INDIANAPOLIS | Antoine Bethea enjoys a good chess match as much as the next guy — especially when the opponent is Tom Brady.
The Colts' safety has spent years trying to get the upper hand on a three-time Super Bowl champion and one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, and Bethea relishes the cat-and-mouse game that will be renewed Saturday night when Indianapolis and New England meet in a divisional-round playoff game.
"Still the same Tom, making those good throws, control of the offense and just continuing to be that elite quarterback," Bethea said.
Since being drafted by the Colts in 2006, Bethea has faced just about every big-name quarterback.
Every four years, he gets a shot at one of the NFC's best — Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers. Twice, he has faced Ben Roethlisberger. In October, Bethea and the Colts lined up against Peyton Manning for the first time outside of practice. And while Philip Rivers has won six of the last seven against the Colts, facing Brady has always been unique.
Perhaps it's because Brady made his first NFL start against the Colts way back in 2001. Or perhaps it's because Brady has handed Indy 10 of its 78 losses (12.8 percent) since making that first start. Or maybe it's because the former AFC East foes never really split up after realignment in 2002. Instead, they've played every year since 2003 and provided the league with some of its most enduring images over the last decade.
—New England and Indy traded AFC championship game victories following the 2003 and 2006 seasons. The Pats won in the snow; the Colts won with one of the great comebacks in playoff history.
—In 2007, the Brady-to-Randy Moss connection derailed Indy's quest for perfection — on the same day the Pats' continued their march toward 16-0.
—In 2009, Manning took advantage of Brady's inability to convert on fourth-and-2 from deep in his own territory late in the game to rally the Colts for an improbable 35-34 win at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Brady has won all three games since that mind-numbing finish including last season's 59-24 thumping in frosty New England. But Indy won the last playoff game, seven years ago. And while many of the names and faces have changed over the years, the challenge never really did. In 14 career games, Brady has carved up Indy's defense for 3,456 yards and 27 touchdowns with only 12 interceptions.
"The biggest thing is that Tom's going to get back there and make sure his playmakers get the ball in their hands and get the ball down the field," defensive end Cory Redding said. "We've got to get pressure on him. First and foremost, you have to get him rattled. You can't let him get comfortable in the pocket. And that's going to help out our back end as well. You can't cover these guys all day, so we have to get pressure on the quarterback."
Two years ago, he was on the wrong end of Brady's AFC championship game victory over Baltimore. That loss opened the door for coach Chuck Pagano to take the Colts' job and eventually led to the free-agent signing of Redding. But this will be a very different offense than what Redding saw that day.
Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are no longer with the Pats (12-4) and tight end Rob Gronkowski is out with a season-ending knee injury. But Brady has proven he can win with younger, lesser-known receivers.
And the Colts will be at an even bigger disadvantage after giving up 513 yards and 44 points in last weekend's crazy wild-card victory over the Chiefs. Starting cornerback Greg Toler will miss the game after going on injured reserve this week with a groin injury, and it's still uncertain whether LaRon Landry (concussion) will be cleared to play though he was a full participant in Wednesday's practice.
Brady has his other concerns, like trying to avoid NFL sacks champion Robert Mathis.
"He's a great player. You try to put guys around him and double team him, but he still seems to be making all the plays," Brady said. "I just know I don't have a lot of time back there in the pocket to sort things out. We've got to try and get the ball to our guys as quickly as we can so he's not ruining the game."
Indy will do everything it can to make him uncomfortable Saturday night.
But it will all come down to the same old thing: Who makes the right moves?
"I think it changes every year," Bethea said when asked about the rivalry. "This year, it's two good teams going against each other, hostile environment, playing this game to get to the AFC championship."
Notes: Linebacker Josh McNary (concussion) also was a full participant in practice Wednesday. Offensive lineman Khaled Holmes (calf) was limited. Defensive lineman Aubrayo Franklin got an extra day of rest and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring) did not practice.
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