Patriots vs. Indianapolis: 5 keys to AFC championship game
One team is keeping New England from its sixth Super Bowl appearance in 14 seasons.
A team New England has beaten by a combined total of 144-66 in their last three meetings, once in each of the past three seasons.
A team that has lost its last four appearances against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
A team that enters as a seven-point underdog.
A team that New England could very easily overlook under these circumstances.
Such overconfidence would be a mistake.
The Colts are a much better squad now than the one that fell at home to New England, 42-20, in Week 11. Indianapolis proved it in last Sunday's 24-13 road playoff win over Denver that was actually a more impressive overall performance than the one New England displayed during its 35-31 comeback victory over the visiting Baltimore Ravens.
Here are five keys that will determine whether New England, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will get the chance to win a fourth Lombardi Trophy together, or the Colts will make their first Super Bowl appearance since the 2009 season.
Patriots coaching staff vs. Colts coaching staff
The anti-Belichick contingent probably envisions him behind the scenes singing his own praises like Vizzini in Princess Bride by saying to himself, "Have you ever heard of Lombardi, Shula, Walsh? Morons." But all Spygate and Beli-cheat jokes aside, the man deserves his due. New England's 35-31 victory over Baltimore in last Saturday night's playoff game was Belichick at his finest. His decision to use an obscure offensive formation with only four linemen and a skill-position player declared ineligible caught Baltimore so off-guard that Ravens head coach John Harbaugh drew a personal-foul penalty by coming off the sideline to scream at the officials. The Patriots also dusted off a double-pass play last used by Belichick in 2001 (!!!) that resulted in a 51-yard touchdown toss from Julian Edelman to fellow wide receiver Danny Amendola. But the brilliance of New England's coaches goes well beyond that. Their ability to make in-game adjustments remains second to none.
Realizing their ground attack was going nowhere against a staunch Ravens front seven, the Patriots didn't call a single running play after 1:13 of the second quarter -- and it worked. New England overcame its second 14-point deficit of the game in the third quarter en route to victory. That's another Patriots' strength: maintaining composure and not panicking when falling behind.
But Chuck Pagano isn't chopped liver as a head coach, either. Indianapolis has reached the postseason in all three of his seasons at the helm. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has done such a nice job in the development of quarterback Andrew Luck that he has drawn consideration for NFL head-coaching vacancies.
But there's only so much time in a week for the Colts to prepare their players for what New England may unveil. Will the Patriots continue using the four-linemen formation? (Pagano called the NFL earlier this week to inquire about substitution rules.) Will New England remain so pass-happy? Will Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels revert to a running game that has brutally gashed Indianapolis in the past two matchups?
"We have to be prepared for everything, obviously," Pagano said in his Monday news conference.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck vs. Patriots pass defense
The comparisons between Luck and Denver quarterback Peyton Manning were a major story line entering last Sunday's playoff game. Here's another one that applies to the AFC title game: Luck has struggled against Belichick's defenses as much as Manning did while playing for the Colts earlier in his career, suffering blowout losses against New England in each of the past three seasons.
Luck's inability to decipher New England's scheme has contributed to eight interceptions and 10 sacks by New England in those contests. Luck, though, continues to mature as a quarterback at a rapid pace. He led the NFL in completions of 20-plus yards during the regular season with 85 and has the weapons to blister a Patriots defense that surrendered four touchdown passes last Saturday to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton as a slot receiver could be an especially effective target. Running back Boom Herron also could give Luck a boost by helping the Colts field a somewhat credible rushing attack and remaining a receiving factor out of the backfield (he has 18 catches in the first two playoff games). But ultimately, patience and prudent decision-making to avoid turnovers will determine whether Luck finally breaks through against New England.
Patriots running game vs. Colts run defense
New England running back Jonas Gray was involved in the NFL's wildest rags-to-riches-to-rags story of the 2014 campaign. Promoted from the practice squad at midseason, Gray barreled for 201 yards and four touchdowns against the Colts in that Week 11 drubbing. But since arriving late to practice the very next week, Gray has barely played. He was inactive against Baltimore last Saturday after being listed as probable on New England's injury report with an ankle ailment.
How much of a factor Gray will be Sunday is anyone's guess. The Colts couldn't have been thrilled when New England re-signed LeGarrette Blount following his in-season release by Pittsburgh. Blount steamrolled for 166 rushing yards and four touchdowns in New England's divisional-round playoff win over Indianapolis last season. On the bright side for Indianapolis, the defense has shown improvement in stopping the run since the Patriots debacle. Defensive end Arthur Jones, who missed the Week 11 game with an ankle injury, will be on the field Sunday. The Patriots will probably be without starting center Bryan Stork (knee), which will cause some shuffling on the offensive line.
Patriots tight ends vs. Colts tight ends
I know, I know. They don't defend one another. But which team gets more production out of the position should go a long way toward determining Sunday's winner. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen became the first pair of tight ends in Colts history to each score eight touchdowns in the same season. Fleener has developed into the better receiver, but don't sell Allen short in that category. Indianapolis also gets production out of a third tight end in scrappy Jack Doyle.
Fleener had a career-high 144 receiving yards on seven catches the last time he played New England, and that was without the Patriots having to worry about Allen, who missed the game because of an ankle injury. Fleener's production in that contest was statistically better than that of Rob Gronkowski, but don't sell short the impact made by New England's star tight end. Besides running through five Colts tackle attempts on a 26-yard touchdown catch, Gronkowski played a key role in New England's 246-yard rushing effort with his blocking.
The most poignant image representing the Patriots' physical dominance was Gronkowski drive-blocking Colts safety Sergio Brown off the field and into a camera cart (drawing a 15-yard penalty in the process) on Gray's fourth touchdown run. The Colts did a nice job keeping Julius Thomas in check last Sunday after being beaten for three touchdowns by Denver's tight end in the season opener. Gronkowski, though, is a different animal -- especially with a healthy Brady firing him passes rather than the wobblers being thrown to Thomas by an ailing Manning.
Brady vs. Colts defense and playoff ghosts
Yes, Brady has two opponents in Sunday's matchup. Tom Terrific wasn't so in his past two AFC championship game appearances, both of which were Patriots losses. Brady, though, was at his best against Baltimore last week in a 367-yard passing performance that included three scoring throws and a touchdown scamper. As the Broncos did, expect the Colts to try to disrupt New England's short passing game.
The 37-year-old Brady's accuracy on deep throws has diminished with age (although not nearly as much as Manning's). Seattle's Richard Sherman is the cornerback who is getting the most attention entering this weekend's games, but Indianapolis' Vontae Davis is playing at an equally high level. Look for the Patriots to try to isolate Colts strong safety LaRon Landry in coverage, where he is often a liability.