By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots return to action in the Divisional Round of the 2013 NFL Playoffs and take on the Indianapolis Colts in Foxboro on Saturday, January 11. This matchup renews the already storied rivalry between the Patriots and Colts but now has Indy with a new face of their franchise, with Andrew Luck replacing Peyton Manning.
Tom Brady leads the Patriots to the divisional round against the Colts this week. (USA TODAY Images)
The game has a scheduled kickoff for 8:15 p.m. and will be televised on CBS with Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf handling the play-by-play and analyst duties. The extended weather forecast calls for temps in the 40s with rain, heavy at times.
The Patriots (12-4) clinched the AFC East division title for the fifth year in a row and 11th in the past 13 seasons. They enjoyed a well-deserved and needed bye week to heal up many of their injured players.
The Colts (12-5) defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 45-44 in an epic comeback spearheaded by QB Andrew Luck. Down 38-10 early in the third quarter, Luck engineered a furious comeback passing for 443 yards and 4 touchdowns.
We here at PatsFans.com are going to try something a little bit different this season. Our new weekly column, the “Razor’s Edge” gives a quick break down on some of the key matchups of the game and what to look for in how the game plays out.
The Patriots and the Colts have a long-time rivalry dating back to the Peyton Manning years when it seemed every year held a big game between the two teams.
Overall including the playoffs the Patriots enjoy a 47-29 advantage over the Colts including a commanding 27-12 lead at home. The Patriots have won the last three meetings including a 59-24 win last season where Brady and the offense had a tremendous day.
Let’s take a look at the matchups:
The Patriots offense has had to change and evolve during the season, dealing with significant injuries and many new faces being brought into the lineup. But this season the goal of the coaching staff was to bring a more balanced offense into play and they’ve succeeded in doing that. New England finished with the 10th rated passing offense and the 9th rated rushing offense in the NFL.
The passing game is leaning heavily upon Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen out of the backfield. Injuries to rookie WRs in Aaron Dobson (foot), Kenbrell Thompkins (hip), have slowed their progress as Dobson re-injured his foot and may miss this game.
Speedster Josh Boyce (ankle/IR) was lost for the season and the team has brought back Austin Collie for the playoff run.
One area getting plenty of work is the Patriots running game which should be a major portion of the game plan on Saturday night.
Patriots RBs vs Colts Front Seven- NE 129.9 YPG, 4.4YPC Edge Patriots
With the winter elements arriving and injuries in the wide receiving core, the Patriots have leaned much more heavily on the running game down the stretch and the results have been impressive, averaging 168 yards per game during the last three games.
LaGarrette Blount has been a big part of the NE running game down the stretch. (USA TODAY Images)
LaGarrette Blount has really stepped up his game and had a career day with a combined 334 yards against the Bills rushing and returning kickoffs. Being backed by Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, the Patriots can use three backs with different types of skill sets to keep the chains moving.
The Colts NT Aubrayo Franklin and DT Ricky Jean Francois will have their work cut out for them inside as the Patriots will look to run between the tackles. Robert Matthis is a very fast but undersized DE who specializes in getting after the passer. Look for New England to run right at him.
The Patriots should be able to run the ball effectively on the Colts front, which will keep the chains moving as well as open up play-action passing. In this one, the Patriots want to grind it out and wear down the Colts defense.
Patriots WRs vs Colts Secondary- NE 268 YPG Edge Patriots
The Patriots passing game believe it or not finished the season 10th in the league, which is surprising seeing the struggles that went on early in the season. Tom Brady and Julian Edelman had great chemistry in 2013 as the former option QB turned WR had a career year with 105 receptions and 1056 yards.
Brady will also look to Danny Amendola and Austin Collie with Shane Vereen out of the backfield. Aaron Dobson (foot) will likely miss this game so the outside threat will fall to Kenbrell Thompkins who has been bothered by a bad hip
Thompkins and Vereen will have to pickup some slack and open things up underneath for Edelman and Amendola to have some success in the crossing routes the Pats like to run.
The Colts have been dealing with their own injury issues and lost Greg Toler for the season and LaRon Landry with a concussion against the Chiefs. Landry has returned to practice and is expected to play on Saturday however.
It goes without saying that the main focus of the offensive line will be on the Colts Robert Mathis who had a career year with 19.5 sacks on the season. Matthis can be a very disruptive force in the passing game and last week his strip sack of Alex Smith was a big part of the Colts comeback. Look for the New England coaches to have help for RT Marcus Cannon with Matthis and try to slow his pass rush down somewhat. But my player to watch on the defense Saturday is safety Antoine Bethea. Bethea kind of flies under the radar but is talented and always seems to make plays.
Look for Brady going with a quick three step drop to limit the effectiveness of the pass rush. The routes will be short to keep the chains moving and look for Brady to use play action a lot in this one. Brady won’t have huge numbers in this one as the team will look to run as much as pass but if the offense is balanced, it won’t matter.
The New England defense has been beat up this season, having already lost a significant number of players in the middle and just suffered another big blow with MLB Brandon Spikes being placed on IR with a lingering knee injury that reached the point where he could no longer play.
The bye week was music to the ears of the secondary however as CBs Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington have all been dealing with injuries and S Devin McCourty was able to recover from a concussion.
Rookies Logan Ryan at CB and Jamie Collins at LB have really stepped up their game and have been playing more and more down the stretch, performing well. Both will be needed if the Patriots are to advance.
In Spikes’ absence, the Patriots have several options they can go to, and can be read here:
Colts RBs vs NE Front Seven- IND 108.9 YPG, 4.3 YPA Edge Patriots
The Colts have Donald Brown who’s playing solid for them the past few weeks and the disappointing Trent Richardson who was supposed to be the feature back of the offense. But Richardson has been averaging only 2.9 yards per carry since coming over in a trade with the Browns.
New England has struggled to stop the run all season with the loss of so many key players inside (Wilfork, Kelly and Mayo) and the news just got worse with Brandon Spikes being placed on IR.
Spikes’ downhill, physical style utilizing run blitzes have helped out the Pats front seven. One player getting better each week has been NT Sealver Siliga who has done a good job clogging up the middle.
The Colts will get some yardage on the Patriots defense but just don’t have the horses to effectively control the game. They just aren’t committed enough to the run or good enough doing it to make a depleted Patriots front seven pay.
Colts WRs vs NE Secondary- IND 232.8 YPG Edge Colts
Andrew Luck and TY Hilton had huge games on Wild Card comeback against the Chiefs, Luck completed 29-45 for 443 yards and 4 TDs to go along with 3 INTs, and Hilton was the beneficiary of over half of it with a tremendous effort netting 13 passes for 224 yards and 2 TDs. The Colts also use TE Coby Fleener, and WRs LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen and Da’Rick Rogers as well as Brown, who is has been very effective out of the backfield.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will be looking to contain Andrew Luck in the pocket.
(USA TODAY Images)
The big question is who the Patriots place on Hilton. Most think it is a matchup for Aqib Talib but Hilton is a smaller, faster WR that gives Talib problems. In his first game as a Patriot, Talib was beaten twice by Hilton for touchdowns and ended up with 6 catches for 100 yards. Look for Kyle Arrington who is the fastest Patriot in the secondary to get the nod with over the safety help. And if Hilton lines up in the slot, don’t be surprised to see Jamie Collins at LB to chip him and shadow him on the drag routes underneath.
The Patriots pass rush this week will be seeking to contain and collapse the pocket rather than pin their ears back. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich along with Andre Carter will have to be aware of Luck making plays with his legs and will look to keeping him in the pocket. Luck getting outside and making plays on the run will be bad news for the Pats.
Special Teams- Edge Patriots
The Pats gets the slight edge here but much of the units are very evenly matched. Adam Vinatieri is an icon in the Patriots history and even at 41 is still money inside his range connecting 35 of 40 FGs this season. Stephen Gostkowski had a Pro-Bowl type season and neither team wants to see the other on the field with the game on the line.
The equality in the units carries over to the punting game with Pat McAfee and Ryan Allen. McAfee has a 46.0 average with a 38.5 net average, while Allen has a 45.9 average with 39.9 net for the Patriots. Allen has improved tremendously in his rookie season in his directional punting and is displaying solid hands holding for FGs.
Where the edge for the Patriots comes in is in the coverage game, Matthew Slater has played outstanding in covering kicks and punts for New England and gives them the nod over Indy whose coverage units haven’t been as tight as New England’s.
With Blount finally getting some big returns on kickoffs and Edelman in the punt return game, the Colts coverage units will have their work cut out for them. Edelman broke a big return last year against the Colts and would love to break another one this week.
Patriots Player to Watch- LaGarrette Blount
Blount has really stepped up his game down the stretch and has provided a big spark for the Patriots running game. The big 250 lb running back has been a force inside, carrying the pile after first contact for big yardage. He finally broke through in the kick return game against Buffalo as well with 145 return yards.
Blount will be playing in his first playoff game on Saturday night and will be looked to get the New England offense off and running against a Colts front seven that hasn’t been great against the run.
Prediction: Patriots 34-27