By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots (8-3) return home to Foxborough this week to take on their traditional rival Indianapolis Colts (0-11) on Sunday. The teams are former division rivals but have played each other virtually every season regardless of division affiliation.
The Patriots lead the all-time series 45-29 but throw out all of those records with these two teams when they meet. These are teams that know each other very well and it will come down to who executes better on Sunday. So who has the advantage on Sunday?
Patriots Running Game:
The Colts run defense is currently last in the NFL right now giving up over 150 yards per game. Part of that reason is they have been playing from behind so much this season that teams in the second halves of games are simply grinding down the clock.
The other part is the Colts have always been ripe for running the ball on, they have traditionally fielded a small, fast, flow to the ball defense. Both DEs Robert Matthis and Dwight Freeney have always gone upfield going after the QB. While caught out of position many times, they’ve simply used their athleticism to run plays down.
The Patriots should be able to continue that trend with running the ball on the Colts, even with a banged up offensive line right now. Expect BenJarvus Green-Ellis to get a lot of early carries as the Patriots try to assert their ground game to open up play-action passes. After that, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley will get those quick hitting carries when they attempt to catch the Colts in pass rush scenarios.
Patriots Passing Game:
The Colts play a Cover 2 which Tom Brady has traditionally feasted upon when he knows where the secondary is lining up. I would expect CBs Kevin Thomas and Jerraud Powers as well as nickel corner Jacob Lacey to press the WRs at the line of scrimmage, trying to disrupt the routes of Deion Branch, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez and their timing with Tom Brady.
Much of their success will be dependent upon the pass rush of Freeney and Matthis who are starting to wear down because the defense is on the field for nearly 35 minutes a game. The key matchup for both teams will be Rob Gronkowski on the LBs or safeties, possibly Antoine Bethea. No one has been able to cover Gronkowski this year, if the Patriots start to open the middle of the field early, it will soften up the other areas for Brady to work with. Brady’s focus this week is to eliminate mistakes and turnovers and the pass offense of the Patriots should have a big day.
Colts Running Game:
The Colts game plan will be simple this week, pound the ball with Donald Brown to soften up the Patriots and pick your spots to take shots down the field. That way they keep the game simpler for QB Dan Orlovsky to operate in.
The Colts will try to get C Jeff Saturday and RG Ryan Diem pushing through the middle and take advantage of the Patriots thinness at MLB with Dane Fletcher and Brandon Spikes injured.
The Patriots are much better at defending the run than they’re mainly given credit for and it won’t be an easy day for the Colts to run. They have always used their running game as an after-thought to Peyton Manning slinging it. This year is no exception as they average only 99 yards per game.
Colts Passing Game:
This annual matchup (even Belichick called it in his press conference on Weds, saying “back to the division games”) lost some of its marquee luster with Peyton Manning being on the sideline with his neck injury this season. The Patriots will face a Manning-less Colts team for the first time since 1997.
With Curtis Painter benched at least temporarily, the Colts will turn to Dan Orlovsky, who will have to play a whale of a game to stem the tide for the Colts losing ways. Indy has a bevy of talented WRs and TEs with Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Jacob Tamme and Dallas Clark (injured, will not play) so there is no reason for this team to be averaging only 181 YPG (28th in the NFL).
Those receivers will be difficult for the Patriots banged up and no-name secondary to handle, however with Orlovsky starting for the first time in a few years this is a matchup that the Patriots should win. Andre Carter, Rob Ninkovich and Mark Anderson will be bringing the pressure for a Patriots pass rush that has improved this season.
The kicking games are a push with punters Pat McAfee and Zoltan Mesko as well as kickers Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski having nearly identical stats.
While the Patriots return game has been dormant all season until the Julian Edelman return for a TD against the Chiefs two weeks ago, the Colts return game in both punts and kickoffs have been atrocious averaging less than 3 yards per punt and less than 20 on kickoffs.
The Colts coverage units, always a weak spot for them are getting gashed this season consistently and are something to watch for this week. With them averaging giving up 12.7 per punt return and over 35 yards per kickoff, the Patriots should be giving the offense some good field position.
This is the Colts Super Bowl this week, make no mistake about it, given the nightmare season that is gone on all year it is no surprise that they picked this week to fire their defensive coordinator and change QBs. While their heart may have been questioned in a few of their losses, expect them to come out firing and leaving nothing behind.
The Patriots are expecting this and none other than Bill Belichick made that abundantly clear this week to the media. Asked how he could effectively judge his team against losing teams he lashed out saying, “I don’t agree with that, so go ahead on your soliloquy but I just don’t agree with that,’’ Belichick said. “You don’t think you can gauge a team based on how a player blocks Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis? I mean, who else could you gauge it against? Are you kidding me? Covering Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon – you don’t think you can gauge your coverage based on those players?
“I don’t care what their record is. You don’t think there’s better receivers around than them, better pass rushers than Freeney and Mathis? I’m not sure what games you’re watching here.’’
The Patriots will look to get out to a quick start and put their collective foot on the throats of the Colts. In a series of games marked by close finishes, they will be looking for separation with a fast start.
The Patriots will be at home against a heated rival, so regardless of their record and of who is at QB, so the crowd will be loud and boisterous. Orlovsky is basically a journeyman QB, not a starter and if the Patriots get off to a quick start, the pressure of playing an offense entirely capable of laying 40 points on them will take its toll.
The Colts have to play hoping for a lot of turnovers, something they haven’t been able to generate on defense while playing mistake free ball while mixing it up. With nothing to lose at this point, expect to see the entire gamut of trick plays and aggressive play-calling, down to on-side kicks etc.
But none of it matters if Freeney and Matthis don’t sack Brady or disrupt him all game. This is a defense built to play with a lead, and if the Patriots get off quickly on offense, then it will be another in a year of long afternoons for Indy.
Brady will pick apart the Cover-2 and Gronkowski and Welker will each have big games.
Patriots roll 38-14