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What to watch for as the Patriots host the Colts

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  January 11, 2014 01:15 PM

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Dane Fletcher will likely see an increased role against
the Indianapolis Colts. (Lynne Sladky / AP photo)

There are so many questions for the Patriots and Indianapolis Colts ahead of Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. We’re just going to dive right in and explore everything.

1. Will the Patriots be distracted? — The news of Brandon Spikes’ tardiness during the bye week, while not high on the Richter scale of Patriots scandals, is nonetheless fodder for the fans and reporters. But has the team already moved on from the issue? That’s likely the case, given that the incident occurred eight days ago. The team has probably discussed the issue internally and may in fact by surprised by its leak. But will the surprise over the leak distract them from the task at hand Saturday evening. Not likely.

2. Will Deion Branch be active? —There was a big hubbub this week when the Colts signed the former Patriots wide receiver. He had played parts of seven season in New England and was beloved during his tenure, especially for his chemistry with Tom Brady and his professionalism. The Colts have been dealing with injuries to their wide receivers group and had worked Branch out a few weeks ago, probably in case of losing another wideout down the stretch. He was signed after Darius Heyward-Bey hurt his hamstring against the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild card round. The Colts now have six receivers available for the game. With only a week of practice under his belt, there’s no guarantee that Branch will even be active.

3. Will Branch be booed? — As we stated, Branch is beloved. Should he be given the chance to play in Saturday’s game, how will fans react to him playing a role on rival’s team in the playoffs? Will he get the response worthy of someone who earned a Super Bowl MVP trophy? Will his entrance to the game be ignored? (He’s wearing No. 86.) Or will he be booed as a traitor?

4. The T.Y. Hilton problem — While still considering the Colts wide receivers, the Patriots will have quite a bit of headache in defending against the T.Y. Hilton, who scorched the Chiefs with 13 receptions for 224 yards and two touchdowns. The Chiefs failed to contain Hilton in the fourth quarter, particularly on a game-winning 64-yard touchdown pass that was as egregious of a defensive error as it was a beautiful pitch and catch. The Patriots can opt to use someone like Aqib Talib against Hilton solely, but that didn’t work so well last time around. Hilton beat Talib for two touchdowns in their last meeting, including a 43-yard score in which he overcame a pass interference to still make the catch. Other viable candidates to cover Hilton include Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington (likely in the slot), and rookie Logan Ryan.

5. How will Andrew Luck fare? — The last time the Colts quarterback played the Patriots, it was certainly a mixed bag for the then rookie. He threw for for 334 yards and two touchdowns, but added three interceptions and a fumble. Two of his interceptions were returned for touchdowns and one play after fumbling, the Patriots scored a touchdown. Luck threw three interceptions last week as well, giving the perception that he is turnover prone. But that’s far from the case. He finished the regular season with nine interceptions (two less than Brady) and his team finished with only 14 turnovers all season, a league low. How he fares in the turnover department could go a long way into determining who wins Saturday’s game.

6. How will Dane Fletcher perform? — As this week’s candidate for the “next man up” award, Fletcher will likely fill Spikes’ shoes as the middle linebacker in running situations. He had already played in nickel and dime packages, helping in pass coverage. As someone with experience for the Patriots in 2011, the year the Patriots went to the Super Bowl, he is a viable candidate to perform well under these situations. Should we expect a 15-tackle performance? Probably not. But we should see some expanded opportunities to make plays.

7. Blount all day? — Whether you are in the LeGarrette Blount camp or on team Stevan Ridley, there is consensus from Patriots coaches and players that both are running extremely hard right now. But Blount’s magnificent game against the Buffalo Bills legitimized his ability to be the team’s featured back. Against the Colts, a team that ranked 26th overall against the run (125.1 yards allowed per game), there should be some good opportunities for him to plow through some more tackles.

8. How the Patriots will handle the pass rush — Robert Mathis tallied 19.5 sacks this season. The outside linebacker is best described as relentless, pursuing quarterbacks with vigor from the first snap of the ball to the play is whistled dead. He’ll be an enormous challenge for tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon. But it’s not just Mathis who is disruptive. Teammates Cory Redding and Erik Walden combined for 41 quarterback hurries (just a tad higher than Mathis’s 39). The Patriots will have to be wary of everyone

9. Who will be the X-factor? — For the Patriots offense, there’s always one player that steps up. Whether that has been Blount, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Shane Vereen, or Kenbrell Thompkins, at least one of the Patriots’ top weapons has been able to be effective each week. There has yet to have been a week in which the offense has been shut down. Given the Colts’ solid passing defense, including above average corners Vontae Davis and Darius Butler, and Indianapolis’ 26th run defense, there are likely opportunities for players in the running game. Both Blount and Vereen will have opportunities. Vereen could play big in the run game and passing game.

10. How much will the wind be a factor? — First and foremost, the forecast calls for 100 percent chance of rain Saturday evening. It’ll be 47 degrees at kickoff, according to Weather.com. But what’s more important, the wind will be gusting south up to 22 miles per hour. That will have a huge influence over the kicking game. If the possibility of an overtime situation were to occur, like the Patriots’ Week 12 matchup with the Denver Broncos, some wacky calls could be made in favor of putting Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen in the best position to help the team. Against the Broncos, the Patriots elected to take the wind instead of the ball in overtime, a decision that proved to be significant in the team’s 34-31 win. Don’t be surprised if the same situation were to arise, Bill Belichick would roll the dice in the favor of his special teams unit again.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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