Can you remember back to Week 11, when the Patriots had to travel to Indianapolis to face the Colts? New England was the 3 point underdog that day, which means the oddsmakers considered the two teams as equals on a neutral field.
The game was far from equal as the Patriots won a convincing 42-20 victory on the legs of sensational running back Jonas Gray's 201 yard and 4 touchdown performance.
Gray really hasn't seen the field since that game; apart from his 11-carry-for-63-yards day a 41-13 demolition of the Dolphins, Gray has just 18 other rushing yards.
The Patriots are supposedly a different team since the first game, but not really. Rob Gronkowski is still dominant. Tom Brady is looking great. New England brought back running back LeGarrette Blount, if that counts. The biggest change is on the defense, where the Patriots didn't have Chandler Jones or Sealver Siliga for the first round- and they've taken the place of Dominique Easley, who is on the injured reserve.
But the secondary is still there, with safeties Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson seeing more time than before. The linebackers have just gotten better.
Yes, the Patriots will absolutely miss center Bryan Stork if he is unable to play (and it's appearing likely). But most of the pieces that allowed New England to dominate are still in place.
So I guess the question is whether or not the Colts have grown since the first contest, and whether the weaknesses the Patriots exploited are still around. To figure this out, I watched their past four games: At Dallas, At Tennessee, Vs Cincinnati, At Denver.
Oh- and there's the fact that the Patriots offense wasn't working in the first half of the first game so Bill Belichick told them to kneel the ball with 50 seconds and three time outs before the half. And they were only up 28-20 until halfway through the fourth quarter, so it wasn't a wire-to-wire.
This is going to be a fight, just like the Divisional Round was going to be a fight- even though the Patriots beat Baltimore handily in 2013.
Here's how the Patriots can have another dominant victory.
When the Colts run the ball
In the first game, the Colts had Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw at running back; the former has been benched and the latter was injured and is inactive. Instead, the Colts have Boom Herron and he's pretty fun to watch. He's not the biggest, he's not the quickest, he's not the fastest. He's pretty good at all facets- running, catching, and pass blocking- so it's clear why he's on the field.
Still, the Colts don't have a dominant offensive line. They prefer to run to their left, behind tackle Anthony Castonzo and guard Jack Mewhort, both of whom are very talented, but the other three spots are very weak. If the Patriots place some beef on the left side of the field (likely Sealver Siliga), then the Colts won't have many open rushing lanes.
Herron is able to generate his own yardage, but he hasn't really been able to take over a game in his limited opportunities. The Patriots should use their defensive resources elsewhere and challenge Herron to win the game.
When the Colts pass the ball
Andrew Luck is good for five passes a game that will leave you shaking your head. It depends on the day how many of those are from good plays or from atrocious plays.
Luck, why are you making this throw on 2nd and 2 from from the 22 yard line, with 17 seconds to go? pic.twitter.com/UyXJ7nhvi2— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) January 14, 2015
Colts offensive line is not good at preventing pressure, regardless of how many sacks the Broncos posted. They were getting in Luck's face and making him less effective. His right side is particularly poor.
The Titans used delayed blitzes up the middle to get Luck off-balance and throwing off his back foot and it was very successful. The Patriots player a similar game last time, so expect Jamie Collins or Dont'a Hightower to rush the gaps on either side of the right guard.
Luck has four favorite passes. First is the deep post or crosser to T.Y. Hilton. The Patriots need to have their safeties aware of the levels that Hilton stems his route to deter these big plays. Second is a quick out to his tight ends who have coverage by a linebacker- so the Patriots backers need to be ready. Third is a low crosser, which is when Hilton or another receiver scrapes across the formation, usually in front of the linebackers, for a quick dump off and a lot of yards after the catch (Collins will need to chuck Hilton every time it makes sense). Fourth is the check down and you can be certain Herron will receive 10+ targets on the day.
Coby Fleener has emerged as a reliable target over the back stretch of the season as the Colts like to use him on short yardage downs to pick up the first. They'll align him on one side of the formation, where Andrew Luck will roll out to draw the defense. Fleener will leak behind the defense to the opposite side, where Luck will throw across the body to an open Fleener for a first down. This happens multiple times a game and a fast-closing safety has a pick-six opportunity if they time it correctly. The Bengals used their top corner Leon Hall on Fleener, so don't be surprised if Darrelle Revis aligns with Fleener, if only for a snap or two.
Rob Ninkovich is one of the most important players on the day at left defensive end, the edge where Luck is most comfortable rolling. Ninkovich will be tasked with both blocking the fullback in case Luck scrambles, as well as making sure the fullback doesn't get open behind him. It's not easy, and the Colts will force this tough situation for the veteran.
On Denver's most effective defensive drive, they played tight man with cover one high safety and blitzed the linebacker in Luck's face up the middle. It resulted in three straight passes defended. Look for the Patriots to borrow from this plan.
For match-ups, the Colts have a wide variety of weapons. Hakeem Nicks and Donte Moncrief are both able third receivers, while Reggie Wayne has been fading down the stretch and should be placed in the same category. T.Y. Hilton is still extremely dangerous. Fleener and Dwayne Allen are both good tight ends that are used to attack the seams, the flats, and the zones in the middle of the field. And then Herron is a threat out of the back field.
Kyle Arrington drew the match-up against Hilton in the first game and received assistance from bracket coverage (sometimes Duron Harmon, sometimes a linebacker) to break up the quick timing routes and force Luck to both hold the ball and stay in the pocket. Arrington should face Hilton again since Revis doesn't match-up well with speedsters.
Revis should instead play on an island with whichever receiver of Wayne, Nicks, and Moncrief is on the field, with Brandon Browner and Logan Ryan taking the other two. It doesn't really matter which as the receivers are all of similar potency.
Fleener should be covered by Pat Chung and Jamie Collins, based upon the situation.
For example, should the Colts field a unit of Hilton, Wayne, Fleener, Allen, and Herron, then Revis should cover Fleener, while Browner takes Wayne, Chung takes Allen, and Collins watches the backfield.
The linebackers need to give special focus to the running back escaping from the outfield since Luck relies heavily on his check down.
When the Patriots run the ball
Over the past two games, Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, and Jonas Gray have 75 carries against the Colts. 75% of these runs have been for fewer than six yards, which means that these have been grinding efforts by the offense. It's not the same domination in the trench that the Ravens had last week, when Justin Forsett ran for 10 yards per carry at will; it's a grinding beatdown that breaks the will of the opposition.
Dallas had a ton of success running against the Colts, as did the Bengals and Broncos when they felt like running; in all honesty the two playoff teams ignored the run far more than they should have. Dallas' offensive line pushed the Colts around and while the Patriots line isn't of the same caliber, they should be able to win their share of the trench battles. The Cowboys had success mixing up their running plays, with inside zone and man blocking schemes preventing the defense from keying in on a stop.
That said, Art Jones, brother of Chandler Jones, wasn't playing in the first game and he's definitely their best defensive lineman on their 3-4 front. He's stout and it's hard to run in his direction.
Linebacker Jerrell Freeman is also a stout run defender and full back James Develin will likely be tasked with opening up the rushing lane by blocking Freeman.
Essentially, the Colts run defense is slightly better due to the return of Jones, while the Patriots rushing offense will certainly miss Bryan Stork if he's unable to play. Still, there hasn't been a renaissance for the Colts rushing defense since the Week 11 game and the Patriots should be able to win on the ground if they play their six-man offensive line strategy.
When the Patriots pass the ball
Apart from the Broncos game, the Colts have been extremely bad at tackling. They try and arm-tackle high, instead of aiming for the gut, and as a result they are spun off of receivers fairly easily. Getting the ball as quickly as possible makes sense to try and force a miss, but (unlike the Ravens) the Colts are comfortable playing press coverage to prevent the fast snaps.
Speaking of the Ravens, the Cowboys used Jason Witten on routes against the Colt sthat are identical to how Baltimore used Owen Daniels. They let the tight end run into the linebackers and have the option of sitting in the zone, or breaking in either direction to get the linebacker out of the passing lane. The Colts are weak in the middle of the field so slot receivers (Danny Amendola!) or tight ends (Rob Gronkowski or Tim Wright!) will be very important.
Additionally, the linebackers love to drift when there are crossing patterns, and they'll chase and vacate the middle of the field. Either the Patriots can use this for combination routes to draw the linebackers out of the passing lane, with a second receiver entering the vacancy behind the backer, or Tom Brady can have a ton of space to scramble if he so chooses.
On the Colts secondary, Vontae Davis is very good. He erased the Bengals Mohamed Sanu, albeit the match-up was because A.J. Green was inactive. Brandon LaFell needs to push Davis' limit and Brady will need to challenge him a few times to prevent the Colts safeties from drifting and supporting the opposite side of the field.
The Indianapolis pass rush isn't much to write about; it's fair similar to the Patriots. Either they get home, or they don't, and maybe they'll have one player who wins their match-up to force Brady to step up in the pocket. Stork will be missed as Josh Kline struggles in pass protection, and Brady won't be able to throw it quickly to compensate. It should be an interesting development.
Colts aren't the most disciplined and will extend drives on bad penalties.
Returner Joshua Cribbs is still amazing, although he was knocked out cold against the Broncos and probably shouldn't be active due to concussion protocol.
The Colts center, right guard, and right tackle are all different from Week 11. They're still adjusting.
Indianapolis is the 4th most penalized team in the league (the Patriots are 2nd). There will be flags.