This Sunday, when the Colts travel to Foxboro to take on the Patriots, it'll be the franchise's biggest game in nearly five years. Sadly, you remember what happened in Miami that February night, and many things have changed since then. Sunday is the first (of hopefully many) time this core group of Colts get to put their mark in franchise history.
And it isn't going to be easy.
The Patriots enter the AFC Championship game (their 4th straight) after surviving two 14 point deficits last week against the Ravens, something never done in NFL history. I've been quite vocal on the amount of praise Tom Brady gets in the Playoffs, mostly from the first four years of his career, but he played quite possibly the best game of his career (certainly his Playoff career) last week. It was no fluke the Patriots did what they did last week, and in a rare circumstance he led the Patriots to a Playoff victory with little to no help from his Defense. This whole column is useless if he plays at the same level this week, as the Patriots will be in the Super Bowl, but we'll count on the old adage "You're never as good as your best game" and he'll regress this week, hopefully enough for the Colts to come out on top of the scoreboard.
The Colts have played two of their best games of the season against the Bengals and Broncos the last two weeks, which obviously came at a very good time for them. They took advantage of key injuries to players on both teams (everyone has them now-a-days) and dominated both games, with the performance in Denver last week being a real eye-opener. There were still mistakes, and I don't think they'll be able to mask them as well as they did last week in New England. Those are the things the Patriots pounce on. We'll talk about specifics on stats in a bit, but there are a couple must-dos that they failed to do last week.
Want a sign of optimism going into this weekend? These players and coaching staff have been a perfect 12-0 since the start of 2012 in re-match games. We've talked about never losing the 2nd division game before, so that's nine of the wins, and all three Playoff wins in the last two seasons (KC, CIN, and DEN) were rematches. I've though since early in 2012, when the Colts seemingly fell behind big in every game only to come storming back in the 2nd half, that this coaching staff is great at making adjustments and finding areas to exploit the more they see of an opponent, and the re-match record reflects that. How are the Patriots in Playoff re-match games? Since 2005, they are just 4-8 ('06 NYJ, '07 SD, '11 DEN, '12 HOU wins), which means they haven't lost to a team they have not played in the regular season under Bill Belichick, but are quite vulnerable if you get them a second time. By no means a sure thing, but I'll take anything I can.
Experience could play a factor Sunday evening as well, and that is completely one-sided. As I mentioned before, the Patriots have played in this game each of the previous three seasons, so pretty much everyone except the rookies have gone through a game of this magnitude before. The Colts? Only 11 (Jean-Francois, Wayne, Redding, Walden, Hasselbeck, Jones, Louis, Nicks, Phillips, McAfee, and Vinatieri). Vinatieri is a perfect 5-0 in title games though (4-0 in NE, 1-0 with Colts as he was hurt in 2009), so the Colts have that going for them. Once the players get into the flow of the game it'll mean virtually nothing, but could be a factor early.
Want to know what the stats say heading into the AFC Championship game? Let's jump in and find some keys, as well as a winner:
Statistical Comparison between the Colts and Patriots (Adjusted):
|Orange Zone Eff||57.4%||10||58.5%||25||65.7%||2||51.2%||11|
|Avg Start Pos||30.6||13||27.6||3||32.5||3||27.3||2|
|3 and Outs||3.92||22||4.86||3||3.23||7||3.62||16|
|Penalty Yds / Play||0.778||11||0.775||21||0.947||25||0.688||28|
Keys to the Game:
- I think it's going to be a fun chess game between the Patriots Offense and Colts Defense. Conventional wisdom tells you: The Patriots have had relatively no-name RBs run for 200+ and 4 TDs each of the last two games against the Colts. They're going to pound it. They did most of their damage, especially this season, with six OL, and the Colts had no answer. Presumably the Colts will have a scheme to combat that, but the Patriots also have that Rob Gronkowski guy that could absolutely shred this Colts Defense as well. Will the Patriots go to the same run-heavy well a third straight time, and will the Colts stick to their guns, like in November, and count on them not saying on the ground a 3rd time. Again, a fun chess game of preparation.
- I also think they're going to find the same match-ups down the field Peyton Manning and the Broncos failed at so many times last week, and we're going to see lots of shots down the field, most likely aimed at Greg Toler exclusively. I'd be surprised if we didn't see at least five or six 30+ yard bombs down the sideline, even though that hasn't been the norm for the Patriots this season. They're all about match-ups, and it's favorable to the Patriots here.
- The Colts must get the Patriots off the field before they get inside the Colts 35 yard line, or there's going to be points scored. The Colts have struggled all season in the Orange/Red Zone giving up points, and while they've only allowed two drives inside the Red Zone in two Playoff games, both resulted in TDs. Two options for the Colts to have a chance: keep them out of scoring position, or buck a season-long trend on both units. Hope for the first.
- Speaking of 3rd/4th downs, both teams rank 2nd respectively (NE O, IND D), so something has to give. The Patriots were 9/12 on 3rd down in the first meeting, so they obviously won this battle. Gotta get them off the field.
- Brady had two very uncharacteristic interceptions in the first game, so I would not count on that again this time again. It all starts with pressure though, and it looks like they'll be without Bryan Stork, their starting Center. Whether it comes naturally from the front 4 or from blitzing, the Colts must put pressure on Brady. He was deadly last week on quick release passes (under 2 seconds), so it has to get there immediately. No pressure = Brady is a machine.
- How about the Colts Offense? Starts with Turnovers. Andrew Luck has been making much better decisions with the football, taking sacks, and checking down to Dan Herron when necessary. He's going to see coverages he's never seen before I'm sure, so need to take care of the football.
- I think it will be silly to waste a bunch of plays trying to "establish the run". The game's going to be won on the arm of Andrew Luck, and he needs weapons on the field. Move everyone all over the field so the Patriots can't play a match-up game, and work the seams with both Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen when they zone-blitz. The Patriots are just below league-average in Yards per Play, while the Colts rank 4th, so they need to get some big chunks.
- Pat McAfee made his first Pro Bowl this year, and in order for him not to play in it he'll have to have the best game of his career if/when he's on the field. The Patriots have been excellent in Average Starting Field Position, on both sides, all season. If they start, on average, at the 33 yard line, like they have all season, they need only go 30 yards before it becomes bad news for the Colts. The Colts need to force them to get four or five 1st downs before entering the scoring zones, and McAfee has to be the one to do it: Kickoffs through the end zone and punts boomed without much return. They call themselves the best special teams unit in the NFL: prove it Sunday.
- As we're all too familiar with, a majority of the time in the Playoffs the officials "let the players play", which means a lot of the contact fouls in the secondary go uncalled. The Patriots will undoubtedly try and find that limit and play accordingly, so the Colts need to do the exact same and hope for consistent officiating. I have no problem with what the officials call, as long as it's the same for both teams. I think in the past the Colts have been hesitant to "play that game", but they must if the officials are letting it go.
If you can't tell from the emphasis on the Colts Defense above, I think their performance will be the measuring stick for the Colts Sunday. They've shown an ability to play at a really high level (mostly against bad Offenses), but turned it up last weekend against a team loaded with weapons, who had a hobbled QB. This week the QB is coming off of a career performance where he looked flawless and has probably the most-feared weapon in all of football. They've also scored 34, 43, and 42 on Offense the last three seasons against this Defense, so there isn't much to hang your hat on if you look at recent history. It helps the Patriots didn't have a bye week the week previous like the last two games, but I'm guessing they did some prep work for the Colts during their bye week two weeks ago.
From what we saw from the Colts last week, they have a puncher's chance Sunday evening, but they'll have to play even better than they did in Denver a week ago, completely remove any thoughts of the previous three games against these guys, and hope for a little bit of luck. Unfortunately, I think it's going to be too much for the Colts to overcome, but for the core of this team going into the future, Sunday will be a giant leap forward in terms of both experience and drive. You can't get any closer to the Super Bowl, and the Colts will fall just short this year.
Patriots 38, Colts 30