In case you hadn't heard, the Indianapolis Colts will take on the New England Patriots on Sunday in the AFC Championship game (6:40 p.m. ET on CBS). The winner, of course, will advance to the Super Bowl to play the winner of the NFC Championship game between the Packers and the Seahawks.
The Patriots are favored by a touchdown over the Colts, and that makes sense considering that they're a better team than the Colts are. But the Colts are also used to pulling upsets (they just did last week) and they're a confident team as they head to Foxborough for this huge game. Since kickoff can't come soon enough, let's pass the time by looking at a couple of the biggest keys to a Colts' victory:
Surprise, surprise. The biggest key to a Colts' victory is quarterback Andrew Luck. The third-year player just keeps getting better, and his two playoff games so far have been very good. If Luck continues that high level of play entering this week, the Colts will absolutely have a chance. He's the player that has carried the Colts here and he's the one that will be counted on to win it. Now, granted, he can't do it by himself, but if he's playing well then all it will take is a few opportune stops by the defense and the Colts really could pull it out in New England. When looking at the keys to a Colts' win, we really don't have anywhere else to start but with the Colts' best player. Andrew Luck playing well is crucial to the Colts' hoping to have any chance in the game. And the good news? He's been pretty dang good for most of the season.
Force Tom Brady to throw the Football
Wait, what? Force Tom Brady to throw the football? At first, it sounds crazy (and it probably is). But the point behind it is this: the Colts can't get beat the same exact way again. They can't allow the Patriots to rush for 200 yards and 4 touchdowns, like New England has averaged per game against the Colts over the last three matchups. It's easier said than done, but the Colts can't let themselves get run out of the stadium by the Patriots for the second time this season and the second straight January. As crazy as it sounds, they have to prove they can stop the run to force the Patriots into passing situations. Now that's another huge challenge in itself, but at least then their cornerbacks could step up (as they're the strength of the defense) and at least then they wouldn't be getting beat the exact same way as before. How do they stop the run? The biggest thing is just playing good fundamental football: making tackles and staying in their assignments, two things they haven't done well against the Patriots recently. I expect Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and the Patriots to continue to run the football against this defense until the Colts prove they can stop it. So it's up to them to prove that they can do just that.
Win the Tight End Battle
Both team's tight ends could have a big impact in today's game, seeing as both teams have good receiving tight ends and both teams have defenses that struggle to cover the tight end position. Including the playoffs, Colts tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen have combined to catch 91 passes for 1,296 yards and 17 touchdowns - very impressive numbers all around from the tight ends. Add in Jack Doyle and the tight end position has accounted for 115 catches, 1,437 yards, and 19 scores. On the other team, the Patriots have Rob Gronkowski, the best receiving tight end in the league. He has caught 89 passes for 1,232 yards and 13 touchdowns this year (including playoffs). In the passing game, both team's tight ends will likely play a significant role. So this key for the Colts is simple: get more production out of their tight end position than the Patriots do. This involves both sides of the football, but if Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen (and Jack Doyle) can be more productive than Rob Gronkowski (and Michael Hoomanawanui and Tim Wright), that will be big for Indy's chances.
Win the Field Position Battle
It'd be impossible to ignore the impact that punter Pat McAfee and the Colts' special teams unit has had on the team this year, as they are continually pinning opponents deep and making them have to drive longer for a score. Whether it be a punt (McAfee broke his own franchise record this year for punts pinned inside the 20) or a kickoff (McAfee led the NFL this year in touchbacks on kickoffs), opposing teams have had further to go for a score. That has to continue today. We too often ignore the impact that special teams (or a punter, at that) can have on the game, but Colts fans shouldn't (as long as they remember that playoff loss to the Chargers a few years ago). It's clear that special teams can greatly impact a game, and the good thing for the Colts is that they have arguably the best special teams unit in the National Football League. Winning the field position battle will be key - I'm no math major, but if the Colts have to drive a shorter length on average than the Patriots to score, that's a good thing. And for a Colts team that will be fighting to pull an upset, that might be a key advantage that they need.
Make the Patriots beat you, don't do it for them
This one is simple and yet so hard at the same time: the Colts have to make the Patriots beat them, as they can't just do it for New England. We've seen at times this season a Colts team that has been very mistake-prone and has beat themselves. Turnovers, penalties, drops, stupid mistakes, and others have all popped up at times, and they can't afford those mistakes today. When on the road against a better team, you can't make mistakes like that and still hope to win. The Colts have to be disciplined and focused on their fundamentals, playing as clean of a game as we've seen from them if they hope to pull the upset.