NFL Playoff Preview: Indianapolis-New England

A rivalry that has defined the NFL for a younger generation of sports fans enters a new era on Saturday night, as the Indianapolis Colts visit the New England Patriots for a second-round game (8:15 PM ET, NBC). Here’s our Notebook Nine points of preparation, for the Indianapolis-New England divisional playoff battle…

    • *The Colts-Patriots rivalry is now entering its third phase. These teams were AFC East rivals under the old alignment that existed from 1970 to 2001. Ironically, it was after the realignment of 2002 that moved the Colts into the AFC South that things got heated, as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady defined football and seemed to play most every year, including AFC Championship Games in 2003 and 2006. Now Andrew Luck comes to Indy and begins the transformation into a new phase.
    • *New England is a solid seven-point favorite coming in. The Over/Under is 51, which equates to a 29-22 Patriot victory, at least according to the betting markets. Let’s tweak that number to make it a normal football score and say 28-21 Pats is the conventional wisdom on Saturday night.
    • *Indianapolis needs to get back in character. They won a wild first-round game over the Kansas City Chiefs by making a ton of mistakes early and then rallying with big plays late. But their strength is avoiding the bad play—turnovers and sacks–making it hard to blow them out. Luck is not a dominant quarterback, but he’s exceptionally poised in close late-game situations. The Patriots won’t collapse like the Chiefs did, but nor will they get a big lead–unless the Colts implode early again.
    • *New England has two good pass-rushing defensive ends in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, but as important as sacks, is going to be their ability to keep containment, especially in key third-down situations. Luck is adept at making the first pass-rusher miss, and if contain breaks down he can pick up crucial first downs. As much as you want to get sacks, the Patriots need to make sure Luck stays in the pocket and doesn’t have room to step up, be it to pass or run.
    • *Indianapolis can have success running the ball. Donald Brown had a nice game against the Chiefs, getting 55 yards on 11 carries, although the flow of the game didn’t make it practical to give him more touches. Presuming this game is more of a grind, it’s important that Brown pick up 75-80 yards on the ground and take some heat off of Luck. New England’s rush defense is the worst aspect of an otherwise pretty good unit, so the run will be there.
    • *I’m curious to see how Bill Belichick uses his best corner, Aqib Talib. The temptation would be to put him on T.Y. Hilton, clearly Indy’s best receiver. The problem is, Hilton is only Indy’s only consistent receiving threat and he lit up a lot of single coverage by Kansas City for over 200 yards. Does Belichick use lesser players to double-team Hilton and have Talib lock up someone else? It seems a waste to start the game putting your best corner on Hilton and still double-team, and after last week it seems imprudent to ever let Hilton see single coverage.

  • *The New England offense is now, believe it or not, ground oriented. They have middling rankings in both completion percentage and yards-per-pass, while being a Top 10 team in rush average, be it with Stevan Ridley or Shane Vereen. To me, this make the Patriots a tougher out, especially on a January night at home. We know Tom Brady can get the job done if it comes down to that. What we haven’t always known in the years since 2004 is whether New England can get physical.
  • *Problems at receiver and tight end have been what’s hindered the Patriot passing game. Rob Gronkowski is out, and it looks like Aaron Dobson will miss this game. That puts a lot of pressure on Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Vereen out of the backfield to get open without anyone to draw attention away from them. The reverse question though, is whether Indianapolis’ pass defense—mediocre all year and awful last week—can even match up with this group. It’s mediocrity on mediocrity in these battles. Does that give a default edge to New England, with Brady being the trump card?
  • *For our off-the-wall storyline, this is the football war between two cities best known for their passions in other sports—basketball in the Hoosier State and baseball in Red Sox Nation. And finally, Saturday’s telecast will be the final game for CBS analyst Dan Dierdorf. Nothing personal against Dierdorf, but this is almost as big a relief as Tim McCarver’s retirement was in baseball. Ironically, both Dierdorf and McCarver make their last effort at annoying audiences broadcasting a game in Boston.

I’m riding with an outright upset in this game. I see the Colts getting back into character, and the lack of explosiveness in the Patriot offense means this game probably ends up as a grind. If you get Luck the ball late in a game, trailing something like 17-13 or 21-17, I think he can deliver a game-winning drive. And I think his team can get him to that spot. If nothing else, grab Indy with the points and take the Under.