Eyes in the Backfield: Patriots

12 Things to Watch in Saturday's Colts-Patriots Game

Luck is not left handed!

Last week, the Colts shocked everyone by winning a game they were supposed to win, albeit in a way no one expected them to do it. This week, the playoffs continue as they travel to Foxboro, MA, to take on the New England Patriots. Here's what to watch for…

1. Watch the choice. The Patriots have the 27th-ranked run defense by DVOA. Throw in bad weather, a legendary opponent and underdog status, and it's all right there for Chuck Pagano. Does he stick with the no-huddle passing offense, or does he try and return to his roots. The Colts lack the ability to take full advantage of the Pats on the ground. Every carry given to Trent Richardson is a waste, and I'm not sure the most effective use of Brown is to pound him into the line 25 times. In other words, if the Colts are going to win, it's going to be with what got them this far in the first place. Pagano has to make a choice between what he knows works and what he believes works.

2. Watch the second option. The biggest thing holding the Colts back is the lack of a true second receiver. The Pats have been weak against number twos all season. They aren't great against number ones, but a lack of depth is glaring in the secondary now. Aquib Talib has been particularly brutal in the second-half of the season. Fans who wanted LaVon Brazill cut because of his off-season indiscretions should be mighty happy he's still on the roster. He has a chance to be the X-factor in this game. If the Colts can get him going, there are points to be scored on this defense.

3. Watch for the old Tom Brady. Remember when we used to call Brady a "game manager" and a "system quarterback"? Remember when it used to seem like he wasn't that good, but the Pats just kept winning? It's been a long time since we've seen that Brady, but 2013 Brady is basically the same guy as 2003 Brady. In '03, he completed 60.2% of his passes for 23 TD, 12 picks, a YPA of 6.9 and a passer rating of 85.9. This year? 60.5%, 25 TD, 11 INT, 6.9 YPA, 87.3 rating. Now, he did throw 100 more times than in 2003, but in most respects his game has regressed to where it was when he was a good quarterback with a great defense. Granted, that Tom Brady won three Super Bowl rings, but he doesn't have the defense to do it this time.

4. Watch for the excuses. "But…" says the Pats fan, "who does he have to throw to?" It's a fair but irrelevant question. I will grant you that Julian Edleman is the not the ideal number wide receiver for an NFL team. First of all, he misses all of the OTAs because he has to be in England to film episodes of Downton Abbey. For those that didn't see Season Four yet, he plays Mr. Migglesworth the fancy village smithy who struggles with the changing times and his "complicated" relationship with Thomas, the gay footman. Obviously, that makes it difficult for him to build chemistry with Brady. He also fumbled six times this year, but is one of America's finest actors, so we'll give him a pass.

5. Watch the false comparisons. Luck is going into to New England for a playoff game, and he just might be on the winning side. If it happens, people will inevitably talk about how Peyton fared there. They'll put stats up side by side. Don't buy into it. The Patriots Manning played were among the greatest defenses to ever take the field. He played them in 2003 and 2004, in the middle of three Super Bowls in four years. They were ranked second and seventh by DVOA those years. This Pats team is ranked 21st. The old grey mare and what not. The old Brady-Manning games were slugfests and Manning had to play one handed with out a defense. This game is about offenses, and statistically Luck has the better defense on his side. Beating the Pats would be a huge accomplishment for Luck, but it would be nowhere near as amazing as beating the early-2000s Pats in New England would have been.

6. Watch for left-handed play. Belichick will take something away from Luck and force him to play without it. We can only assume that something is T.Y. Hilton, because honestly, what else is there worth taking? The onus is on Pep Hamilton to find ways to get Hilton free, but in the mean time, Coby Fleener and Donald Brown will have to make plays. Hilton could put up another 100-yard game, but I wouldn't count on it.

7. Watch the run. So now it has finally come down to it. Stopping the run matters. No one is scared of a running back who gained less than 800 yards, but I think everyone would freak over facing one that ran for over 1,500 with 14 touchdowns. Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount combined for 331 carries and some gaudy numbers despite the fact that neither one of them hit 180 carries on the season. If there is a bright spot, they fumbled seven times between them.

8. Watch for nothing to say about that. Indianapolis has a defense. It is a statistically average defense. It gave up 44 points to Alex Smith last week, marking the third time it has surrendered 40+ points in a game this season. All told, the Indy D has allowed at least 28 points six times. It has allowed two touchdowns or less six times, including twice against playoff-caliber opponents. Sometimes it's awesome. Sometimes it's terrible. Honestly, I'm out of explanations. All I can say with certainty about the Colts is that they have a unit that is labeled defense, and that said unit plays in games.

9. Watch for the defining moment. Andrew Luck's heroics against Kansas City started the clock. There's a hype clock around every hot young quarterback. Luck's has been ticking at a normal rate to this point, but there comes a moment when the hands start spinning faster. Ask Peyton Manning. Ask Matt Ryan. It's already moving pretty fast for Colin Kaepernick. The hype determines how soon a young passer has before everyone turns on him. The modern sports media requires a linear progression that continue unabated to a championship.  If a guy deviates from the preordained path, it's only because of some internal deficiency. Luck won his first playoff game. He now has two years to win a Super Bowl before they start to grumble about him. If he beats the Patriots on the road, however, he'll grind that clock down to a half. Skipping scenes in the media script buys players time. If Luck takes the Colts to the AFC Championship game as a second-year player, it probably says more about the state of the AFC than anything, but it will define him as a "winner" for the next four years. If the Colts lose, that clock just keeps right on ticking.

10. Watch the bait. I worry about Da'Rick Rogers role in this game. Belichick has seen the tape. He knows Rogers can't run clean routes. I suspect he has his corners prepped to undercut his routes and force turnovers. Yes, Rogers can take any play to the house, but a smart DB can turn him into a liability. Every time he runs a route, I fear it's an interception waiting to happen. Luck has to be sure Rogers is wide open before going his way.

11. Watch for the wire. New England has played 11 games decided by seven points or less. They blew out the Bills, Ravens, Steelers and Bucs. Weirdly enough, until the Chiefs win, Indy hadn't really played a close game in the previous month. The second-half of the season featured a couple of tight wins over the Titans, but most weeks were blowouts one way or the other. There are the "good Colts" and the "bad Colts", and save a couple of comebacks, we know pretty early which one we are getting. The Pats though? They aren't going to run over anyone. This game will be close.

12. Watch for waffles. I can't make a call on this game. Every time I get asked to pick it, the spread gets tighter. I think I picked the Pats by six yesterday. I recognize that's still the most likely thing to happen, and if you put a gun to my head, I'd say Pats by four. Still, right now there's no gun to my head, just a disaffected hound dog laying by chair. Given the lack of bodily harm due me for taking the Colts, I'm going to. Colts 24 Patriots 21

Eyes In the Backfield: Patriots

12 Things to Watch for in Sunday's Colts-Patriots Game

This Sunday's matchup has that kind of feel about it.

The Colts have now ripped off two wins since we last met for Eyes. Now they return to New England to take on Tom Brady and the Patriots. The War of 1812 is over, and now we begin a new era of the once great rivalry. This week, be on the watch for…

1. Watch for the air show. The Colts and Patriots have two of the worst defenses in football and two of the biggest-name marquee quarterbacks in the game. Even if you are just a casual fan, you want to see Tom Brady play Andrew Luck. Some of my favorite NFL memories are watching a young Peyton Manning square off against Dan Marino in 1998 and 1999. It's rare you get to see a can't-miss legend-to-be play one of the recognized top 10 quarterbacks of all time. Enjoy this. We all hate Brady, but try to see past the old grudges and take it in, being thankful that your quarterback is still goofy, super-smart and relatable as opposed to an Ugg-wearing super-douche. Ok, so maybe the hate won't die so easily…

 

2. Watch for the Patriots run game. I can't believe I'm saying that after all of these years. The Patriots tout the league's best offense in no small part due to the effectiveness on the ground. They are averaging almost 150 yards per game rushing, good enough for 5th in the NFL. As much as the Colts need to fear the aerial assault Mr. Bundchen will inevitably employee the Colts need to find a way to slow down the Patriots running backs.

3. Watch the middle. Rob Gronkowski makes the Pats offense go, and Indy is 30th in DVOA against tight ends. Moise Fokou has been solid in coverage, but most of the Colts' linebackers really struggle.  They are going to have to shut down the throws up the seam if they have any hope of holding the New England offense under 30.

4. Watch the injury reports. Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez and wide receiver Wes Welker both have missed time this week and aren't certain to play Sunday. While it would be a surprise if they didn't play, their absence certainly changes the dynamic for the Patriots offense. Overall the Patriots are much deeper but also much more banged-up than the Colts. The injury report could be one of the big factors in Sunday's matchup.

5. Watch for vengeance. Darius Butler spent his first two years in New England getting owned by Tom Brady in practice. After being cut after those two years, you can bet that Butler wants to take out some anger on Brady and Bill Belichick. The question is, can he do it? Getting a few turnovers against Blaine Gabbert and the Jaguars' joke of a receiving core is very different from getting even one from a Brady-led offense. 

6. Watch for the Children's Crusade. 1812 is done, but 1212 is famous for the supposed invasion of the Holy Land by bands of children. That more or less sums up the state of the Colts offense right now. With so many young guys who have never been to Foxboro, let's hope that this expedition ends better than that one.

7. Watch the rookie. The Pats' pass defense is average against #1 wideouts, amazing against #2s, but last in the NFL against third and fourth wideouts. Look for a huge game from T.Y. Hilton. He's been getting better each week, and the Colts need a near 100-yard effort out of him if they are going to score enough to keep up with the Pats.

8. Watch for a renewed rivalry. Will the fans in Beantown hate Andrew Luck they way they hated Peyton Manning? Will Fitzy go on a rampage?  While we know that Tom Brady's football career is slowly fading into his modeling career it wouldn't be a shock if these two powerhouses rekindled the spark and made this one of the season's most watchable games. A competitive game would go a long way in restoring what is one of the great sports rivalries. Let's hope they somehow find a way to put the punch back in this slugfest.

9. Watch the end of a legacy. The Colts and Patriots have played every year since 2003, and before that they played twice a year as far back as the NFL merger in 1970 (with the exception of the 1982 strike season). Barring something unforseen, these two teams won't play in 2013. The Colts would have to win the South or the Pats would have to lose the East and that's probably not going to happen. All good things must come to an end, and the Colts Pats will be put on hold, at least for the time being.

10. Watch the spike-off. Gronkowski is famous for a lot of things, but one thing he's famous for on the football field is his emphatic spikes after touchdowns. Last week Andrew Luck pulled out a little Gronk-like spike after a five-yard touchdown run. Who's going to get to add to his total today, and, more importantly, who's spikes will be more impressive? 

11. Watch for a surprise. Tom Brady has faced the same defense in Indianapolis every single year since the start of his career. The Colts, prior to the new front office, basically ran the same set of coverages for the past decade. But this year, the Colts have, as Football Outsiders put it, "no traceable tendencies." In years past, everybody knew exactly what the Colts would be doing, to some extent. This year, Greg Manusky just seems to roll a couple of dice to choose what kind of coverages they're going to run, thus freeing up his mind for more important things.

12. Watch for a bump in the road. I want to take the Colts in this game. Honest I do. A win over New England would be almost as great an achievement as winnging a playoff game, and would signal that perhaps the Colts have a little substance to go with the smoke and mirrors. As much as I wish I could, I can't pull the trigger on a prediction here. New England's offense is too good. Indy puts up a good fight, but falls. Patriots 42 Colts 31.

Eyes is the joint product of Kyle Rodriguez, Todd Smith and Nate Dunlevy.

Eyes in the Backfield-Patriots

Six Things to Watch for in Sunday’s Colts Patriots Game

Who is this man and why is his picture here today? Guess right in the comments section and win a prize.

Last week, Curtis Painter ruined our day. This week, the Colts turn to Dan Orlovsky to face the mighty Patriots. Well, you pretty much know where this is going. Let’s get down to business, be on the lookout for…

1. Watch the Dan Orlovsky era. Do I laugh or cry as I type those words? As a reader pointed out, Orlvosky’s advanced metrics in 2008 for the 0-16 Lions were vastly superior to Painter’s this year. Their raw numbers were pretty identical. No matter how Orlovsky plays this week, just remember that people were over the moon about Painter for about five minutes too. I hope he plays amazing and throws for a bazzilion yards. Just don’t get too excited about anything he does. Remember Painter for a half against Kansas City. Anyone can look good for a little while.

 

2. Watch the what if. As bad as the Colts defense has been this year, one has to wonder if it wouldn’t be any worse than the Patriots D if Manning was healthy. The Pats defense is in the bottom 10 in the league in DVOA, but is 11th in the NFL in points, thanks in part to help from one of the NFL’s best offenses. The Patriots have an extremely shaky pass defense, but are still contenders in a watered down AFC. This is the year to have a weak defense in the AFC, as none of the top contenders have great passing games except for New England. Sigh.

 

3. Watch for 15 yards a pop. Gronkowski leads the league in DYAR and is third in DVOA and is having a massive season for the Pats. He’s averaging nearly 15 yards a catch and has a catch rate over 70%. Essentially, he’s dominating football. The Colts are 24th in football against Tight Ends. So you know…do the math.

4. Watch alternative programming. If you don’t have NFL Redzone, you’ll be needing something else to watch in the second half of the game. NBC is airing the Winter Swimming National Championships. Or something. Telemundo is showing The Pacifier, presumably dubbed in Spanish. That’ll be a hoot. Some reruns of Scrubs are on Comedy Central. I think it’s the one where J.D. gets holy hell beat out of him by some pretty boy Elliot is dating. Oh wait, that’s on CBS. Never mind.

5. Watch for rubbing it in. Belichick’s comments were weird this week. He’s proud of going 11-5 without Brady but still thinks Brady is the best? Sorry man, doesn’t work that way. He hates the Colts so he’s going to pour it on. He wants every point he can get. He saw what the Saints did to Indy, and he wants more. I think he gets it too.

6. Watch for not watching. I’ll be traveling during the game. I had originally scheduled a speaking engagement for Sunday morning, thinking it was a night game. Mercifully, the country and I have both been spared having to watch this game. It’s a good thing. I hate the sight of blood. Especially Blue Blood. Pats 65 Colts 7. (Yes, I’m serious).

Eyes in the Backfield-Patriots

18 Things to Watch During Sunday’s Patriots-Colts Game

It’s a historic duel and a Patriot is going down.

Last week, the banged up Colts rode their defense to a win over the Bengals.  Now, it’s finally here: the yearly show-down between the two most dominant teams in the NFL over the past 10 years.  It’s Colts/Pats week.  You and everyone else in the world will be watching.  Here’s what to keep an eye on:

1.  Watch the tipping pointWe pointed out that Pierre Garcon is having a rough season, but if there was ever a week where he would turn it around it would be this one.  The Patriots secondary is as bad as advertised, and despite wishful thinking from Pats fans, there aren’t many signs it’s turning around.  New England is horrible against #2 WRs (30th in the NFL), and Garcon should have room to run.  His time is now.  It’s been a brutal season, but watch for Garcon to post huge numbers and get things moving forward.  If he can’t do it this Sunday, it’s a terrible sign for his future.

2.  Watch the injury report.  Let’s face it, we don’t like having to lean on the injury card so heavily, but the Colts are a different team with Austin Collie on the field than with Gijon Robinson or Brandon James running routes.  Guys like Eldrige, Tamme, and Addai would transform this offense from moribund to elite.  This game is notoriously difficult to handicap, and with so many important players up in the air, the pregame active list might just tell you who is going to win.

3.  Watch for Brady’s bookends.  The Patriots have a pair of rookie tight ends in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski who are playing like anything but first year players. Hernandez has become a go-to target for Tom Brady, compiling 34 catches for 436 yards, both second best on the team.  And Brady clearly trusts them both in the red zone.  Gronkowski racked up three scores in last week’s demolition of the Steelers and combined the two have caught eight of Brady’s 17 touchdown passes. With Gary Brackett hurting, it might fall to Pat Angerer to excel in coverage.

4.  Watch for Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. I don’t really care for Green-Ellis.  First off, he has a long name and it’s much harder to type than say Fred Taylor.  On the field he’s not much to write home about either. He has 472 yards rushing through nine games and a whopping six catches for 53 yards.  However, he averages 4.2 yards a run to go along with six touchdowns.  He may not be flashy or make his way to the weekly highlight reel, but he’s one of the gears that keeps the Patriots offense moving.  The Colts will seek to make the Pats one dimensional, so containing the law firm is a priority.

5.  Watch the homecoming.  The Colts kicker proved he’s still got it, winning the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week after knocking down three field goals last week including a 47 yarder.  It’s obvious without Vinatieri the Patriots might not have any Super Bowl wins, let alone three.  If this weekend’s game comes down to a late field goal, I’m feeling pretty good that Vinatieri is on our side and looking like he’s back to form.  Meanwhile, the Patriots, who haven’t had a big kick missed in roughly a decade (seriously), are going with Shayne Graham in an effort to corner the market on guys with weenie names.

6. Watch the pressure.  Tom Brady played one of his best games ever last week.  He sat back in a rocking chair, spreading the ball around like it was 2007.  Tom Brady simply cannot be allowed to have 4-5 seconds to throw the ball in a clean pocket.  The Colts are still relying on Freeney and Mathis to bring the heat, and the two have combined for 13.5 sacks and 5 forced fumbles.  They don’t necessarily have to get to Brady, but they have to get close.  If Brady stands in the pocket untouched, the Colts will not win the game. 

7.  Watch the advantage.  Once upon a time, Pats fans held up signs during Colts games that said “You can’t win here”.  The Colts answered with road wins both in 2005 and 2006, but it’s been a while since they’ve been to Foxboro.  In a close game, homefield advantage can provide that extra penalty, that extra hesitation from a lineman, that extra something to push the Patriots over the top.  Oh, there’s this little matter of Tom Brady having not lost in 24 consecutive home starts (regular season).  A win on Sunday would push him ahead of Brett Favre for the longest such streak ever.  The last loss for Brady at home came the week after the Colts whipped him in ’06.  Unless of course you count that little playoff debacle last year…

8. Watch the weather.  The forcast is for cool and clear weather between 35-45 degrees.  That would be ideal for the Colts.  The one factor to watch for is wind.  A windy day could actually work against both clubs, but especially the Colts.  One of my worst memories is sitting in the airport in Miami in January 2005. The Colts/Pats game came on TV and the screen was filled with snow.  I knew then what would happen.  It was a long sad plane ride back to Argentina.

9.  Watch the changes.  The insertion of Jeff Linkenbach into the offensive line last week did not produce good results.  Linkenbach was a mess in pass protection, and the Colts’ offense struggled.  Caldwell claimed that Pollack was benched for consistency, but I saw nothing from Linkenbach last week to indicate he should be starting at guard.  Watch to see if the Colts don’t switch back to Pollak this week.  The Pats have a middle of the pack sack percentage, so the Indy line ought to be able to hold them without more than one sack this week. 

10.  Watch for the homeless man standing on the sideline. Oh wait, that’s not a homeless man, that’s Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.  Am I the only one who thinks that he looks like a bum on the sideline? Standing there with his cut up hoodie, warm up pants, and that stupid ear warmer thing, it all makes him look like he lives under a bridge. I’m fairly certain he has a shiv made out of an old tin can, and he will stick you for your blanket.  If you talk to him, you get an incoherent string of grunts and half answers that scarcely make sense.  Listen, Bill, you are a very successful coach who clearly knows his craft, but would it kill you to maybe wear a nice shirt once in a while?  You dress like a blogger.

11. Watch the overreaction.  While this game does matter greatly as far as this season goes, it doesn’t go very far in determining who the greater of the two quarterbacks are.  Invariably, the winner will be called the greatest, and the loser will be garbage…until they play again.  Listen, win or lose Sunday, Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback of this generation, and on par with the greatest ever.  Tom Brady is the second greatest, and a top 10 or so all time QB.  This one game doesn’t settle anything except which guy has the better (or just healthier) team in 2010.

12.  Watch the strategy.  The single biggest advantage the Pats have over every team in football is their coach.  Belichick’s famous ‘4th and 2′ call last year didn’t pay off, but it was the right call, and the Pats were an inch from converting to win that game.  The Colts continue to punt from ridiculous spots (three punts from inside the 40 this year!), and the Pats will continue to convert on fourth and short.  Belichick may not be a nice guy, but he’s a brilliant coach, and I wish Caldwell would notes on when to go for it from him.

13. Watch who’s not there.  I get that Randy Moss is gone, but I want to mention one thing about him.  The Colts and Pats played three times in the Moss era, with Indy taking two of the three games.  They were separated by 4, 3, and 1 points for a net of zero. In those three games, Randy Moss had 24 catches for 389 yards and 3 scores.  There’s a reason Colts’ fans feared Moss and not Brady.  He single-handedly beat Indy in 2007, and almost did it again in 2009.  Not having to play him changes the tenor of this matchup.

14.  Watch a huge advantage.  The Patriots have a top 10 special teams unit, while the Colts rank in the bottom five.  The big difference is in kickoffs where the Colts feature the 2nd worst kick return game and the Pats have the third best.  On a cold day, it will be hard for McAfee to get touchbacks, so the Colts decimated special teams squad is going to have to work extra hard to cover kicks. The Patriots have often burned Indy with huge run backs.  A big special teams advantage could well swing the game.

15.  Watch for confusion.  I hate picking on Phil Simms, because he loves him some Peyton, but after his debacle in the booth during the Philly game, I’m already preemptively cringing.  Simms has trouble understanding replay.  He rarely adds anything insightful, and mostly just mutters wistfully about how much better Brady and Manning are than he was.  Actually that last part is generally amusing.  The odds are this will be a barnburner, so do yourself a favor and turn on Lamey.  Games like this are what Hockey Bob was born for.  He’s our own personal Gus Johnson every week, only in a good way.

16. Watch for shrinkage.  Wes Welker’s knee injury and the loss of Randy Moss has turned him into one of the least effective receivers in football.  He’s averaging just 8.5 yards a catch and has a negative DVOA for the season.  The Pats simply don’t have anyone to open up the underneath routes, and Welker is catching the brunt of the attention of opposing defenses.  Welker has had 21 catches against the Colts for the Pats, but only at about 8 yards a catch. Without Moss to open things up for him, watch for that number to drop even more on Sunday.

17. Watch for definition.  You can’t get around the fact that the winner of this game will likely host the loser in the playoffs.  The winner of this game has gone to the Super Bowl 6 of 9 seasons and 5 of the past 7.  Close or not, the odds are very good that the loser won’t win the Super Bowl.  I know that sounds crazy, but I believe it.  A loss probably says more about the Pats than it does about a banged up Colts squad, but a loss also hurts the Colts a lot worse. One team is going to be very unhappy on Monday morning, because they are likely facing a long offseason.

18.  Watch for the miracle.  I like to be right.  I hate being wrong.  Everything in me says the Colts won’t have enough bodies to win this game.  I should pick the Pats by 20.  I’m not going to. The more I look at this game, the more I like Indy. Peyton finds a way.  16-14 Colts.

Thanks to Nick Pease for his work on numbers 3-5 and 10.

Eyes in the Backfield-Patriots (full)

18 Things to Watch for during Sunday’s Colts/Pats Game

The War of 1812 will never be forgotten.

Last week, the Colts skated by the Texans in a huge game.  This week, it’s the Pats.  It needs no further introduction.  If the Colts win, they can coast to the number one overall seed, and the Pats will almost assuredly be playing the opening week of the playoffs.  If the Pats win, their hopes of a bye stay alive, and the Colts will have to keep it in high gear through the end of December.  This week, be on the lookout for:

1.  Watch the Legends.  Let’s get this out of the way first.  Manning, Brady.  Brady, Manning. Tom Manning Peyton Brady. Pem. Toy.  Ingdy.  Dying  Branning. Manbra.  There’s no settling this now, no matter what happens this week.  Let’s move along, shall we?

2.  Watch the Legends try to stay upright.  This is the real issue.  The Colts and Pats are 1 and 2 in adjusted sack percentage.  The Colts have a better rush, but their O line has started to show serious cracks (5 sacks the last two weeks).  Manning and Brady will be looking deep in this game, and the QB who has more time to throw will make the big plays.  Andrea Kramer will snugging up next to one of them after the game, but which one depends on which team protects their QB better.

3.  Watch Welker verses Lacey. This may be the biggest mismatch on the field in favor of the Patriots.  Lacey will be playing zone, so Welker will get his catches.  The key is if Lacey can have tight enough coverage to bring him down quickly after the catch.  This is the biggest test of the young corner’s life, and because Kelvin Hayden isn’t walking through the door this week, he has to pass it for the Colts to win.

4.  Watch for courage.  Belichick is the master of going for it on fourth and short.  Last year, he inexplicably kicked a field goal on fourth and 1 from the 7.  The Pats lost by three.  This season Jim Caldwell has been a mixed bag.  Last week he punted in the ‘maroon zone’ twice and it almost cost the Colts. The team that plays more aggressively and converts fourth downs will have a major advantage.

5.  Watch Charlie Johnson. Early in the year he was solid, but all our fears have been coming true in recent weeks.  He’s been dicey in run blocking all season, and last week gave up two sacks.  A site that analyzes every player on every play recently rated him as the worst offensive player for the ColtsCJ first burst into our consciousness with one of the worst fourth quarters in history against the Pats.  His play will be watched closely this Sunday. If he can’t keep Manning clean, panic will start to set in among Colts fans.

6.  Watch for the record.  Freeney needs a sack in Sunday’s game to tie the NFL record for consecutive games with a sack.  Moreover, a big game (2+ sacks and/or forced fumble) will vault Freeney into the discussion for defensive player of the year.  93 always plays big in the biggest games, so you can expect to see him in the Patriots backfield often on Sunday night.

7. Watch for the big play.   Don Brown is back (this time I mean it!).  While the Addai v Brown debate has burned up the internet, the truth is the Colts have missed Brown.  Addai isn’t an every down back, and Colts don’t want him to be one.  Brown’s return adds a dash of danger that can only serve to help the Colts.  His blocking isn’t good enough yet for him to be on the field for more than 30-40% of the plays, but when he’s there, it helps.  It helps to change up backs in the red zone when the lead back gets run down from the first 60 yards of the drive.  The Pats are a better run defense than pass D, so the Colts will need Brown’s best effort.

8.  Watch Clark verses whoever Belichick decides to play on him. One of the big mysteries will be how the Pats choose to contain Dallas Clark.  Belichick has been inventive in the past with mixed results.  It’s possible that one of the safeties like Brandon McGowan will have to come down to cover him, which could open things up deep. If the Pats can’t contain Clark, especially on third down, the Colts won’t have trouble moving the ball.

9.  Watch for a lack of respect.  Not from the teams and the players, but from the fans.  There is a weird vibe to this game.  Both team’s fan bases are fairly confident the other team isn’t actually any good.  Usually when the two teams play, the fans are nervous.  Not so much this year.  Both sides view the other as a paper tiger.  Someone is about to be proved wrong in a big way.

10. Watch Marooney.  The Colts defense has had success this year by making teams one dimensional.  The Pats will try to establish a rejuvenated Lawrence Marooney on the ground.  Marooney has had success in recent weeks, upping his YPC over four yards a carry.  The Colts have become a credible run D, with a DVOA below zero (which is good on defense).  If they can get the Pats to waste plays on the ground, it will go along way to holding down their offense.

11.  Watch for the long field. The Colts and Pats have two of the best kick coverage units in the game.  They also field below average kick return units.  While a big return can breakout at any time, these two offenses are likely to be starting around the 20 all night.  The Colts and Pats force the most plays per point on defense anyway, so expect long grinding drives with lots of key third downs.  This likely won’t be a track meet.

12.  Watch the red zone. The Colts offense has struggled inside of the opponents 30 in the last few weeks.  Though Donald Brown’s return should help, the Pats field the best power run defense in the NFL (per FO).  With the way Indy has struggled in short yardage recently (despite a nice start to the year), the Colts should be looking to throw even in close on third and 1.  This could also hurt Indy if they are trying to run out the clock late in the game.  The Colts have not been successful in two of three opportunities to do so this year (Houston and Jacksonville).   For the Pats, they have Randy Moss, the best redzone weapon of all time.  Just throw a lob up about 8 feet high and let him jump for it.

13.  Watch for a scuffle in the studio.  Tony Dungy will be politely diagramming a play from the epic Chiefs/Raiders tilt (throw out the records when those two get together!  Actually, save yourself the trouble and throw out the teams).  Suddenly, Rodney Harrison, over-emotional from the thought of not being on the field for the monster game and crazy with roid rage will lash out, throwing a elbow to the jaw of the venerable ex-coach.  An enraged Dungy will spring to his feet and announce, “In the words of Dr. King, I have a dream…of kicking your ASS!”  Dungy then decks Harrison and begins to let out all his pent up hostility toward Keith Olbermann.  Meanwhile, Costas curls up into a ball and weeps softly.  Hey, it could happen.  Colts/Pats will drive you crazy.

14.  Watch for the one clear advantage.  If there is one area that the Pats have huge leg up on Indy, it’s in place kicking.  Gostkowski has become one of the best kickers in the league, and the Colts have Matt Stover.  Stover has hit all his kicks, but his range is limited.  These games are always tight, and could come down to a field goal late in the half or game.  The Colts will need to get an extra 5-10 yards more than the Pats in those situations (unless they let McAfee kick from long distance).  Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

15.  Watch the implications. For the Colts, a win keeps them two games clear of the Bengals/Steelers (and probably Denver) in the race for the #1 seed.  A loss could really tighten things up if the Steelers (who have 1 in conference loss) win.  The Steelers would automatically win any tiebreaker over the Colts at the end of the year because one of their losses was to an NFC team, and the Colts already finished inter-conference play at 4-0.  For the Pats, a win not only keeps them alive for the first overall seed, but a loss would throw them back into the scrum, and increase the odds they will play wildcard weekend.  It would also put them (potentially) just one game ahead of the Jets with one game left to play with them.  The Jets already beat the Pats, so not even a division title would be assured.  The key game for both teams is the Pittsburgh game.  If the Steelers go to 7-2, the pressure mounts for both clubs to win.

16.  Watch the handshake.  Two years ago, Belchick gave Dungy a frosty greeting at midfield telling him to “F**k off”.  He’s never been known for his sportsmanship, so if the Pats lose the game it will be interesting to see how he greets Jim Caldwell.  Likewise, the media always loves the Brady Manning hand shake moment.  The look of frustration on the loser’s face is always precious to the other side.

17.  Watch for empty pockets.  Prices for Colts/Pats tickets on ebay and Stubhub are down.   In years past, selling four Colts/Pats tickets could pay for three or four weeks of games.  Now they running at about double face.  The stands will be full, but most people there are feeling the crunch, and fewer people are willing to fly into town just for a regular season game.  Considering what a big game this is, it’s a bad sign tickets aren’t going for more.

18.  Watch for iron grip.  The Colts defense is better than people realize.  The Pats will struggle to protect Brady and have to settle for field goals over touchdowns.  DZ thinks Indy will snake out a 21-18 win.  Demond says 24-20, Colts.

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