Five things to watch for in tonight's Patriots versus Colts playoff game

Jim Rogash

Here are five things I'll be watching for in tonight's Divisional Round match between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts:

Heavyweight fight: Solder vs. Mathis

Third-year left tackle Nate Solder will have his hands full against Robert Mathis, who had 19.5 sacks this year and is arguably the best pass-rushing defensive end in the NFL. I expect Solder to receive some help in the form of a tight end, or even a chip block from a running back coming out of the backfield. Solder is one of the best left tackles in the league but even he will need help against a guy like Mathis to assure that Tom Brady receives ample time in the pocket. The ripple effect of this matchup can't be overstated, because if Solder gets beat, Brady will get pressured, hindering their ability to move the ball. On the other hand, if Solder stones Mathis, the Patriots should be able to do what they want to do offensively. In any case, this will be the battle to watch for when the Patriots are offense -- I'm expecting it to go the full 12 rounds.

Don't let Luck run out

The Colts are 13-4 the past two seasons when quarterback Andrew Luck runs for 20 yards or more. He's hard to stop because he's so athletic, but he also picks the proper time to run, meaning he gains important yards when he needs to. I'm expecting the Patriots to play Luck similarly to how they defended Cam Newton earlier this season -- by not rushing the pass too far up the field, and by staying in their lanes. Newton rushed for over 60 yards against the Pats, so I'd be surprised if we see a quarterback do something like that again, because the defense probably learned not to over pursue a scrambling QB.

Dead Giveaway

Indianapolis led the NFL with the fewest turnovers (14) and the Patriots were tied for eighth with 20. Whichever team wins the turnover battle will have a distinct advantage in tonight's game, since it's not very often they give up prime field position due to turnovers. Interestingly, the Colts turned the ball over four times last week against the Chiefs and still won, but it's unlikely Luck throws three interceptions again. For the Patriots, I'm curious to see how the running backs are utilized. Both Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount are threats to fumble the football, but Ridley's have come more frequently, and at more crucial times. How will the Patriots use them? Will we even see Ridley? No matter what happens, I know any turnover in this game will be a dead giveaway.

Pats must be a virus McAfee can't stop

Pat McAfee might be best known for laying out big hits on special teams, and for being one of the best follows on Twitter, but I think his average kick off abilities can be taken advantage of by the Patriots. Last week against Kansas City, McAfee kicked off eight times but only forced one touchback. LeGarrette Blount has found success returning the ball as of late, which could help the Patriots gain a superior starting position, or even break one for a very long gain. In the punting game, McAfee does what the Colts need him to do, but last season Julian Edelman returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown. If there are similar holes like that tonight, Edelman could spring the Patriots to a win.

Aqib can't "ice up, son" tonight

T.Y. Hilton has unbelievable speed and has made a lot of huge plays in his young career -- just last week he blew past the Chiefs' defense for a 64 yard touchdown to complete the Colts' amazing comeback. So, how will the Patriots defend him? Will they put Aqib Talib in solo coverage on T.Y., no matter where he lines up? Or will they use another corner, like Kyle Arrington or Alfonzo Dennard, but keep a safety shadowing over the top? There seems to be a misconception about Talib in that he hasn't drawn assignments versus speedy receivers, but he completely shut down Julio Jones earlier this season, and did a respectable job versus Steve Smith. I'd prefer to see Talib get the nod anyway, because I think his physicality could knock Hilton off his routes, and therefore ruin this timing with Luck. Either way, the Patriots must contain him if they want to prevent big plays.

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