For the first time since the 2009 season, the Indianapolis Colts will be playing in the AFC Championship game this Sunday, and they'll be taking on the New England Patriots, who will be playing in their third straight AFC title game. The game will be on Sunday evening at 6:40 p.m. ET on CBS. The Colts, winners of the AFC South and the fourth overall seed in the AFC playoffs, defeated the Cincinnati Bengals at home and the Denver Broncos on the road to advance to the conference title game. The Patriots, who won the AFC East and were the top overall seed, defeated the Baltimore Ravens at home last week to advance to the AFC Championship game, a game that they will host. The Colts have faced the Patriots three times in the Andrew Luck Era so far, though they are 0-3. They'll be looking to notch their first win over the Patriots in the Luck Era with an upset win in the conference title game to advance to the Super Bowl, but it's going to be a tough test. Here's a preview of the matchup between the Colts and the Patriots.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Patriots Defense
There are a lot of potential to matchups to keep an eye on when the Colts are on offense, though this has hardly been talked about much this week. It's clear that the number one area that other people around the country are concerned about is the Colts' offensive line, as by every one of the numerous radio shows I've been on this week I've been asked to talk about the offensive line. And that's certainly a key area to watch - the Colts have to protect Andrew Luck. Furthermore, it'll be interesting to watch what the Colts do with T.Y. Hilton, as they absolutely cannot let him become just a decoy player taken out of the game by the Patriots' corner (such as Darrelle Revis). They have to get Hilton involved, whether that be through him straight up beating the Patriots' corners or through the Colts getting creative with matchups. Hilton said on Friday that he knows that Bill Belichick excels at taking the opposing team's best weapon out of the game, and he said that he just has to stay patient and keep working hard during the game making sure he's ready when he gets the chance. And the Colts must make sure he gets the football, or else they're not going to win. But the matchup that I'm really going to highlight here is with the Colts' tight ends. The Patriots have been one of the worst defenses in football at guarding opposing tight ends (Colts fans know what that's like), and the Colts have two good receiving tight end options in Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. For the Colts, they know that T.Y. Hilton is going to draw the big focus in the passing game (and, as Hilton said, he expects the double teams). The other receivers - Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks, and Donte Moncrief - will all have roles in the offense and can all make plays, but the Colts are likely going to look to the tight ends more (plus Boom Herron out of the backfield, which will likely again be a big factor). This season (including playoffs), Allen and Fleener have combined to catch 91 passes for 1,296 yards and 17 touchdowns - that's a great stat line from the tight end position. And against a Patriots defense that has struggled to guard opposing tight ends and a Patriots defense that is likely to key in on Hilton as the Colts' top weapon, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener could have significant roles in the game.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Patriots Offense
Once again, there are a lot of matchups to watch when the Colts are on defense. Speaking of the tight end position, the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski presents a very tough challenge against any defense, particularly the Colts' defense that also struggles against opposing tight ends. And, of course, the Colts must get pressure on Tom Brady, but the only way they can do this is though blitzing, so that will definitely be something to watch as well. But the biggest matchup that I'll focus on here is the one that you've heard a number of times already this week: the run game. In three games against the Colts in the Andrew Luck Era, the Patriots have rushed for 595 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 5.17 yards per carry. In other words - they've averaged nearly 200 yards and 4 touchdowns per game on the ground against the Colts. So it makes perfect sense that the focus is on the run game this week, and I expect Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels to continue to run the football on the Colts until Indy proves they can stop it. New England really hasn't run the ball incredibly well overall this year (and definitely not last week), but they've excelled against the Colts - can Indy's defense make it a different result this time? As crazy as it is to say, the Colts have to make Tom Brady beat them. Their strength is in their cornerbacks, but even more simply put: the Colts can't lose the same exact way for the third straight game. They have to do better against the run. A number of players and coaches this week mentioned the return of a healthy Arthur Jones as a key to the Colts' improved defense, and that improvement will really be tested this weekend. If they play solid fundamental football this week like they did in the win against the Broncos last Sunday - tackling well and staying in their assignments - then they'll stand a good shot at stopping (or at least limiting) the Patriots' run game.
Why the Colts Will Win
The Colts are in a unique position this week: nobody is expecting them to win. Sure, there are some people picking the Colts, but by and large the Patriots are expected to be victorious and advance to the Super Bowl. The pressure this week is on the Patriots, not on the Colts. The Colts are embracing playing the underdog role for the second straight week, and they're a very confident team. With Andrew Luck at quarterback the Colts have a chance, and if he plays like he has in the past few weeks then the Colts have a good chance. It'll take their best game of the season, but they've been playing their best football recently, they're confident, they've got nothing to lose, and they've got Andrew Luck. To rule the Colts completely out of this game already is silly.
Why the Colts Won't Win
Quite simply, the Patriots are a better team than the Colts. Ever since a few early struggles the Patriots have been much more consistent and a good team, earning the top overall seed in the AFC playoffs. Their defense is impressive, and their offense has plenty of weapons - first and foremost, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. And let's not ignore the biggest thing the Patriots have going for them, either - head coach Bill Belichick. He's one of the greatest coaches in the history of the league and the Patriots have a clear advantage from the coaching side of things, no matter what your thoughts of the Colts' coaches are. Simply put - the Patriots are a better team than the Colts.
There's just something about the way the Colts have been playing recently. They've put together their best two games of the season in back-to-back weeks, and their defense and offensive line have nth been very impressive. Andrew Luck has really elevated his game as well, and if he continues to play well then the Colts will have a legitimate chance in this game. This game will likely be much closer than the recent games between the Colts and the Patriots, and the Colts will likely be in the game to the end, but I think the Patriots will win and advance to the Super Bowl. The Colts pulled the upset last week and they certainly could this week, but I'm not predicting it.