Exactly 310 days after their last matchup, the Indianapolis Colts (6-3) and the New England Patriots (7-2) will meet again. While not quite as much will be on the line this time as the last (an AFC Championship game appearance), there's still plenty at stake this week. It's Colts vs. Patriots, live on national television on Sunday Night Football, from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. What more could you ask for? Here's our preview of the matchup to get you ready for the game:
What Happened Last Week?
The Colts and the Patriots both had a bye week. So let's look at some of the bye week trends from these teams. Since 2000 (Bill Belichick's first season with the team), the Patriots are 10-4 after a bye week. During that same time span, the Colts are 11-3. Under current head coach Chuck Pagano, the Colts are 2-0 after a bye (though Pagano was only on the sidelines for one of those games). If you're interested in those trends, here are the year-by-year results the week after the bye for each team since 2000.
|Patriots After Bye Week||Colts After Bye Week|
|2007||W||at BUF||2007||W||at JAX|
|2008||W||at SF||2008||W||at HOU|
|2013||L||at CAR||2013||W||at HOU|
Key of the Game for the Colts
Andrew Luck. Normally I try to say something here that's something smart about what the Colts need to do in order to win, but this week (and every week, I guess) it's really as simple as this: if the Colts win, it will be because of Andrew Luck. I really don't see this defense stopping Tom Brady and the Patriots offense enough to win it, and the run game won't win it. The league's leading passer and the Colts' MVP candidate, though? He can lead the Colts to a win. Luck has thrown for 3,085 yards and 26 touchdowns this year and has topped 300 yards passing in eight of the nine games, including each of the last seven. He has thrown multiple touchdown passes in eight of the nine games as well, including each of the last four. More than any specific game plan or any specific matchup, the Colts will go as Andrew Luck goes. If the Colts win, it'll be thanks to a fantastic performance from their quarterback.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Patriots Defense
I'll say that the matchup to watch when the Colts are on offense is T.Y. Hilton against Patriots corner Darrelle Revis. Hilton noted that this is the first time he'll be going against Revis and said, "I always hear about the ‘Revis Island' and he's really the only DB I haven't went up against. They're matching him up against me and I look forward to it." So do we. One of the best defensive backs in football against a receiver who is among the best in football this year and who brings a skill set that we really haven't seen anyone be able to stop. Seahawks corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner (now a Patriot) couldn't last year, and it's rare to see Hilton be shut down. But Revis? He's capable of it. It remains to be seen how much the two will match up against each other on Sunday night, but when they do it will certainly be something to watch. Regardless of what happens, we know that Hilton will be having an impact. He'll either make plays or be shut down by Revis, taking the corner "out of the game," so to speak. But the Colts can't afford to have the last one happen. While Revis shutting down Hilton would provide opportunities for the rest of the offense, the Colts need Hilton. They either need to get creative to get him opportunities away from Revis or, hopefully, have some success on Revis Island. If anybody can do that it's T.Y. Hilton, but also if anyone can shut down T.Y. Hilton it's Darrelle Revis. It'll certainly be a matchup to watch and one that could have a significant bearing on the game.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Patriots Offense
Is this one really a question? All week we've been talking about Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski, and for good reason. The Colts have allowed 49 receptions (on 67 targets) for 577 yards and 7 touchdowns (allowing an average of 11.78 yards per catch) this year to opposing tight ends, and according to Football Outsiders the Colts are 29th in the league at covering tight ends. We've seen first-hand how that can be a huge weakness, and this week the Colts have their biggest test in this area. Rob Gronkowski has caught 49 passes for 663 yards and 8 touchdowns in nine games this year, and in his career (59 career games) he has 275 catches for 3,918 yards and 50 touchdowns. In three of the last five games Gronkowski has topped 100 yards receiving, he's caught a touchdown in six of nine games this year, and in the past five games the Patriots have targeted him at least nine times each game. Rob Gronkowski presents a huge, huge test for a Colts defense that has been terrible at covering the tight end this season. Colts' defensive coordinator Greg Manusky on Thursday compared Gronk to Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez and talked about the relationship that Gronk has with Tom Brady, making it even harder to stop. So how are the Colts going to limit Gronk (because they won't be able to completely stop him)? I've seen many fans saying this week to put Vontae Davis on him. Certainly that would appear on the surface to work, because Davis is the Colts' best coverage guy and among the best cover guys in football this year. But it's not a smart plan. Firstly, Davis is best on the outside. By putting him inside the Colts would limit his effectiveness by taking him away from what he's best. I very much think they should play to Davis' strengths, and that means leaving him outside. What I would do is double Gronk on every single play. The best combination might be linebacker Jerrell Freeman and safety Sergio Brown, and the Colts need to play physical against the tight end. Double cover him and trust your corners on the outside. We know that the cornerbacks are a key to the Colts' defense, and they could play to that strength this week by leaving Vontae Davis and Greg Toler in man coverage without help on the Patriots' receivers (and same with Darius Butler in the slot). By doing this they could devote the double coverage to Gronkowski and hopefully limit his effectiveness. There's no doubt that with a player like Gronk he'll make some plays, but it's all about limiting them. Dare the Patriots to beat your corners, which is daring them to test your biggest strength. Just don't let Gronk beat you - but that's much easier said than done.
Why the Colts Will Win
The Colts realize what's at stake. A first round bye in the playoffs and the real possibility of not having to go to New England to play. As I wrote earlier, having to travel to New England could very well be a much bigger hinderance to the Colts' run at a Super Bowl than playing either the Broncos or the Patriots would be. The Colts are at home, and they show up big in home games - they're 8-1 against teams with a winning record at home in the Andrew Luck era, and that includes wins over the Packers, Seahawks, Broncos, Chiefs, Ravens, and Bengals. The Colts have the league's number one offense and the league's leading passer in Andrew Luck. The game figures to be a shootout, and the Colts absolutely have the firepower to win one. In such a huge game, at home, with this offense, the Colts have a very real chance.
Why the Colts Won't Win
The Patriots have Tom Brady. They have Rob Gronkowski. They have Darrelle Revis. They have Bill Belichick. The Patriots are as equipped to beat this Colts team as any other team in the NFL, and they're the only team to beat the Colts twice already during the short Andrew Luck era. The Patriots also boast a top-three offense in the league and perhaps a better defense than the Colts, and New England protects the football better. The Patriots are considered by most to be either number one or number two in the league and they're also trying to get a huge boost toward home field advantage in the playoffs. They know that if they win this weekend in Indianapolis they very likely won't have to return in the playoffs. The Patriots, like the Colts, also have a very real chance to win this weekend.
For about three months now, this one has been circled on the calendar of Colts fans and I've remained consistent that I think the Colts will notch a huge win in the middle of November against the Patriots. The Colts are at home, where they're 17-4 in the Andrew Luck era, and the Patriots are on the road, where they're 0-7 since 2012 against winning teams. Lucas Oil Stadium will be rocking and the Colts will get the boost by playing in their home stadium. They have their own MVP candidate at quarterback and the league's top offense. Their pass defense has been a strength so far. And they've got perhaps the league's best special teams unit. I think the Colts realize the importance of this game and I think they'll show up with their "A" game. This game feels like the perfect candidate for an Andrew Luck fourth quarter comeback, and I'm taking the Colts by an Adam Vinatieri field goal in a thrilling high-scoring affair on Sunday Night Football.
Colts 34, Patriots 31
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