By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots (6-3) face off once again against an old rival as the Indianapolis Colts (6-3) travel to Foxboro to re-new un-pleasantries with a new face of the Colts in rookie QB Andrew Luck.
With Peyton Manning now manning (pardon the pun) the helm in Denver, Luck has stepped in and seamlessly took over the reins (pun #2) of the Colts. Luck has been everything advertised and while he hasn’t put up gaudy touchdown numbers yet (10 TD, 9 INTs), the definitive word is yet.
Luck has thrown for over 2600 yards and most importantly, has the Colts on a four game winning streak vaulting them to a 6-3 record; they’ve easily been one of the biggest surprises of the year and are in great position to make the playoffs.
The Patriots enter also at 6-3 and winners of their last three games as well. Tom Brady remains at the top of his game and leads the #1 offense in the NFL in points as well as yardage. With a running game that has given them the balance needed to succeed in January and beyond, the only question remains the defense.
While remaining stout against the run, the unit’s struggles defending the pass remain. The Patriots have brought in CB Aqib Talib to help shore up the secondary. It will be interesting to see how the team chooses to use him and if it changes how they play defense. On to the matchups:
Patriots Running Game:
The Patriots running game has enjoyed an increased emphasis this season averaging 146 yards per game and 4.3 yards per rush. Stevan Ridley is becoming the go-to guy in the running game, while not yet the “featured back” in the Patriots running attack, he’s making the most of his opportunities, while the team spreads the wealth with Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen getting a lot of looks as well. With the Patriots, its keeping legs fresh and changing looks.
The Colts have changed their defense, going to a Baltimore style 3-4, jettisoning the old Tampa 2, 4-3 look. Antonio Johnson at NT is joined by Fili Moala and Cory Redding at doing an adequate job of stopping the run. Robert Matthis and Dwight Freeney have become OLBs in the Colts scheme with Kavell Conner and Jerrell Freeman at ILB.
Look for the Patriots to run between the tackles with Ridley and Woodhead in this one, the Colts speed to the outside will help them set the edge in the running game, if they’re vulnerable, it will be in the middle.
Colts Running Game:
The Colts running game hasn’t been overly successful so far this year using Donald Brown and Vick Ballard mainly to change the pace and keep defenses honest. They do mix in the run with the pass, but like the Colts of old, they are not and will not be a prolific running team.
The Patriots defense has been stout against the run all season, the Bills game was a noticeable difference in that Buffalo passed on early downs to spring their two-headed running game. We called that one and said it was their best bet to win. They nearly did.
However, the Colts are more of a traditional run – pass team and I think the Patriots should be able to stuff the run pretty effectively in this one. Brandon Spikes has turned into a beast against the run and routinely blows plays up in the backfield. This one should be no different.
Patriots Passing Game:
With Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez hurting, the targets for Tom Brady may be limited in this one. But the Patriots are getting their passing game ironed out and settling into the balance they are seeking.
Welker (if available) tortured the Colts last year and now with Jerraud Powers and Vontae Davis out, that limits the options they have to cover down on the slot. Former Patriot cast-off Darius Butler was AFC Defensive Player of the week last week in Jacksonville, but the Patriots know him well. Look for Tom Brady to go right at Butler this week.
Tom Zbikowski on Rob Gronkowski is a mismatch for the Patriots even with Gronkowski far from 100 percent healthy. We may see more of Visanthe Shiancoe in this one. Brandon Lloyd is going to have to step up his game in this one. With a receiver corps hurting, and going against a back-up corner, this is his time to produce.
The Colts will attempt to bring the pressure off the edges with Matthis, Freeney and Robert Hughes and like to blitz so protection issues are paramount for New England. The Colts secondary has played pretty well with all the injuries but that was the Browns, Jags etc…..Here I think Brady will attack them with short, intermediate quick passes to negate the pass rush.
Colts Passing Game:
Andrew Luck has been everything advertised thus far in his rookie year for the Colts. He doesn’t get flustered, sees the field very well and most importantly especially against this New England defense, he can use his legs to extend the play or make positive yardage.
Bruce Arians runs the Pittsburgh offense and he’s well acquainted with the Patriots having faced them many times as the Steelers offensive coordinator. And while the Colts haven’t put up a lot of points so far this year, they’ve moved the ball through the air very nicely. And it all goes through Reggie Wayne, Wayne has become the Hines Ward of the Indy offense according to Bill Belichick and he’s had a fantastic season hauling in 69 passes for 931 yards. Luck also has speedster Donnie Avery and T.Y. Hilton and Avery will be the guy they’ll attempt to test the field deep with.
The Patriots’ struggles in the passing game are well documented and it will be interesting to see how they use Talib this week. If they place him on Wayne, will the Colts move him around? Manning put Wayne in the slot during the 2006 AFCCG and the Patriots had no answer, this one will bear watching.
The Patriots pass rush has been inconsistent and Chandler Jones and Donta’ Hightower had perhaps their worst games of the year last week, Jones will be going against LT Anthony Castonzo so this matchup will bear watching. The rookies could be hitting that rookie wall at this stage of the season.
Adam Vinatieri and Pat McAfee give the Colts a solid kicking game, and if the game is on the line, you don’t want to see #4 trot on the field. The Colts like the Patriots have solid coverage units but haven’t lit the world on fire in the return game.
The Patriots counter with Stephen Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko who are having solid seasons. The Patriots coverage units performed very well against a very good Buffalo STs unit last week. But the return game remains a question mark.
The Colts have been riding the emotional high of rallying together behind the illness of Head Coach Chuck Pagano. “Chuck-Strong” has been the rallying cry, the players have shaved their heads in a show of solidarity and now winners of four straight, believe they can beat anyone and make the playoffs.
The Patriots come in winners of three straight for the first time this season and look to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the AFC East. They’re at home and are starting to come together at the right time for a stretch run.
This one should be another exciting chapter with a new central character in the Patriots – Colts rivalry. Andrew Luck is the QB of the future for Indy and in a year or two; he may be ready to take his place with the best of the NFL.
These games always have plenty of drama built in and this one should be no different. Both teams come in on winning streaks, but the Patriots even with a banged up receiving corps offer a lot more offensive diversity than the Colts have seen in recent weeks.
It will be interesting to see if Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia dials up any blitzes against the Colts this week in an attempt to force Luck into making mistakes. And that is where this game will turn. Indianapolis is -9 in turnover ratio while the Patriots sit at the top of the NFL with a +16 turnover ratio.
Scoring hasn’t been the Colts strength and once the Patriots begin to put points on the board, will it force them into making mistakes? I think so. Brady and the Patriots with the better running game will score a bit too much for Luck to overcome….this year. But stay tuned. Patriots 31-20