NFL's Unbeatens Go Head-to-Head

They will arrive at the RCA Dome for Sunday afternoon's much-anticipated showdown of undefeated clubs with four Super Bowl titles between them in the past six seasons, and with rosters fashioned to perhaps claim even more championships, including one for 2007.

But the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, who essentially have transformed the NFL into a two-team league this season, also will arrive as franchises constructed in very different ways. They also have obviously polar mind-sets as to how the composition of a roster is crafted and molded to achieve maximum results.

The Colts, largely, are homegrown, a testament, it seems, to traditional Midwest values. And the Patriots have succeeded, in part, by allowing other teams to get some of their best players through their NFL gestation periods and beyond, and then plucking them away for their still-productive years.

Bill Polian, the Indianapolis president and general manager, and Scott Pioli, New England's vice president of player personnel, are both brilliant talent evaluators, with terrific scouting staffs and head coaches who know precisely what kind of player profile they covet. But in terms of putting together their respective rosters, the franchises couldn't be more disparate.

The Colts draft players, nurture and groom their youngsters, and then gradually filter them into the lineup when needed. New England also has used the draft to stock its roster nicely, most notably on the offensive and defensive lines, but has utilized free agency much more ambitiously than have the Colts, who rarely sign a veteran with previous NFL experience.

Yet given the respective results, it's hard to quibble with either philosophy, isn't it?

"I don't think there is a right way or a wrong way," Colts coach Tony Dungy said at the annual league meetings in Phoenix this spring. "There really is no formula. Whatever works for you is going to be best for you in the long run. It's just that I have worked in the past for organizations that have believed a little more in the draft, and I've agreed with that philosophy. And it has served us pretty well, I think."

Indeed, no team trusts its drafts, or believes so ardently in its ability to unearth solid young players and develop them into starters and role-playing contributors, as much as Indianapolis does. And that is evident in the makeup of the Colts' current roster.

Of the 53 active players, only nine began their NFL careers with other franchises, and just three of those are among the team's 22 starters, not counting kickers. All three -- Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, guard Ryan Lilja and defensive tackle Raheem Brock -- were either drafted or signed as free agents by other teams, but never played a down in a regular-season game for their original clubs.

In fact, the only players on the Indianapolis roster who ever suited up in the uniform of another team are kicker Adam Vinatieri, who ironically was pirated away from the Patriots as an unrestricted free agent in 2006, and a pair of backups, defensive lineman Dan Klecko (also a former Patriot) and linebacker Rocky Boiman (formerly a Tennessee Titan).

Now look at the New England roster: Twenty-three of the 53 players, including eight of the starters, began their NFL careers with other franchises. Of the 23 imports, 20 appeared in at least one game with another team before joining the Pats. Like their Sunday counterparts, the Patriots believe in the draft, but rely far more on filling holes with veteran free agents.

Former Bear linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, left, is an example of the Patriots acquiring a veteran player to fortify their forces. Undrafted free-agent find Gary Brackett is an example of the Colts' success in developing players from the start.

Case in point: When coach Bill Belichick decided in the offseason that his passing attack needed to be dramatically upgraded, he and Pioli orchestrated trades that landed the Patriots the resurgent Randy Moss and clever slot receiver Wes Welker, and also cut deals to sign free agent wideouts Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington.

Suffice it to say that, while the Colts don't mind taking some time to assimilate younger players into their system, patience is not a virtue well-practiced in New England.

That's not meant to be critical, though, of the Patriots, because few coach-personnel director tandems in the sports are as simpatico as the Belichick-Pioli connection. They have managed to develop a system in which they view players, whether they are young prospects or older free agent veterans, basically through the same set of eyes. That's no small feat in a league where, historically, coaches and scouts look at life through a different prism and often with opposite agendas.

Certainly part of the reason for the different approaches of the Colts and the Patriots is economics. New England is a big-market team that owner Bob Kraft has turned into a money machine. The Colts are decidedly small market, with more limited resources, a franchise where owner Jim Irsay has had to dig into his family funds several times in recent years to retain key players.

"Our financial model is a little different," said Polian, referring not only to market size, but to the disproportionate share of salary cap room occupied by prominent players such as quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, and defensive end Dwight Freeney, all of them among the NFL's highest-paid performers at their respective positions. "We really don't have much choice but to play younger guys at some positions. But the other thing is, yeah, we do believe in trying to build with our own people, guys we originally brought in and coached our way."

That way has paid big dividends for the Colts in recent seasons, and this year, too, when Indianapolis lost both starting cornerbacks to free agency, but simply moved guys it has chosen in the past three drafts into the lineup.|

"The thing about this team is that they bring you here, coach you well and expect that, when it's your time to play, you're going to be ready," said corner Marlin Jackson, who started six games at free safety in 2006 and two at strong safety but none at cornerback until this year. "There is always going to be a foundation that they [provide] for you. But they expect you to grow up fast around here ... More than anything, they just kind of believe in you."

And the Colts believe in their drafts, trusting that they have brought their kind of players into the program, nurtured them the right way, and prepared them to assume bigger roles after only a season or two.

That philosophy is deep-rooted in Dungy and Polian, the architects of the Super Bowl XLI title and an impressive stretch in which the franchise has won four consecutive AFC South championships.

Dungy learned the draft-'em-coach-'em-play-'em system working as a player and then an assistant coach for Chuck Noll, the Steelers' Hall of Fame coach. For Polian, the philosophy came from having worked with another Hall of Famer, Marv Levy, in Buffalo. The approach, which essentially means trusting your drafts and your instincts, is unusual in a league in which the quick fix has become more popular. But for the Colts, the systematic nurturing of young talent is a must, particularly given the team's salary cap structure.

"I think we're just different than a lot of teams," said middle linebacker Gary Brackett, a one-time undrafted free agent who is now a standout defender. "Here, when they talk about filling holes, they usually mean looking down the bench to see who's there and ready to jump in . . . not who they can sign from somewhere else."

Maybe the position that most graphically demonstrates the difference between the Patriots and the Colts is linebacker.

Since 2003, the Colts' organization has watched four top-shelf linebackers -- Mike Peterson (to the Jaguars in 2003), Marcus Washington (Redskins in 2004), David Thornton (Titans in 2006) and Cato June (Tampa Bay in 2007) -- depart as free agents. Yet the only veteran of consequence the Colts added in that stretch was former Titans backup Boiman. Instead, the Colts just filtered in young players they either drafted or signed as undrafted free agents, groomed them, and got them ready to play.

On the flip side, four of New England's top five linebackers -- Mike Vrabel (Pittsburgh), Adalius Thomas (Baltimore), Rosevelt Colvin (Chicago) and Junior Seau (San Diego) -- began their careers elsewhere. Tedy Bruschi, the exception, was drafted by the Patriots in 1996.

But credit the incomparable Belichick and his staff, not just for identifying good veterans who are also good people, but for selling those players on the Patriots' team-first philosophy.

That's a collective quality that both the Patriots and the Colts, no matter how differently they were constructed, can count as a common denominator.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for