With the Patriots slated to host the Colts on Saturday night for the right to move on to the AFC Championship round, it’s easy to see why the Pats are early seven-point favorites. And, no, the teams’ previous meeting – a 59-24 thumping from Tom Brady and his defense in Week 11 of last season – has nothing to do with it.
New England has the better and more experienced coach and quarterback, a superior running game, an assortment of credible pass-catchers and, even with all the injuries, the club brings more to the table defensively.
Add to that, the Patriots are unbeaten at home, rested from the bye week, have had an extra week to game-plan, and they’re all too familiar with playing in the cold.
Second-year QB Andrew Luck and his Colts deserve all the credit in the world for a miraculous and improbable 45-44 comeback victory against the Chiefs last weekend. The signal-caller may be lucky in name, but his 11 career fourth quarter and overtime rallies for wins are starting to look more like an art-form. His and his team’s mettle, resiliency, and mental strength in the face of adversity deserve respect, but they also provided their next opponent with every extreme of tape imaginable. From four turnovers to countless downfield conversions, uncharacteristic offensive red zone efficiency (5-for-6) to defensive red area deficiency (1-of-5), and a feet-friendly quarterback to running backs who struggle to break free, the good, the bad, and the ugly was most certainly on display in the dome.
There are a slew of factors as to why I earlier identified the Colts as the Pats’ preferred opponent this weekend over the Chiefs or Bengals, and most of them were showcased between Luck’s moments of heroics.
Of course, it’s not about one game but rather season-long patterns that will favor New England when Indianapolis visits Foxborough.
The Colts are a Jekyll and Hyde team with wins over the Broncos, Chiefs (two, including the playoffs), Seahawks, and Niners, along with losses to the Dolphins, Cardinals, and Rams.
Offensively, as KC somehow failed to learn time and time again, Indy possesses only one guy to contain other than the Luck in the absence of injured star Reggie Wayne, and that’s receiver T.Y. Hilton. Modest apologies to Coby Fleener.
The small, speedy wideout had a franchise afternoon with 13 catches for 224 yards and a pair of scores, but he was the only target with any noteworthy success – especially as a deep threat, and that was largely thanks to a lack of pressure from the Chiefs. Luck often faltered when looking elsewhere. With second-team All-Pro Aqib Talib and occasional double-coverage expected on defense, Bill Belichick will not allow Hilton to be the difference-maker in this next contest.
As for Luck, he’ll have to hope he can continue to escape the pocket with regularity because his offensive line does little to prevent defensive pressure. His ability to scramble will be a challenge for the likes of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, but Luck is far from unstoppable as long as the pathways are present and the Pats have shown an ability to get to the quarterback throughout the season.
Beyond Luck, Donald Brown ran for just 537 yards in the regular season and 55 against the Chiefs, while counterpart Trent Richardson had one touch in that game – a fumble. The Colts have no running game to speak of without a dominant back (nearly 109 rushing yards per game), which should at least aid a Patriots team that has been putrid against the run (allowing north of 134 yards on average).
Defensively, the Colts, again, have only one significant weapon of note – linebacker Robert Mathis. The veteran paced the NFL with 19.5 sacks and managed to force nine fumbles along the way. Brady’s offensive line should be leery.
That’s a big part of the reason it’s a safe bet the Patriots won’t abandon their ground-heavy attack of recent weeks versus a squad that stinks at stopping the rush. The Colts’ run-defense floundered during the year, while the Pats improved upon their efforts as the season went along. Stevan Ridley, of course, is no longer his club’s go-to option, but he is a complementary piece to a committee led by the lumbering LeGarrette Blount. The two combined for 1,545 rushing yards in the regular season at a nearly dead-even split as part of a Top-10 rushing offense, and each found the end zone seven times. On the whole, the Patriots have averaged 205 yards rushing over their last two games, compared to a Colts team that has held opponents under 100 yards rushing just three times in 17 games (an average of 127 yards allowed per contest).
Needless to say, the more balanced the approach, the more frequently Brady will have the opportunity to catch the defense off guard. A banged up Indy secondary checks in as an added benefit.
Is it impossible for the Colts to march into Gillette and carve out a win? Of course not. But, when you consider the trends, talent, and gameplan the Patriots likely have in store, the Pats should come away double-digit winners.
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Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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