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What to Watch For: Patriots vs. Colts

Friday, January 10, 2014

 

It's a familiar place for these New England Patriots...the playoffs. But considering the road traveled this year to reach the post-season, it's anyone's guess how long they might stick around.

Sure, it's a goal every season. Reaching the playoffs is a benchwater mark, a measuring stick of success for just about every team in every league...in every sport. In Foxboro and throughout New England, however, the post-season has seemingly become a birthright - an annual expectation of a franchise and an organization that not only expects as much from itself, but then delivers those expectations.

This season, however, has been different. Yes, the team finished 12-4 and won a 5th straight AFC East Division title...but they did so while overcoming injuries to several key players. Games have been played close, games have seen big comebacks, games have had big squanders. It's been difficult to get a true read on this Patriots team - except for one simple fact.

They continue to win.

The Indianapolis Colts bring a division title of their own, a capable offense with a superstar-to-be at QB, and huge momentum into Gillette Stadium. Trailing the Kansas City Chiefs by 28 points in the second half of their Wild Card game last weekend, and coming back to win 45-44, there's certainly no hole they feel they can't climb out from. Once upon a time, Patriots-Colts was one of the NFL's best rivalries, when the Colts played in the AFC East along with New England...and when Tom Brady and Peyton Manning went head-to-head twice a year in the formative years of their careers.

Now, Andrew Luck will try to put himself in the middle of this one-time rivalry with a team that surely feels like they have more than just "Luck" on its side. There's no Reggie Wayne to throw to, but T.Y. Hilton is a tough target to defend. The Patriots do have recent history on their side, with a 59-24 beatdown of Luck and the Colts last year in Foxboro to go on, plus an 11-6 overall mark against Indy since Bill Belichick has been head coach. The 2007 AFC title playoff loss in Indianapolis seems a mere blip on the radar.

So the Colts have momentum, playmakers, a coach in Chuck Pagano who has orchestrated successful gameplans against the Pats in the past (as a defensive coordinator for Baltimore) and the ever present Luck. But for the Patriots, playing in the postseason is the rule rather than the exception. And based on the body of work this season, overcoming numerous injuries and the fact there's been no real dominant team to play in the AFC, who's to say they can't stick around for a little while this year?

Run, run and run some more

The numbers might say "pass." But for TB12 and the Patriots to be truly effective against the Indy defense, setting up the pass with the run might be the way to go. One, you've found a work horse in LeGarrette Blount that might be able to carry you. Two, weather is expected to be a factor against this week, with rain a distinct possibility...and Blount was nearly impossible to tackle in the rain and cold two weeks ago against Buffalo. Three, running effectively lessens the chance for DE Robert Mathis to wreak his havoc on the Pats' O-line and on Brady, in particular. Oh, and ball control keeps the ball out of Andrew Luck's hands, too.

Stay at the Hilton

T.Y. Hilton caught 13 of Luck's passes for 244 yards in last week's thriller over the Chiefs, so you know he'll be a marked man. While Aqib Talib has frequently been called upon to stick with the opposing team's top receiver, you can expect the two to make acquaintances this week. However, it might not be an exclusive relationship. TE Coby Fleener is effective as a receiver, and because the Patriots could be vulnerable in the middle, don't be surprised to see Talib checking out of the Hilton once in awhile...and checking in with Fleener.

Kick to the finish line

If this game comes down to kicks, it's tough to pick a winner. Adam Vinatieri certainly has plenty of big, memorable kicks to his credit from his career in NE, and he still seems more than capable in the clutch for the Colts. He missed just five of his 40 kicks this year. Stephen Gostkowski has been as close to automatic as it comes this season in the NFL, missing just three field goal attempts, and with a little extra range in his leg, he rates a slight edge in this department over Vinatieri. If either team needs a kick to close it, both are more than capable of providing it.

Projection:

Patriots 30, Colts 23

Follow John on Twitter: @JRBroadcaster

 

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