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Thursday, 15 January 2015

Indianapolis at New England: 5 Things To Know

Feels like déjà vu all over again, all over again, all over again. This Sunday the Colts take on the Patriots in the playoffs, 11 years to the day the teams first squared off in the post-season, back in 2004. It’s the fifth time they’ve met in the tournament, the second year in a row, and the third time with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.


The teams met earlier this season, a 42-20 steamrolling by the Patriots (remember Jonas Gray, he of the 201 yards and 4 touchdowns?). And even though Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is only in his third season, Sunday marks his fourth meeting with the Patriots. If New England quarterback Tom Brady were a decade younger these two could have some rivalry going forward.


Here are five things to get you ready for the AFC Championship Game.


No Luck Against Patriots


Luck has lost to the Patriots in decisive fashion all three times he faced them. The aggregate score is 144-66, and Luck’s numbers are downright bad: 70 of 130 (58.3%), 6 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and a 67.6 QB rating. And even though he’s known as a quarterback who can run, Luck was sacked as many times as he rushed: five times each.


None of which is to say he won’t turn it around this Sunday. In this post-season he’s completed two-thirds of his passes and sports a 90.3 QB rating, a significant improvement over his first two playoff runs. Those numbers should be encouraging to Colts fans, hoping this will be the week Luck puts it together against New England.


However, even with their slow start last week, the Patriots scored almost twice the average points the Ravens allowed per game this season. So Luck will have to be nearly perfect to go toe-to-toe with Brady and company. He has the skills; but is he ready for the next step? The odds say no, but my gut says yes.


Chuck Pagano’s (Purple And) Black Magic


Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was on staff in Baltimore from 2008-2011, when the Ravens first tasted success against the Patriots. The teams played four times during that span, all in Foxboro. And even though Pagano’s team went 1-3, they outscored the Patriots 94-87, held New England 25% below their season scoring average, and in 2010 they handed the Pats their first home playoff loss since 1978.


Baltimore had always been capable of stopping the run. But Pagano dramatically improved their secondary play and pass defense. In his first year, he transformed the Ravens: they went from 29th in the league to 2nd in yards allowed per pass, and from 24th to 1st in opponent QB rating. In other words, Pagano knows his stuff.


If Pagano channels his inner secondary coach and slows down the Patriots short passing game, he gives his team a great chance to win. It might seem backward to work on the pass, given the Patriots recent success running on the Colts (480 yards and 8 touchdowns in their last two meetings). But they have to start somewhere. And if he can’t figure out how to slow down Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski, stopping the run won’t do any good.


Time to pull out all the stops to get some stops, Chuck.


Rushing-Attempt Limbo: How Low Can You Go


If you think the Patriots 13 rushes for 14 yards were low last week, don’t be surprised if Indianapolis goes even lower on Sunday. The Patriots gave up on the run because they couldn’t gain any yards against the Ravens. The Colts might give up because they had no success in the November tilt with the Patriots, and because they are running out of healthy backs.


The Colts gained just 19 yards on 15 carries in 42-20 loss to New England, with 15 of those yards coming on Luck scrambles. And 13 of the 19 carries were by Ahmad Bradshaw (now on injured reserve) and Trent Richardson (a healthy scratch last Sunday). The team might have to activate Richardson, just to have someone to give back Dan Herron an occasional breather.


It’s possible Herron could spark the running game. The Patriots finished eighth in yards allowed per rush, but their linebacking corps is thin and better in pass coverage. But it would be more entertaining if the Colts got into a shootout and abandoned the run. That might give them a shot at breaking a week-old record: the Patriots’ 14 yards were the lowest total of any team to win a playoff game in NFL history.


Vinatieri Or Gostkowski?


Adam Vinatieri is a legend in New England. He played an integral part in all three Super Bowl wins, including getting them to the first one with two clutch kicks in the snow. He lifted weights with the linebackers, and he once chased down running back Herschel Walker from behind on a kickoff return. Vinatieri left the Patriots as the most accurate kicker in team history (81.9%) and with the undying admiration of a generation of fans.


Stephen Gostkowski came along to replace Vinatieri nine years ago. And now he is the most accurate kicker the Patriots have ever had, and third-best in NFL history (86.8%). His kickoffs go further than those in Vinatieri’s dreams, and he’s led the league in scoring four times, including the last three consecutive years.


So why do I think that if it comes down to one kick, a money kick for a trip to the Super Bowl, in sloppy conditions in Foxboro -- why does that sound like a tailor-made scenario for Vinatieri? Maybe because he is the all-time leader with 30 postseason games, the all-time playoff scoring leader with 233 points (lapping the field with 33% more than second-place), and the kicker with the most Super Bowl rings in history with four.


Gostkowski has been great, nearly everything you could ask in replacing a legend. But for all he’s accomplished, Gostkowski has a tendency to whiff at big moments. Just this past season, against Green Bay he had a 47-yarder to make it a 2-point game late in the fourth quarter. He missed it wide right.


With the game on the line, who would you rather have? The younger guy with the big leg and more impressive stats? Or the older guy with so many clutch kicks you can’t even remember them all?


Dome-field Disadvantage


Ye olde elephant in the room is the weather. The last time a warm-weather or dome team came to Foxboro and won a playoff game was the aforementioned loss in 1978 (trivia question: name the team, answer below.)


Since 1978, eleven such teams have flown to New England for the playoffs. All eleven came in full of fire, blustering about how the weather wouldn’t affect them, pointing out that both teams had to play in the same elements, and assuring their fans that they were built for that kind of weather. And all eleven flew home to dust off their golf clubs.


The latest Foxboro forecast is 35-degrees and a 90% chance of pouring rain at kickoff. No doubt it will affect both teams. But if history is any guide, playing outdoors in freezing rain favors the home team. Numbers don’t lie, and an 11-0 Patriots record makes a pretty compelling case.




The Patriots running game won’t dominate as it did the last two games. Run-stuffing defensive lineman Arthur Jones returns for this game, and that alone pretty much guarantees no 200+ yard performance on the ground. Also, Colts safety LaRon Landry returns to bolster the pass defense, after missing the regular-season contest in Indy.


On the other hand, the Patriots scored 35 points in the last three quarters against a much better Ravens defense last weekend. And weather notwithstanding, those eleven warm-weather/dome teams lost by an aggregate score of 278-138, an average of 25-12.5 per game. And the Colts themselves have lost three playoff games in Foxboro, by an average of 29-13.


History like that doesn’t foretell the future, but it should not be ignored. The Patriots won’t roll like they did in November. But they should get the W.


Enjoy the game!


PS. Trivia answer: the Houston Oilers beat the Patriots 31-14 in Foxboro on December 31, 1978.


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