The New England Patriots are facing the Indianapolis Colts tonight in Foxboro, MA. The AFC divisional round game features two star quarterbacks wearing number twelve. One is a three-time Super Bowl champion; the other is the former number one overall pick and a de-facto future star of the NFL. Both Tom Brady and Andrew Luck are looking to take another step forward in their legacies with tonight’s game.
The Colts are coming off of their dramatic Wild Card Weekend win over the Kansas City Chiefs, in which they overcame a 28-point deficit to pull out the improbable victory. The Patriots have had a bye week in which to get their team as healthy as possible in preparation for a playoff run. In what is expected to be a wet and windy game, the quarterbacks will have significant impact on the final verdict as to who move forward to play in the AFC Championship Game.
When New England has the ball
The Patriots’ offense has been evolving throughout the 2013 season. Losing tight end Aaron Hernandez and letting running back Danny Woodhead and wide receivers Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker leave has changed the offense dramatically compared to the 2012 version. New England was also without All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski for an extended period of time this season. The offense continued to struggle early in the season as free agent wide receiver Danny Amendola missed time and was visibly hampered by injury when he returned. Add in the loss of receiving running back Shane Vereen and most key weapons were on the sidelines.
After a short stretch with the key players returning to the field, the team had to adjust the offense again when losing Gronkowski for the season. Since then, the Patriots’ offense has been operating with power running look. With big back LeGarrette Blount stepping in as the lead running back, the Patriots’ offense has been often loading up with blocking tight ends and fullback James Develin.
While running back Stevan Ridley has run effectively in the last quarter of the season, his reduced role has seen LeGarrette Blount literally and figuratively take the ball and run with it. With injuries to the core of rookie wide receivers in the second half of the season, the Patriots’ passing offense has seemingly focused solely on wide receiver Julian Edelman when passing the ball.
Surprisingly, the keys to victory could rest in the hands of fullback James Develin and tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan. All three will be charged with not just making space for the running backs, but also helping the offensive linemen with slowing the fearsome pass rush of Indianapolis outside linebacker Robert Mathis. While Mathis has 19.5 of the 47 total sacks by Indianapolis, the New England blocking trio also will need to help with defensive end Cory Redding and middle linebacker Jerrell Freeman in both pass protection and the running game.
With the expected wind and rain, as well as the look of the offense over the last month, the offensive line will be under the spotlight as they try to make room for Ridley and Blount. In the passing game, the return of third down back Shane Vereen gives Brady another option other than Edelman. The running game has been effective, and the Colts’ run defense as a unit has struggled.
Indianapolis has players with a track record of stopping the run: Cory Redding and defensive ends Ricky Jean-Francois (who returned last week) are legitimate run stuffers; Canadian Football League import Jerrell Freeman is a tackling machine. Unfortunately, beyond these players making individual stops, the rest of the team (especially the safeties) are not the strongest run stoppers.
Look for the Patriots’ offense to continue exactly as it has been against Buffalo and Baltimore down the stretch: attack with the power running game early, try to get a lead and keep the Colts on the sidelines, and when needing to pass, create manageable situations where Edelman, Amendola, and Vereen can find mismatches and extend drives and mach downfield methodically.
When Indianapolis has the ball
The Indianapolis Colts are a dome team and run their offense on the fast turf in ideal elements. This will not be the case this weekend as they go on the road to face the Patriots. This season the Colts played their eight road games in San Francisco, Jacksonville, San Diego, Houston, Tennessee, Arizona, Cincinnati, and Kansas City. Cincinnati and Kansas City were road games in December, but while it was cold, it was dry. The team has not had to deal with a wet ball and the wind all season.
The Colts are a passing team. Luck has been sensational despite the loss of his top weapon, wide receiver Reggie Wayne. In his place, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton has stepped up his game and made numerous big plays, and tight end Coby Fleener has improved as well. Fortunately for Luck, mercurial wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey—with his nine drops on 58 passes thrown his way—will be out of the game due to injury again. In his place, the Colts run out a trio of young receivers.
Earlier in the week, we identified slot wide receiver Griff Whalen as a player who has not received a lot of press but has been a strong performer for Indianapolis in the last quarter of the season. The former roommate of quarterback Andrew Luck at Stanford, Whalen has come off the practice squad to give the Colts’ offense a lift.
Rookie free agent Da’Rick Rogers is an undrafted player who leapt into the national consciousness with a six-catch, 107-yard reception, two-touchdown game against Cincinnati in Week 17. Rogers definitely has the raw skills of a higher draft pick but fell out of the draft due to multiple incidents at Tennessee in college. The Buffalo Bills initially had Rogers in camp, but after he was cut, he landed on the Colts’ practice squad for much of the season. While he has not replicated those numbers, his size (6’3”, 205 pounds) could be a match-up problem for New England’s shorter cornerbacks.
Finally, wide receiver LaVon Brazill is another young player who has gained significant playing time since the loss of Reggie Wayne. Last week against the Chiefs, Brazill had his best game of his career, putting up 54 yards receiving on four receptions. Brazill is shifty and quick, as evidenced by forcing 11 missed tackles with only 16 receptions (regular season and playoff statistics per ProFootballFocus.com).
The Patriots’ defense will return with a healthy secondary as cornerbacks Aqib Talib (hip), Kyle Arrington (ankle), Steve Gregory (hand), Devin McCourty (concussion), and Alfonzo Dennard (ankle and shoulder) may all be on the field together along with impressive rookie playmaker Logan Ryan. Having their secondary together for the playoffs is one of the most important aspects of having had the bye week to get healthy.
A combination of these players along with the linebacking trio of Dont’a Hightower, rookie Jamie Collins, and Dane Fletcher gives New England a defense that is a capable of defending the passing game like they did back at the beginning of the season before they were struck by the rash of injuries. Collins and Fletcher are not the run-stuffers that injured starters Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes were, but they are much faster, athletic, and skilled in pass coverage.
With the weather and a healthy secondary facing them, the Colts may have to do something they have been loathe to do all season: run the ball. After topping 150 yards rushing twice in the first four weeks of the season, the Colts have topped that amount only once (152 yards in Week 15 versus Houston). The Colts traded their first round draft pick for running back Trent Richardson and have watched him underachieve just as he did in Cleveland. In his place, running back Donald Brown has once again taken the top spot in the backfield.
Donald Brown was replaced by Vick Ballard (injured), then Ahmad Bradshaw (injured), and finally Richardson (ineffective) before the Colts realized their offense ran best with Brown. Brown is a deceptively strong runner and a very good receiver out of the backfield. Although he has yet to top 80 yards rushing, he is not a runner to overlook. He hits gaps decisively and quickly and when the hole is not there, he never hesitates to bounce it outside and try to use his speed and quickness to pick up positive yards.
For New England, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga has come off the practice squad to give the run defense a boost. Replacing undersized rookie free agent Joe Vellano, Siliga has been the hard-to-block big body in the middle of the defense that New England has been missing. While fellow tackle Chris Jones has struggled in the running game, the Colts’ offensive line is weak in the middle at guard and center and should help the Patriots in stopping the run.
The battle the Patriots need to win on defense is the outside pass rush. Former Boston College Eagles Gosder Cherilus and Anthony Castonzo have been the two most effective blockers for the Colts. New England sends the 19.5 combined sacks of defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich at the duo to try and disrupt the Colts’ offense. Beyond the sacks, both Jones and (particularly) Ninkovich are strong holding the edge and contribute in the run defense.
As the weather could potentially impact the game, the wet and windy conditions are more familiar to the Patriots. Veteran quarterback Tom Brady has played outside in the messy weather many times with much success. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has not been exposed to the elements much this year and his performance in the weather is unknown. Beyond the quarterbacks, however, there are multiple players on both sides of the ball who need to make plays. Whatever team wins these matchups on both sides of the ball on Saturday night will put themselves in position to move forward to play in the AFC Championship Game.
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