AFC Championship preview: Colts-Patriots

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The backstory


Will Tom Brady and Bill Belichick reach their sixth Super Bowl?

The Colts are coming off consecutive wins against a pair of quarterbacks with 13 combined postseason "one-and-outs." Now they draw Brady, a gridiron assassin sauntering into his ninth AFC Championship Game on the heels of the largest playoff comeback victory in franchise history. Since Andrew Luck entered the league in 2012, the Patriots have demolished the Colts by an average score of 48-22 in three meetings. Brady is 60-7 in his last 67 home games and holds the best record in NFL history (45-7, .865) with the temperature under 40 degrees.

All of the anecdotes and numbers point to the Patriots in a laugher.

So why should we believe Indianapolis has a legitimate chance to steal a victory? Luck, for one. They have the best young quarterback in the game, a maestro in the pocket who makes more "wow" throws and stretches more defenses than any other passer.

Beyond that, the Patriots realize this is a different Colts team than the one they walloped in Week 11. With young players such as versatile tailback Boom Herron, athletic tight end Coby Fleener, deep threat Donte Moncrief, star cornerback Vontae Davis and rookie pass rusher Jonathan Newsome adding playmaking ability, this team is "playing with a lot of energy," as Vince Wilfork said, per NFL Media's Aditi Kinkhabwala.

Under pressure


Chuck Pagano, Colts defense: Which of the Patriots running backs is lucky enough to carry the mail this time? LeGarrette Blount became the first player in NFL history with at least 150 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a playoff game when these two teams met last January. Jonas Gray emerged as a household name by tearing through the Colts' capitulating defense in Week 11, becoming the first player in Patriots history with four rushing touchdowns in a regular-season game.

Over the past two years, New England have run on 61.2 percent of their plays versus Indianapolis compared to 39.5 percent against the rest of the NFL.

The Colts know what's coming. Can they stop it?

Although Pagano has been a more innovative and aggressive coach this season, he will be put to the test by the machinations of Belichick, who unveiled a deceptive four-man offensive line and a game-shifting trick play to propel his team to victory last week.

Pagano's staff was caught off guard by the unprecedented six-man offensive line that paved the way for Gray's career game in November. They fared much better against the Broncos' six-offensive line sets early in last week's game.

Even with a penchant for being bullied by superior opponents, the Colts finished higher in total defense (342.7) than the Patriots (344.1) this season.

Matchup to watch:


Colts passing attack versus Patriots secondary:

As NFL Media analyst Brian Baldinger pointed out this week, Luck has to play great because "he's their running game, he's their pass protection and he's their creator" on offense.

Luck didn't get sacked last week despite 16 hurries by the Broncos' defense, per Pro Football Focus. That's high-level quarterbacking, showcasing pocket toughness and rare movement skills.

The Colts' offense has recaptured its early-season prowess through a transformed attack. Pep Hamilton is running more three-tight end sets to help with pass protection and Luck is settling for short throws to Herron and his tight ends to keep the pass rush quiet when necessary. Still, nobody takes more deep shots. Luck has more than doubled his completions and touchdowns on passes of at least 20 yards in the air this season. He has a much better idea of when to move the chains and when to attack downfield with Moncrief, Fleener and T.Y. Hilton.

It will be interesting to see how the Patriots utilize All Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis. He primarily covered Reggie Wayne in Week 11. Battling triceps, knee and groin injuries the past two months, though, Wayne is now an afterthought in the aerial attack, garnering just one target per 37 snaps in January.

Hilton, on the other hand, has seen a target every 4.65 snaps this postseason. When Revis struggles, it's often versus smaller, quicker wideouts. Hilton will be a handful if Revis draws the assignment.

Mind-blowing stats:


Bill Belichick needs one more win to break a tie with Tom Landry for the most postseason victories (20) by a head coach. ... Tom Brady is 3-0 in postseason home starts and 12-4 all-time versus Indianapolis. The latter mark is the highest of any quarterback against the Colts. ... Brady owns the career postseason records for most starts by a quarterback (27), most wins by a quarterback (19) and most touchdown passes (46). ... The Patriots (.729) and Colts (.667) boast the two highest winning percentages in the league since Belichick took over as Patriots coach in 2000. Both teams have double-digit wins in 13 of the past 15 seasons. ... Antonio Brown (239) and Demaryius Thomas (203) are the only players more receptions than Julian Edelman's 197 over the past two seasons. ... The Patriots have averaged 14.5 more points per game since All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski returned to full health in Week 5.

Through their first 48 career regular-season starts, Brady and Luck have an identical passer rating of 86.6. ... Luck's eight career interceptions versus the Patriots are three more than he has against any other team. ... Luck, Brady (2002), Jim Everett (1988) and Dan Marino (1984, 1985, 1986) are the only quarterbacks lead league outright in touchdown passes at age 25 or younger. ... Daniel "Boom" Herron's 31 touches in the Divisional Round are the most by a Colts running back since Dominic Rhodes' 35 in the 2007 regular-season finale. His 18 receptions are the second-most by a running back over a two-playoff game span. ... T.Y. Hilton's average of 113.6 receiving yards per playoff game is the highest in NFL history (minimum five games). ... Reggie Wayne's streak of 19 consecutive postseason games with a reception was snapped last week. ... Adam Vinatieri will break a tie with Jerry Rice for most postseason games played (30). ... The Colts are 13-1 when they run the ball at least 20 times and 0-4 when they do not. ... Only the 2008 Cardinals, 2009 Colts and 2012 Falcons reached the conference championship game with a lower rush percentage than this year's Colts.

Prediction:


For the Colts to go into Foxborough and escape with an upset victory, Luck has to make more plays than Brady and continue to receive better than expected support from his offensive line, defense and coaching staff.

As we have seen with Russell Wilson and the younger versions of John Elway and Ben Roethlisberger, the improvisational quarterback can be a difference-maker in January. Luck simply has too much working against him in this matchup.

New England Patriots 30, Indianapolis Colts 24

The latest Around The NFL Podcast recaps every Divisional Round game and ranks the remaining quarterbacks still standing. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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