It can't get any worse than last week.
Patriots' fans asking themselves such questions regarding the team's defense have to be at least slightly on edge given this week's opponent, the Indianapolis Colts. The Bills, last week's foe, have a good offense that's given the Pats fits from time to time over the past couple of years. But in quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, they also have a guy who is bound to blow it sooner or later, which is exactly what he did, saving the Pats from complete humiliation in the process.
But the Colts present an entirely different challenge. Their QB is younger and far less experienced and their skill players aren't in the same league as Buffalo's, save for still outstanding veteran receiver Reggie Wayne.
But you wouldn't know that by their production. Rookie/No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck is the toast of the league as well he should be. In putting together one of the best seasons for a first year quarterback in league history, Luck has led the Colts from 2-14, near total irrelevance and life after Peyton Manning to 6-3 through nine games and a very real chance at a playoff berth. The Colts would be in with room to spare if the season ended tomorrow and Luck is as big a reason as any for that.
The Pats do have reinforcements here for their shell of a defense in the person of cornerback Aqib Talib, who should make his New England debut in Sunday. Whether he's enough (note: by himself, he's not) remains to be seen but the Pats may very well find themselves in another shootout come 4:30 on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
There are plenty of other subplots to this one in addition to Luck vs. the Pats' defense. What looked like a probable Pats walkover when the schedule came out is now this week's main attraction on CBS and it's shaping up to be quite a game. So with that, let's get into this week's match up.
When the Colts pass the ball.
Just by looking at Luck's numbers, you'd be hard pressed to see what all the fuss is about. He's thrown only 10 TDs against nine picks, completes just 57.5 percent of his passes, has lost four fumbles and has a passer rating of only 79.1. But, as all Pats fans know especially well after last week's game, what matters above all else is winning and Luck has done that six times this season, three times as many as the Colts had all of last year when the likes of Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky ran their offense.
Luck has been much better statistically of late. He's managed 8.5 yards per pass attempt over his last four games, all wins. In an extremely impressive victory over the Dolphins in Week 9, he passed for a rookie record 433 yards and has completed well over 60 percent of his throws in each of his last three games. He's also rushed for five TDs, effectively making himself the Colts' goal line back.
He's leaning on a player the Pats and their fans know all too well in Wayne, who has always been a Hall of Fame caliber receiver but has rocketed back to the top of the league in catches (69, first) and receiving yards (931, second).
The point is, Luck is getting better, and that's bad news for a Pats' pass defense that once again looks to be regressing. There's some reason to believe that after last week's embarrassment along with a more routine week of practice and the addition of Talib to the ranks, the Pats will be better on defense this week. They will be facing a system with which they are familiar in Colts' interim head coach Bruce Arians's, who was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh for the past several years and piloted an attack against which the Pats had a lot of success.
And really, it would be a major achievement on the part of the Pats if they didn't improve on last week's showing, which was as close to the bottom of the barrel as it gets.
Still, both sides are trending the wrong way for that be considered a lock. Luck's been too good of late and the Pats have been far too porous to think they'll be able to control him. Gone unmentioned thus far is that Indy ranks seventh in the league in third down, with a 43.6 conversion rate, while the Pats have made an art form of not being able to get off the field on third down regardless of down and distance, clocking in at second to last overall in the NFL.
Things should be a little better for the Pats than they were against Buffalo, as again, how could they really be much worse? But this is still a match up that favors the visitors.
When the Patriots pass the ball.
The Colts come into this game ranked 15th in the league against the pass, allowing a pretty solid 230 yards per game through the air. But they will be without both of their starting corners against the Pats and you know what that means?
It means Darius Butler, one of the many high draft picks made by the Pats to address all of their shortcomings in the secondary only to spectacularly flame out into nothingness followed quickly by unemployment, will start for the Colts.
Butler was taken in the second round of the 2009 draft, was benched after two games in 2010 in favor of undrafted Kyle Arrington and was hardly seen in these parts again. He wasn't the biggest of the many failures committed by Bill Belichick in attempting to draft quality defensive backs over the past four or five years. That honor goes to Brandon Meriweather (though Ras-IR Dowling has put in a claim for the top spot). But he's damn near close to the top of the list.
When you add the fact that he's the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week to Butler's return to Foxborough, well, let's just say he won't be one of the rare players to win those kinds of awards two weeks in a row.
What the Pats should really be worried about when they throw the ball more than Butler, who should be toasted early and often, is the health of their offensive line. Both Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly have been missing from practice all week after leaving last week's game with injuries and that may spell trouble.
In case anyone's forgotten, the Colts still have longtime pass rushing demons/Patriots' tormentors Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. These guys know how to get to Tom Brady as well as anyone and even though Freeney always did have some issues with Matt Light on the left side, Mathis routinely terrorized anyone who had the misfortune of having to block him (hello, Nick Kaczur!).
Both of these two are outside linebackers now in the Colts' new defensive system and Freeney has struggled a bit to adapt, especially having dealt with an ankle injury in the early going. But Mathis has six sacks and looks just as dangerous rushing the passer from a standing position as he was with one hand on the ground.
Sebastian Vollmer has looked like an All-Pro for most of the year and Nate Solder, after a slowish start at left tackle, has really come on in recent weeks. Look for those two to have big games if the Pats are to give Brady the time he needs to slice up the Colts' battered secondary, especially if both Mankins and Connolly are out.
Wes Welker hasn't practiced this week either as of yet thanks to an ankle problem but given his track record, it's tough to imagine him actually missing the game. Should the O-line be able to handle Mathis, Freeney and the rest of the Colts' front seven, Brady and his receiving corps could be in for a huge day.
When the Patriots run the ball.
This should be an important component of the Pats' offense on Sunday as it could at least slow down the Indy pass rush. Stevan Ridley is humming right along and he could even break the 1,000-yard barrier for the season this week if he has a a monster game. Ridley needs 184 yards to reach that mark and given the Colts' issues against the run this year, that sort of output isn't completely far-fetched.
Indy is bad against the run like the Pats are bad against the pass. The Colts are 29th in the NFL yards per attempt allowed at 4.7. That's the exact number Ridley averages every time he runs the ball.
The Pats' balance on offense this season has been mostly impressive all the way through. Their 305 called running plays is just 56 fewer than the amount of passes they've attempted. Staying true to this plan of attack will serve them very well against the Colts. Anything they can do to slow down Mathis, Freeney and friends while also taking it directly to the Colts' biggest weakness will only aid the potentially diminished offensive line in dealing with pressure as well as cause the Colts to possibly bring a safety up closer to the line of scrimmage, in turn further weakening their secondary.
It shouldn't be too difficult for the Pats to move the ball and score points on the Colts in this game. A continued, consistent commitment to the run should only make it that much simpler.
Prediction: Patriots 34, Colts 21
The Colts are certainly on a roll and they are worthy of all the attention being heaped upon them. Luck is a superstar in the making and the plight of their head coach Chuck Pagano, who hasn't been with the team for weeks as he receives treatment for leukemia has galvanized his team in an amazing way. Given the relative weakness of the the AFC this season (or as the commissioner's office would call it, parity), the Colts looks primed for a postseason berth and they deserve it the way they've played. That being said, they just don't look like they're equipped to keep up with a team with the kind of offense the Pats have. Indy accumulates plenty of yards but scores just 20.7 points per game. Their season high is 30 and it took them an overtime to get that done. If the Pats play their game on offense and tighten up defensively even in the slightest from last week, they should win this one by a couple of scores.
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