FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Three weeks before Tom Brady made his first NFL start, Andrew Luck turned 12.
On the field before the opening kickoff of that game on Sept. 30, 2001, the young Patriot met the opposing quarterback for the first time.
“I was out there warming up for the game and he came over and he said, ‘Hey Tom, I’m Peyton,’ ” Brady recalled.
New England won that home game over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, 44-13. On Sunday, Brady will be the experienced star when the Patriots face the Colts again, this time with rookie Luck at quarterback.
And Luck may not get a warm greeting when he takes the field at Gillette Stadium. Brady said he’s not sure he’ll introduce himself.
“I don’t know. We’ll see,” he said. “Usually I don’t go out too early anymore. I tend to just keep to myself.”
If he does that to get in a competitive frame of mind, it makes sense in a game that should be tougher than the Patriots could have imagined when the season began. They were 13-3 last year and reached the Super Bowl, while the Colts were 2-14 with a variety of mediocre quarterbacks filling in for Manning, sidelined all last season after several neck surgeries.
After the season, Manning signed with the Denver Broncos. The Colts made Luck the first pick of the NFL draft and he’s having a much better rookie season than both Brady, who threw just three passes in 2000, and Manning, who started all 16 games when the Colts went 3-13 in 1998.
“As a rookie, I was like fourth-string and eating nachos before the game in the stands,” said Brady, now in his 13th season. “There wasn’t much of me thinking of playing.”
Luck tried to learn from Brady and Manning by watching the Patriots and Colts play each other through the years.
“As a young quarterback growing up, I took the opportunity to watch the sort of benchmarks of quarterback play,” Luck said. “There were some great playoff games at both stadiums. I think Gillette had grass a while back so it got fairly muddy sometimes late in the year.”
The field has artificial turf now and the teams are heading into the latter part of the season on a roll. The Colts have won their last four games, the Patriots their last three, and both are 6-3.
“It’s a big game, obviously, a huge game,” Luck said. “In the AFC, (the) two teams that are up there, in terms of the standings right now. So it’ll definitely be exciting.”
The Colts have made a swift turnaround. They already have four more wins than they had all last season and have a legitimate shot at a playoff berth.
“I’m definitely impressed,” Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker said. “Obviously, you would figure it would be a rebuilding type deal for the Colts and it’s not that way at all. They’re playing some really good ball with a lot of young players and then they have some veterans, too, who really kind of step up for them in crunch time.”
Luck’s 2,631 yards passing are the most by a rookie through his first nine games. He set an NFL rookie record with 433 yards through the air in a 23-20 win over the Miami Dolphins two weeks ago. And one more game of more than 300 yards will be his fifth, breaking Manning’s NFL rookie mark.
There’s a decent chance of that happening Sunday.
The Patriots have allowed that many in five of their nine games. Only four teams have given up more yards passing than the Patriots, who have been especially vulnerable to the big play. They’re hoping to get help from newcomer Aqib Talib, obtained in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I know how talented he is,” Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s got a good passion for the game and he’ll be a great addition, I think, to them.”
Talib sat out Sunday’s 37-31 win over the Buffalo Bills, completing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
“What happened in the past is the past. I’m just looking forward to make the best of this opportunity and win some ballgames,” he said. “It’s my fifth year in the league and I’ve played almost every coverage there is to play. So whatever they ask me to play, that’s what I’m going to play.”
Stopping Reggie Wayne could be high on his to-do list.
The 12-year veteran leads the NFL with 69 catches and is second with 931 yards receiving. His skills and know-how have been a big help to Luck.
“He’s got Wayne there to help him out,” Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “He’s had years of experience and I’m sure he’s given him some advice.”
Luck also has been successful running the ball, but the Patriots have a more balanced attack with an average of 146 yards rushing, fifth most in the NFL. They lead the NFL with 33.2 points and 430.3 yards per game
The teams face each other for the 13th time since 2003 despite being in different divisions. The Patriots beat the Colts in the playoffs in the 2003 and 2004 seasons and went on to win the Super Bowl both times. The Colts beat the Patriots in the AFC title game in the 2006 season and captured the championship with Manning.
The rivalry is strong. But both teams’ desire to keep their winning streaks alive is stronger.
“Every week is big,” Colts defensive end Cory Redding said, “but this one in particular because of what we’re doing and what we’ve done the last few weeks.”
But Arians, filling in while Chuck Pagano battles leukemia, doesn’t want his team to get too excited.
What would a win mean for the Colts?
“Well,” he said, “it would just make us 7-3.”
It also would give Luck something Brady earned 12 years ago: a win in his first season as a starter over a great quarterback.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s your first year or if it’s your 13th year,” Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington said. “If you’re a good player, you’re a good player.”
And Luck is just starting out.
“If some day I can play at a level that Peyton and Tom play at,” Luck said, “then that’d be a quarterback’s dream come true.”