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