Colts-Patriots is worth watching

Right: The Patriots are a middling 4-3. Their defense isn't what (or, really, who) it used to be. They haven't won two in a row all season. That Super Bowl repeat of last January feels like a few thousand years ago, not mere months. And the Colts haven't lost a game.

But: The thing's in Foxborough, where, with any luck, the weather will inexplicably take a sudden lurch toward January. The Pats haven't been beaten by the Colts in their last six meetings. Peyton Manning just seems way too relaxed about the whole affair. And wouldn't it be cool to see something magical happen on Monday night?

Let me rephrase that: Wouldn't it be a minor miracle to get a Monday night game about which you could really care?

Let me here dismiss the diehards, with prejudice: You're excused from further debate. We all understand that there's a local, close-following market out there for Baltimore-Pittsburgh or Green Bay-Carolina, or (coming soon to a Monday Night Football screen near you) Seahawks-Eagles or Saints-Falcons.

But if nothing else, the Patriots-Colts game puts into bold relief exactly how difficult it is to schedule a matchup in the middle of the calendar that has both emotion and meaning at the same time. You can get one. Occasionally, if parity isn't hammering everything completely flat, you can get the other.

It's hard to have both, though, boy. They just don't make gut-checks like they used to.

Maybe only New England could be accorded such respect at 4-3, but at some point the why doesn't matter, only the what. The Pats have just enough history and sex appeal connected with this rivalry. They have just enough winning on their side. The Colts haven't lost all season, yet blow into Foxborough with just a three-point bookie edge -- something about Bill Belichick and the ballyhooed genius game-planning and all that -- and that, in its own way, marks a little theatrical staging all its own.

I'm for it, the theatric, but then I'm for anything that would make any regular-season NFL game distinguishable from another. It's not enough to like the sport lately. You've got to dig a little deeper if you're going to make Minnesota-Green Bay (dysfunctional organization vs. losing team) relevant two Mondays from now. Take away the scandals and the Brett Favre watch, and what have you got?

Parity takes the rap most of the time for this sort of dumbing down of the schedule, and that's probably a perfect, richly deserved rap. The salary cap may keep teams in business that otherwise long ago would have been beaten into submission, but it basically leaves organizations precisely thin enough that they are vulnerable to a few badly-timed injuries, of which there always seem to be a surplus.

This is the time of year in which a whole lot of teams look like great bets to finish somewhere between 7-9 and 9-7, which makes it officially November. Don't worry; it gets better. There are still going to be a couple of breakout stories. The Eagles could still take off. The Giants, at 11-5 or whatever, could be fun with Eli Manning aboard.

But if you're looking for a Colts-Pats type of matchup week in and week out, it just isn't there. It isn't your imagination; the games don't exist. The Raiders played the Chiefs on Sunday in Kansas City, and that's a rivalry with some history behind it. But without either team among the NFL's elite, it just has no broad connection. It's just two scrambling teams trying to figure out whether or not they're going to contend for something beyond mediocrity.

All of which brings us back to a genuinely interesting fight in Foxborough. The great thing about this game is that it essentially marks the line in the sand for the Patriots: They're either good enough to consider their future in the AFC this season, or they're another .500 team trying to slog through it. They've shown no consistency so far in terms of winning games -- but that kind of talk goes away with a victory over Indy. A win over the Colts announces Belichick's team, again, as a force to be reckoned with.

There are a bunch of us out here, out in the lands beyond Massachusetts and Indiana, who would follow this game if only to learn the answer to that question. Are we running out of NFL teams that have questions that it feels urgent to address? Maybe so. But for one Monday night, if only one, we'll be more or less happy to pretend.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.