Ever since the NFL schedule was released this past spring, the week six game between the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots has been circled on most calendars, and it will be a primetime game on Sunday Night Football from Lucas Oil Stadium.
The history between these teams is extensive. They used to play in the same division until the realignment in 2002, but more amazing than that is that the Colts and the Patriots, despite not playing in the same division, have faced each other in each of the past 12 seasons, playing 16 times during that span. The two teams have met five times in the playoffs in the past decade, including in three AFC Championship games (with the winner going on to win the Super Bowl all three times). These two teams have also been among the best in the NFL and clearly the two most consistent of the past decade-plus, as they have the two most division titles since 2002 of any team in the league.
Recently, however, the Patriots have dominated the series, winning the last six games (many of them in blowout fashion) since the Colts' last win in a 35-34 comeback win on Sunday Night Football at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2009. In four games against the Colts in the Andrew Luck era, the Patriots have had four straight blowouts, with the closest contest being a 21 point loss. In each of the past two years, the Colts' season ended with a playoff loss on the road against New England - last year in an embarrassing 45-7 loss in the AFC Championship game. That was also the game that sparked Deflategate, something that was stretched out throughout the entire offseason. By the time it was over, it had left the Patriots and the NFL both looking bad and leaving Patriots and Colts fans with an intense dislike for each other. In the minds of Colts fans, the Patriots had cheated against them. In the minds of Patriots fans, the Colts had ratted them out.
So far this year, the Patriots are among the best teams in the NFL and Tom Brady is among the frontrunners for the MVP award, as the Patriots are 4-0 and have dominated opponents. While they will tell you differently, this is bigger than just any normal game for the Patriots: they want to embarrass the Colts over the Deflategate situation. The Colts, meanwhile, have struggled but have managed to climb out of an 0-2 start to a 3-2 record (thanks to the AFC South) without Andrew Luck, who has been dealing with a shoulder injury. While the Colts will tell you differently, this is bigger than just any normal game for them, too: this is the team that they spent all offseason building to beat.
This Sunday, we'll get to see the two teams meet for the first time since the AFC Championship game, and there's little wonder why it was highlighted as one of the marquee games of the season when the schedule was released. Here's a preview of a few of the key matchups for Sunday's game:
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Patriots Defense
If the Colts can't protect Andrew Luck, they won't stand a chance at winning - and they'll be letting their injured franchise quarterback take more of a beating. Of course, Andrew Luck is not guaranteed to start on Sunday night and is officially listed as questionable, but it does seem likely that he'll be back. If that's the case, the Colts need to protect him - and I'm talking about more than just the offensive line. Sure, the line is a big part of that, but it also falls on offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and, perhaps most significantly, on Luck himself to keep the quarterback clean. The Patriots this year are tied for the fourth-most sacks with 16 (and that's with one less game than most other teams due to an early bye week). New England can certainly get pressure on the opposing quarterback, and when Luck has been playing there for the Colts this year, he has been hit a lot.
The line is not good (they are, at best, average) but has played better over the past two games (thanks in part to the level of their opponents), but Matt Hasselbeck has also helped out immensely by getting rid of the football quickly. According to Pro Football Focus, Hasselbeck has been the fifth-fastest in the NFL this year at getting the ball out, as he has averaged just 2.28 seconds to throw. Luck, on the other hand, has averaged 2.60 seconds - not a bad number, but it also has led to an increase in hits. There is a balance here: the offensive line needs to be better than they were in the first three weeks when Luck was playing, Luck needs to get the ball out faster at times so that he doesn't keep taking hits (hopefully the addition of Ahmad Bradshaw will help), and then offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton needs to realize that his quarterback has been hurt and not call plays that leaves him in the pocket for a while. It's a fine line because, well, the Colts thrive on the big plays and they'll need a couple of them if they hope to hang with New England, but at the same time they can't leave Luck out there to get hit all the time. The bottom line is this: if the Colts hope to win on Sunday, they can't let their injured quarterback get hit all the time, as has been the case way too often this year and the past several years. It's a team effort, but the bottom line is simple: Protect 12.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Patriots Offense
It would be logical to mention here the Colts' run defense. The Colts set out to improve their run defense for one main reason: the Patriots have run all over them recently. I think that the Colts have indeed improved that aspect of their game thanks to an improved defensive line, but this Sunday will certainly be the biggest test yet. With all of that said, however, that's not the matchup that I'm going with here. Instead, I'm going with the Colts' defensive backs against the Patriots' wide receivers. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Patriots test the Colts on the ground to see just how much better the Colts are, but at the same time I think it's perhaps more likely for them to take to the air with their MVP candidate and future Hall of Fame quarterback. Brady is playing tremendous this year, and with the Colts focusing so much effort to improving against the run, it would be just like Bill Belichick and the Patriots to take to the air instead. And while that was absolutely the Colts' defensive strength last year, that hasn't been the case so far this year.
Instead, the Colts' secondary has been plagued with injuries. Greg Toler missed the first four games of the year with a neck injury. Darius Butler missed a couple of games, and then even when he returned he was forced to play out of position on the outside. Vontae Davis missed half of the Jets game with a concussion and was hampered by a foot injury last week against the Texans. Depth-wise, the Colts have two corners on injured reserve, another on injured reserve with a designation to return, and have waived-injured several other cornerbacks. The Colts haven't been fully healthy at the cornerback position yet this year, so this Sunday will likely be the first time that the top trio is all on the field together healthy. It's a good time to get healthy, too, as Tom Brady and the Patriots come to town. Brady has the quickest release in football and the Colts have struggled to generate any semblance of a pass rush, so that will put the pressure even moreso on the defensive backs. If the Colts are going to win on Sunday, Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, and Darius Butler will have to hold their own in man-coverage against one of the NFL's best passing offenses (as the Colts will also have to be careful and defending against the run, leaving less help for their corners).
Why the Colts Will Win
Andrew Luck. With his (likely) return to the field, it could give a spark to the rest of the team. Luck hasn't had a good season so far, but he's capable of turning that around at any moment - just like he did in the fourth quarter of the Titans game, where he was masterful. If Luck comes back fully healthy, there's plenty of reason to think that he can be a more productive and effective player than we saw in the first three weeks of the season. It will take a huge game from Luck, without a doubt, but if he comes back healthy and playing at a high level, the Colts could certainly be in this game and win it. Furthermore, the Colts will have plenty of motivation in this game: they don't want to be embarrassed by the Patriots yet again. Most of the players in the locker room remember the sting of those losses to New England, and they'll be looking to make a statement this Sunday.
Why the Colts Won't Win
The Patriots are simply a better football team than the Colts. New England has one of the league's best offenses, averaging 423.8 yards per game (most in the NFL), 37.2 points per game (second-most in the NFL), and have converted 53% of their third down opportunities (most in the NFL) while also ranking among the best in turnover differential (+5). Their defense isn't too bad, either, as they rank 12th in yards per game allowed and tied for 7th in points per game allowed. Tom Brady is playing at a very high level. Bill Belichick is still Bill Belichick. And, as if the Patriots needed any added motivation, they will be looking to embarrass the team that, rightly or wrongly, they think was out to get them in Deflategate. The Patriots are one of the best teams in the NFL and have been dominant in the past few weeks, and that could certainly be the case this Sunday as well.
When the NFL schedule was first released, I thought the Colts could do it. I looked at the moves they had made, looked at the moves the Patriots had made, and picked Indy to win this game. But that's not the case anymore. Instead, we've got a matchup of one of the best teams in the league and, well, the best team in the NFL's worst division. Just how good are the Colts? We really have no idea. None. But we have a very good idea of how good the Patriots are (hint: really, really good). I want to think that the return of Andrew Luck will make all the difference for the Colts, but I just can't see it. And until they show that they can play good football and hang with good teams (like the Patriots), I'm not sold on them this year. The way I see it, it will be the Patriots winning on Sunday, and it won't be that close either.