Ehlinger prepares for difficult encore against Belichick, Patriots

Nov. 5—INDIANAPOLIS — As the cliché goes, the stage wasn't too big for Sam Ehlinger during his first career NFL start last week.

Before a change of venue for Start No. 2, however, the Indianapolis Colts added significant drama to the script.

On Sunday, Ehlinger will face the league's foremost abuser of first-year quarterbacks in New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. And he'll do it following a week in which the Colts traded away one of his top offensive weapons — Nyheim Hines, who scored Indianapolis' lone touchdown in last week's 17-16 loss against the Washington Commanders — and fired offensive coordinator Marcus Brady.

The 24-year-old did a good job with the on-field responsibilities of his new job in his debut. For the encore, he'll need to prove he's as adept at negotiating the business side of the game.

"I think it just comes down to controlling what you can control," Ehlinger said. "There's so much in this league that's out of your control, and you will exhaust yourself mentally and physically if you try to worry about all the pieces that you can't move.

"So, for me, obviously learning a lot. Haven't experienced to this level of the business aspect of the sport, but controlling what I can control and making sure that my performance and preparation is what I'm focused on."

That's a veteran response likely to be welcome in a locker room full of actual veterans who are counting on Ehlinger to help turn around a wayward season.

At 3-4-1, the Colts have dug a hole both in the AFC South championship race and in the competition for the conference's three wild-card berths. But they're also well aware there's plenty of time left to make up ground.

It starts with a game against the Patriots (4-4) that once again is dripping with potential postseason implications. With a win, Indianapolis creeps closer to a return to the playoff picture. With a loss, the team is pushed further toward the postseason outskirts.

The team's leaders have tried to block out the off-field noise of the past few weeks and focus on the task at hand.

"Especially at times like this, just holding each other accountable," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said of the leadership challenge. "Being able to take criticism from one another. That's the only way you grow is being able to take criticism and holding yourself accountable and holding each other accountable to get to the next step."

The next step isn't quite what it used to be.

New England remains a formidable opponent, and Gillette Stadium is still a foreboding venue for visitors. But the Patriots have been plagued by many of the same challenges the Colts have faced this year.

At the top of the list, they've turned the ball over too much and have gotten less impact from the projected starting quarterback than expected.

Unlike Indianapolis' Matt Ryan — who again missed the week of practice with a right shoulder injury — New England's Mac Jones has regained his starting job.

But the second-year quarterback has thrown just three touchdowns against seven interceptions and carries a passer rating of 73.1.

Jones was sacked six times during last week's 22-17 victory against the New York Jets and has been sacked 11 times in five games overall.

Still, Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard is preparing for the same quarterback who posted a promising rookie season in 2021.

"I think he's very similar to what he was last year, leading that offense," Leonard said. "(It's about) just knowing where he likes to throw the ball, knowing who his best targets are, where does he love throwing the ball at? I think it's very similar to last year. I mean, the tape doesn't lie. I think he's still a good player."

Most of the Patriots' offensive success this season, however, has come on the ground. Running back Rhamondre Stevenson has developed into the top weapon with 558 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 4.9 yards per carry. He also has 32 catches for 217 yards.

Meanwhile, Indianapolis again will be without its top rusher. Jonathan Taylor — who rushed for 170 yards and the game-clinching touchdown against New England last year at Lucas Oil Stadium — will miss his third game this season because of an ankle injury.

It puts even more on Ehlinger's shoulders as the young quarterback seeks his first career victory and tries to bring stability to the league's 30th-ranked scoring offense.

Speaking early in the week, head coach Frank Reich said that process goes back to the basics.

"This obviously seems like a boxed answer, but I know this to be true — one play at a time, one first down at a time, one touchdown at a time, one game at a time," Reich said of stabilizing the attack. "When you're off track, there is no magic pill — as we always say. You gain your confidence and your rhythm back one play at a time."