowed. Only three teams yield more yards per rush attempt than they do (4.7). And only 10 teams yield more yards per pass attempt (7.4), even though they've yet to face a foe that currently boasts a top-10 passing attack.

Of course, there's something to said for confidence, purpose, inspiration and will power - all of which are categories where the Colts might at this point lead the league at this point. Initially, Pagano's illness gave them something to play for, their bond strengthened because of it, and a kind schedule subsequently set them up with an opportunity to feel good about themselves. And they should. They're quite a story.

But it's a story with a long way to go before enjoying any sort of fairy tale ending.

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OVERRATED: Darius Butler. He had two interceptions last week, returning one of them for a touchdown en route to AFC defensive player of the week honors - but Patriots fans know why he wasn't starting for the Colts until the secondary was struck by injury. Tom Brady should go at his ex-teammate.

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UNDERRATED: Luck's speed. His five rushing touchdowns and 4.7 yards per carry show that New England would be wise to keep the rookie quarterback in the pocket to make him a passer - and if they can't they'll need to tackle much better than they did against the Bills.

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KEEP AN EYE ON...: Aqib Talib. Questions remains as to how much he plays in his first game with his new team, or if the Pats alter their defensive schemes with the addition of a quality cover cornerback, but the answers should be fascinating in the way that they'll set the scene for so much henceforth. We may learn the most about Talib today when he's matched up with Reggie Wayne.

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KEY MATCHUP: The Patriots vs. injuries. As of Friday there was a legitimate chance that Wes Welker, Logan Mankins, Aaron Hernandez and Dan Connolly could all miss today's game. With eight other starters limited in practice at some point in the week, that could change the contest's complexion dramatically.

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STAT OF THE WEEK: 4-2. That's Bill Belichick's record against the Browns and Steelers offenses led by Colts' interim head coach Bruce Arians and the system he brought to Indy.


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Dave D’Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com. Twitter: @davedonofrio

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