Earlier this week, I reached out to Josh Wilson, managing editor over at SB Nation's Colts affiliate, Stampede Blue, to try and get a sense of this game from a Colts perspective. I sent a few questions Josh's way, and he came back with what I think are some fantastic answers, which you can see below. He's right on point and his analysis, and we should all be in for an extremely entertaining game.
First things first: The Patriots/Colts rivalry has been one of the NFL's all-time greatest, and has certainly been the most meaningful of the 21st century. And while I obviously can't speak for Patriots fans everywhere, I can't help but feel that when Peyton Manning departed for Denver, most of the hype, intensity, and implications surrounding the fabled Colts/Patriots rivalry kind of fell by the wayside, especially given that the past few matchups between these two teams haven't been that close (that Andrew Luck is so damn likable and easy to root for hasn't helped matters either). Are there similar feelings in Indy surrounding the "demise" of the rivalry, or do Colts fans feel the same about New England now as they did when Manning was still under center?
Well, I think this is a tough question to answer for a couple of reasons. To start off with, as an analyst I don't really consider this a rivalry. From what I've heard from Patriots fans, they seem to feel just like what you said - they don't really consider it that much of a rivalry either. And, like Colts tight end Dwayne Allen said earlier this week, the Colts vs. Patriots isn't really a rivalry because the Patriots have "little-brothered" the Colts in the last three matchups, as the current era Colts are 0-3. So I don't consider this a rivalry, no. But if you ask the majority of Colts fans, they'll tell you differently. Colts fans still really don't like Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the Patriots - sentiments that are no doubt just remaining from the Peyton Manning years when these two teams were great rivals. Looking back on it, though, from a rational point of view, I think this rivalry was always much more about Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady than about Colts vs. Patriots. Now, with a Colts win on Sunday this very well could develop into a rivalry again, but I don't consider it to be one right now, even though Colts fans dislike the Patriots more than any other team and, to many fans in Indy, consider the Patriots to be the team's biggest rival. So I guess it just comes down to what the definition of a rivalry is, but I personally don't consider this to be one at this point (again, it could change Sunday if the Colts win).
One thing I noticed in the Denver game is what a fantastic job the Colts' offensive line did. Both of Denver's dangerous edge rushers were rendered completely ineffective, and Luck had plenty of time to throw. The Indy line has been banged up and inconsistent all year -something we Patriots fans can certainly relate to - but it has really come together so far in the postseason. What sparked the turnaround?
Well, I think a couple of things really led to the improved line play - as we've seen their best two games of the season come in the past two weeks. Firstly, everybody is healthy. Throughout the season starting right tackle Gosder Cherilus and starting right guard both dealt with a number of injuries, so it wasn't uncommon for them (especially Cherilus) to be playing through injuries - which really hurt the on-field production. Now, both guys are on injured reserve, so while this starting five might not be the most talented unit the Colts have when just looking at the roster, it's definitely the healthiest one they've had, which has been big. Furthermore, they've finally been able to establish some continuity. Whether it was because of injuries or because of coaches' decisions to bench guys, the Colts never got that consistency going along the line, as they've started eleven different offensive line combinations this season. But on Sunday against the Patriots, they'll start the same five for the third straight game - the first time they've done that since weeks one through three to start the year. So that continuity along the line has gone a long way toward helping the line improve and keep Andrew Luck standing as well.
The last time these two teams met, the Colts couldn't stop Jonas Gray and the Patriots rushing attack at all. However, Denver's running game was mostly ineffective, as was Cincy's. Are you confident that the Colts can do a better job defending the ground game this time around as they continue to account for New England's receivers? And how will they do it?
Let's put it this way: I think the Colts will do a better job against the run this time around. I'm not sure how good they will be at stopping the run, but I absolutely don't expect the same dominance we saw from the Patriots in the previous meetings. I think that the Colts will ask their cornerbacks (Vontae Davis and Greg Toler) to play one-on-one on the outside, something the Colts do often, and then put Darius Butler on the slot receiver (like normal) and focus the rest of the attention to Rob Gronkowski in the passing game. That leaves the remainder of the players to focus on the run, but that does present a problem for the Colts because the Patriots can beat you in a number of ways. So they likely will enter this game with much more of an emphasis on stopping the run, but ultimately it comes down to the players. They have to be solid at tackling (which they were last week) and stay in their assignments, not taking themselves out of the play (like they often did in the first matchup against the Patriots). The Colts' run defenders have to play fundamental football, which they haven't before against the Patriots. So there might be some things the Colts do differently on defense, but I think it's really going to come down to the players stepping up, and with the return of a healthy Arthur Jones to the defensive line, some solid progress in the past few weeks, and the sting of the last few games against the Patriots, I do expect the Colts to do better against the run this time around. I'm not sure how well they'll do, but I do expect them to be better.
Reggie Wayne is one of my favorite non-Patriots players of all time, but watching him over the past month or so he seems to have been relegated more or less to decoy status in order to open up lanes for other receivers. Does Reggie have anything left in the tank, and at this point in his career what is his primary role on this offense? Will he be back next year?
It's tough watching Reggie Wayne at this point in his career, as he's a 36-year old receiver really hampered by injuries (he's playing through an elbow injury and a torn triceps). It's hard watching any great player really struggle like this toward the end, but that's the reality right now. He absolutely still provides a bit of a threat, as he can get open against zone defenses and find those holes, but he's really not an explosive player and, as you mentioned, he's really only a decoy at this point. He's fighting hard and giving his all (he made some nice blocks last week), but his role in the offense has really diminished. Unless the Patriots really don't focus on him this week, I'm not sure we'll see much from Reggie Wayne other than the occasional catch or two. He still plays a lot, but that's mainly as a decoy - and, if a defense doesn't cover him, then he'll get the ball. The question of whether or not he'll be back next year is a tough one, and one that I really don't know the answer to. He has talked openly about the possibility of retirement and about how he wants to spend more time with his family, but he's also given some indications that he might be considering coming back. He's a free agent at the end of the year, but if he's playing next year it will be with the Colts, so that's not really the concern here. The question is if he'll retire, and that's the one we really don't know the answer to. If I had to guess (and this is just completely my guess and not based on actual stuff I've heard, besides Reggie's public comments), my gut feeling is that this is his last year. But it wouldn't surprise me to see him come back for another year either. If he can get healthy and thinks he can still play, it won't be a surprise to see number 87 out there for one more season with the Colts.
If Darrelle Revis matches up on T.Y. Hilton and is able to successfully take him out of the game ("if" being the operative word here), how will the Colts be able to adjust to losing their most dangerous receiver?
I think the Colts have to get T.Y. Hilton involved, first and foremost. They can afford Reggie Wayne being a decoy of sorts, but not T.Y. Hilton. They can't afford to have their one true star receiver taken out of the game completely. So if Revis does match up on Hilton and have success early on, I expect the Colts to get creative in getting Hilton the football. Whether it be with specific route combinations or specific formations in moving him around, I think the Colts have to get Hilton the ball and I think they know that too. But as far as who else might step up, I think we have to look at the tight ends. The Patriots are not particularly good at covering the tight ends and the Colts present a challenge there, with Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener both being threats in the receiving game. If Hilton is being taken out of the game, the Colts will likely work the inside of the field to the tight ends, as well as get receivers like Hakeem Nicks involved. Furthermore, if Hilton is taken out of the game (which, as I already mentioned, the Colts can't afford to let happen, but let's say it happens for the sake of discussion), then they need Donte Moncrief to step up, as he's the only other deep threat besides Hilton. And, of course, running back Boom Herron has played a huge role in the receiving game recently, and Andrew Luck has really learned to check the ball down if need be and not force passes, so I expect Herron to get a number of looks in the receiving game as well.
Name one player on each side of the ball that Patriots fans might not know too well, about but could prove to be a huge X-factor come Sunday night.
On the offensive side of the football for the Colts, I think we need to look at running back Daniel "Boom" Herron. I mentioned him earlier but he's a guy who's really come on late in the season since the Colts last played the Patriots. He's taken on the lead back role for the Colts and has done so very well. He's run the football well and been a great receiver out of the backfield, leading to him being a huge part of the Colts' recent success in the playoffs. Expect to see a lot of Boom Herron this Sunday as well. Defensively for the Colts, another player I already mentioned, defensive lineman Arthur Jones, could have a big impact. He's been praised a lot this week - by Bill Belichick, Chuck Pagano, and a number of Colts players - for his impact on the Colts' run defense since he has returned. He was injured for a good portion of the season but has recently been healthy and helping the defense improve. For a Colts' defense that was gashed on the ground against the Patriots in the past two meetings, a run stopper like Jones along the defensive line could end up playing a significant role in the game.