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Patriots vs. Colts AFC Championship: Keys to the Game

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Keys to victory for the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship against the Indianapolis Colts.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the New England Patriots' AFC Championship match-up against the Indianapolis Colts, the Pats Pulpit staff provided their biggest key to victory for the Patriots:

Greg Knopping: Front Four Pressure

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is one of the best in the league when he has extra time to throw. According to ProFootballFocus.com, including the playoffs, 57.9% of Luck's throws come with 2.6 seconds or more in the pocket - that's good for third in the league. He leads the league in total attempts in that category, and it's not even close. Even then, Luck is in the middle of the pack in sacks in that area and has a 91.6 quarterback rating. Those are some staggering numbers. The Patriots do not like to blitz a lot, and with Luck's ability to escape on his feet, the Patriots may want to convert some of the linebacker a-gap blitzes they do attempt, and keep Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower as spies. This makes the ability of the Patriots' front four to create pressure all that more important. This unit was not great last week against the Ravens. Anthony Castonzo has developed into an excellent pass protecting left tackle. He will be in a battle with Chandler Jones - who did not dress when these two teams met earlier in the the year. That match-up will be critical, but the Patriots will also need to get consistent edge pressure from Rob Ninkovich. Vince Wilfork, Sealver Siliga, and Alan Branch will need to generate more push up the middle than they did a week ago.

Alec Shane: Limiting tight end production

Coby Fleener went off against New England when these two teams first met, hauling in 144 yards on 7 catches as he became Andrew Luck's go-to guy. He's also coming off a big game against Denver in which his stat line isn't eye-popping - just 49 yards on three catches - but he delivered some key receptions when the Colts needed them most. Add Dwayne Allen to that now as well, who was carted off the field against the Patriots back in November, and Indy has a very dangerous tandem capable of dominating the middle of the field and creating mismatches in the red zone. The Patriots are going to need to reign these tight ends in, force Luck to look elsewhere on his throws, and limit their effectiveness coming off the playaction. Look for Brandon Browner or Patrick Cung to possibly line up on Fleener, with Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower dividing up duty against Allen.

Rich Hill: Replacing Bryan Stork

The Patriots need to find a way to replace Bryan Stork on their offensive line. While the Colts don't have the defensive line players like the Ravens or Jets, whoever is replacing Stork on the offensive interior will have their hands full. If they can't do a good job of keeping pressure away from Tom Brady, or if they can't open up lanes in the rushing game, then the Patriots offensive game plan will be thrown out the window.

SlotMachinePlayer: Limiting the Colts Passing Game

That means making TY Hilton a footnote, and removing Fleener from the equation. Luck has targeted Hilton 22 times in the last two games for 10 receptions and 175 yards. He's also not opposed to throwing into stifling coverage and risking a "punt". When the safety shifts toward Hilton, Luck is looking for Fleener up the seam for big gains. With Hilton limited, Fleener picked up 144 yards against New England last time they met. Luck will pick the open man, but it's up to the defense to limit his top receivers. Last time they had Arrington on Hilton quite a bit with help over the top. They tried Browner of Fleener some, but not with great effect. If Browner's knee is limited, they might use Chung, Collins, or even let Wilson reprise his old role of TE safety.

Adam Fox: Establishing the Running Game

We all know the narrative surrounding Tom Brady and his eye-popping statistics when passing for 50+ attempts (something no other QB has been successful doing), but I'd rather the Patriots rely on their tried-and-true method when gameplanning against Indianapolis. The old fashioned ground-and-pound has been incredibly effective against the Luck-era Colts, making an overnight star out of RB Jonas Gray during their previous regular season meeting. This presents a great opportunity for an ailing Patriot offensive line to assert early dominance in the trenches, and will alleviate some pressure on New England's defense that looked vulnerable out of the gates against the Ravens last weekend. Andrew Luck may not yet be of the top echelon of NFL quarterbacks that you must keep off the field at all costs, but the Patriots have a great chance to build a sizeable lead if they control the tempo in this one.

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What do you see as the biggest key to victory for the Patriots?