The big game between the Patriots and Colts is upon us. Despite the hype, both coaches know the loser is far from out of the Super Bowl hunt. In fact, there could be some advantages for the loser of this game. Remember in 2004 when the Patriots lost to the Steelers during the regular season, 34-20 ... and came back in the AFC Championship Game and won, 41-27? Professional athletes have a resolve that can turn a loss into a win the second time around.
The winner of this matchup will have little reason to change anything from the game plan; the loser will look a lot closer at why things happened. Make no mistake about it -- both teams want to win this game and hope they don't have to face each other in the playoffs. I wrapped up my film study and my interviews with the coaches and players who know both teams the best, and here are a number of thoughts on both teams.
How to attack the Patriots
Here are a few things I have observed about the possible ways New England may be vulnerable and a few coaching points from opposing staffs:
1. Get to the officials early about Randy Moss pushing off when he goes up for the football. Moss gets away with a lot of late separation from corners and safeties to secure the ball. Officials are reviewing all the game tapes leading up to this meeting, and they need to be reminded to look for the offensive pass interference. If the Colts can get one call in a critical situation, it could really help.
2. The Colts need their outside linebackers -- not their safeties -- to disguise their intentions.Tom Brady has seen it all from the safeties, and they really can't fool the Patriots. Brady will figure out what Bob Sanders' real intentions are in his pre-snap read. But as I watched film, it was clear that Brady also paid close attention to where the outside linebackers lined up and what they intended to do. If the 'backer hugged up in the box, then an option route to Ben Watson or Wes Welker was the best play. If the 'backer moved his alignment outside just a step or two to wall off Watson or Welker, then the running game became a solid choice. Keep a close eye on exactly what Freddy Keiaho and Rocky Boiman are doing every snap.
3. It would be great if the Colts jumped into a 3-4 look once in a while. Why? So they don't waste a rusher on a QB who routinely gets rid of the ball before the pass rush gets to him. Indianapolis is not built to switch into a 3-4, but 3-4 teams like Cleveland and San Diego got some opportunities against Brady that the 4-3 teams can't produce.
4. Freeney and Mathis need to put pressure on Brady. New England typically will open a tight end and quick release a back, leaving the front five to handle all the pass rush pressure. The Colts are more into protection schemes than the Patriots. Colts DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will get single-blocked enough that they must win. As one defensive coach said: Just sticking the middle linebacker up in an "A" gap as a potential blitzer against the empty sets should ensure some single blocks.
5. The Colts should strike for the end zone when they hit the red zone. New England is last in the NFL in protecting the goal line. Opponents have been inside the Patriots 20-yard line 18 times and have scored 13 touchdowns. Go after Rodney Harrison with Dallas Clark as much as possible in the red zone, and throw away from Asante Samuel.
6. Don't assume "Captain Cool" (Brady) can't be rattled. Bring a delayed pressure inside in the "A" or "B" gap, and flush Brady out of the pocket. Try to create "happy feet" once in a while with a linebacker or a twist stunt that emerges after the pocket is formed. Brady has too many passing plays when he steps up into a pocket and feels no pressure at all.
7. The Colts might think about a sub package (extra DB) early and play a soft Cover 2 shell (man under/two deep) to prevent the Patriots from scoring quickly in the first quarter. New England is a fast-start team, and an early lead will really set the Colts up to struggle. The Patriots are a very good first-down running team, but most coaches polled last week would rather deal with stopping a team averaging 5 yards on first-down runs than a team going up top to Moss and company.
How to attack the Colts
Getting after the Colts may sound easier right now because they are the underdogs, but it is anything but easy. Here are some methods that should be under consideration. As one head coach said: There's a right way and a wrong way to play Indianapolis.
2. Don't roll coverage to Marvin Harrison until he demonstrates he's healthy. In the old days, coverage always went to Harrison, and for good reason. He still can hurt you, but the combination of Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark is more dangerous right now.
3. Kyle Brady can help create a solid off-tackle running opportunity. Brady plays more like a third offensive tackle than a tight end. And he's on the field a lot more than people think. The trick to using Brady is occupying Sanders. Welker has to somehow lock up Sanders with formations and/or motions, and there will be some good running lanes.
4. Don't show Manning too much. The Patriots realize how much Manning likes to get up to the line of scrimmage quickly and look over the defense. As one AFC South head coach said: "Don't think you can fool Peyton stemming your looks. Line up and show him very little."
5. The Patriots offense may want to stay away from any toss runs and screens. The Colts defense is so fast that they will fly to the football. A toss or sweep is too easy for the undersized defense to key and diagnose. A screen does take advantage of a fast speed rush, but the 'backers and safeties are so quick they will rally to the screens before they get rolling.
Finally, this will be a great game and it will live up to the hype. There are star players and world champion coaches, and both teams are capable of adjusting all game long to do what it takes to win.