By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots open the 2013 Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs at home against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night in Foxboro. Game time is scheduled for 8:15 p.m.
CBS will be broadcasting the contest with Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf, the fifth time this duo has called a Patriots game in 2013 and the final one in Dierfdorfâ€™s career. He announced his retirement earlier this season.
Hearing that the Patriots and Colts are facing one another in a big game especially in the playoffs is a familiar refrain in these parts. It seems that every year the two teams face off and always with something big on the line.
Now with Tom Brady facing Andrew Luck who has become the face of the franchise after Peyton Manning was released and went to Denver, the rivalry lives on. And the two teams will fight it out to determine who moves on to the AFC Championship game.
The Patriots (12-4) got a well-deserved and needed bye after defeating the Buffalo Bills 34-20 in the season finale. With a rash of injuries on both sides of the ball, New England needed the bye to try and get some of the walking wounded on the field.
The Colts (12-5) had an epic comeback win 45-44 over the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday afternoon. Luck led a furious second half offensive explosion where the Colts were down at one point 38-10 to a playoff victory.
So here are Five First Impressions of the Colts:
1. Luck a Different QB Than A Year Ago: The Colts came up to Foxboro in November last season and were spanked 59-24 as Luck had four turnovers (3 INTs and a fumble) as the Patriots blew open a close game in the second half.
But where he was fooled a couple of times with changes in the defense and coverages by Bill Belichick, Luck is no longer the rookie he was last season. He started off terribly against Kansas City but was able to shake it off and have a tremendous second half.
He wonâ€™t mail it in if the chips get down and has the capability to make plays with his arm or his legs. It will be interesting to see what kind of defenses the Patriots throw at them on Saturday.
2. TY Hilton Was Big Playmaker A Year Ago: The Colts Hilton caught six passes for 100 yards last season, including two touchdowns over Aqib Talib in Talibâ€™s first game with the Patriots.
Hilton who didnâ€™t even start in that one will surely get a lot of attention from the Patriots coaching staff. It will be another interesting decision for the Patriots on whom they decide to cover Hilton with, either Talib who struggles against the smaller, quicker wide receivers or perhaps Alfonzo Dennard or Kyle Arrington, who is the faster of the Patriots corners.
He was immense against the Chiefs on Sunday, catching 13 passes for 224 yards and 2 TDs while being targeted 18 times. With Reggie Wayne shelved with an injury this season the blistering fast Hilton turned in a great campaign with 1083 yards receiving.
3. Running Game Will Go A Long Way in Determining This One Pt 1: While all the attention is being given to the quarterbacks in Brady and Luck, this game may ultimately be decided on who can run the ball more effectively.
In the playoffs balanced offenses tend to move on and one-dimensional ones often go home. Indianapolis, because of the hole they were in, passed 45 times on Saturday and ran only 19. Against a Bill Belichick coached team, that kind of imbalance will send you packing for sure.
The Coltsâ€™ Donald Brown and Trent Richardson will be facing a Patriots defense that struggled against the run in 2013 without Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo. Theyâ€™ll need to open things up for this offense this week and give Luck some time to throw. But the Colts only ran for just under 109 yards per game this season, will they show that kind of patience with it remains the question.
4. Running Game Will Go A Long Way in Determining This One Pt 2: When looking at New Englandâ€™s offense, the perception is that the Patriots are flinging the ball all over the field, but it is far from the truth. New England is a much more balanced team now and theyâ€™ve been running the ball much more as the cold winter weather has settled in.
The Colts ability to stop the run will be tested and will go a long way in deciding who moves on. Indianapolis has the 20th ranked running defense allowing 125 yards per game. If they can slow down New Englandâ€™s running game enough, it will open up their pass rushing options especially Robert Mathis in getting after Tom Brady.
The New England passing game doesnâ€™t have the names other than Brady that made them so prolific in the past. Balance is the key, but it wonâ€™t be an easy task. The Patriots have averaged 168 yards per game on the ground in the final three games. The athletic, fast front seven will have to step up.
5. Injuries Mount For Colts Secondary: On Saturday, the Colts lost CB Greg Toler who re-injured his groin in the first half and didnâ€™t return and S LaRon Landry who suffered a concussion in the second half and was done for the day.
Toler injured himself trying to tackle Dwayne Bowe but stayed in the game. But he couldnâ€™t keep up with Chiefs WR Donnie Avery on his 74 yard touchdown reception and came out. His status for Saturday is doubtful at this point.
Landry suffered the concussion while coming up and making a great play in run support. He hit Knile Davis but caught Davisâ€™ knee to his head. Landry stayed down and then suffered under the hands of his teammate Kelvin Sheppard, who unaware that Landry was concussed began slapping his helmet in celebration.
Landry will have to pass the leagueâ€™s concussion protocol before being allowed to play on Saturday.
Tune in later in the week and we’ll have a full breakdown of the matchups between the Pats and Colts.