Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots: AFC Championship Preview & Predictions
By: Dakota Arturo
Most self-proclaimed “experts” seem set on the results of Sunday’s games. Whichever media source you browse, whether NFL, PFF, SI, or ESPN, has concluded the same thing; a Super Bowl matchup between the #1 seeds, New England and Seattle, is in the books. Vegas’ odds going into Sunday strongly favor the Patriots (-7) and Seahawks (-7.5), remarkably large lines for Championship weekend. Yet I find myself baffled that the sports world can so confidently overlook the impact star QB’s have on playoff games. New England and Seattle may be heavy favorites on Sunday, but the thought of Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers both losing by multiple possession deficits is ludicrous.
It’s easy for one to chalk this game up as a Patriots win. The last time these two teams matched up, back in Week 11, one-game wonder RB Jonas Gray ran for 201 yards and 4 TD’s en route to a 42-20 Patriots victory. Tom Brady headlines a New England team that features one of their better defenses in recent memory. CB’s Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner lead a secondary that statistically ranks as their best since at least 2009.
Still, the 9 weeks that passed since that Week 11 matchup have changed the look of both of these teams. Indy’s run defense, while still shaky, held Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill to 53 yards on 16 carries on Wild Card weekend, while holding a strong Broncos rushing attack to under 100 yards. Patriots rookie C Bryan Stork has been ruled out with a knee injury, so chances are that Indy isn’t surrendering 200+ yards on the ground again. That game also saw the Colts rushing attack flounder, totaling just 19 yards on 16 carries. RB Trent Richardson alone had 6 rushed for a whopping 0 yards. The run game has changed quite a bit since then. RB Ahmad Bradshaw saw his last action in that game, and Trent Richardson (who didn’t even travel with the team this week) has been completely phased out of the offense. RB Boom Herron has found his niche in the starting lineup, and should make New England moderately respect the rushing attack. Indy’s passing game has also morphed over the past 9 weeks. WR Reggie Wayne, who was the Colts’ 2nd leading receiver in Week 11, has seen his workload cut at the expense of WR Hakeem Nicks and the surging rookie WR Donte Moncrief. If the point hasn’t been made, it’s this: these two teams matchup quite differently than they did in Week 11.
Speaking of Week 11, it should be noted that New England only sacked Andrew Luck once in that game. Even with the return of DE Chandler Jones, this Patriots team has struggled to put pressure on the QB (evident by the absence of a sack last week against a banged up Baltimore line). New England may boast a fine secondary, but a lack of pressure on Luck spells trouble for the Pats. New England’s 62 pass plays of 20+ yards surrendered on the season ranks 3rd worst in football behind only Philadelphia and Chicago. On the other side of the ball, Andrew Luck ranks 1st in that exact category with 78 completions of 20+ yards (Peyton Manning w/ 67 ranks 2nd). If Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and New England’s iffy front seven fail to pressure Andrew Luck, expect a big day from the likes of TY Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Coby Fleener, Dwyane Allen, and others.
Indianapolis may have a favorable offensive matchup, but couldn’t the same be said about Tom Brady and the Patriots? Sure, one could make that case. The star power of TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Julian Edelman to go along with WR Danny Amendola’s resurgence last week (5-81-2) could be too much to stop. On the other hand, New England’s offensive strengths may play into the hands of Indianapolis. Last week, the Colts forced Peyton Manning to throw the ball downfield by eliminating all short and intermediate passing lanes. Denver was forced to abandon their up-tempo, quick pass offense in favor of a riskier one. I’d expect the Patriots to face a similar defensive gameplan on Sunday. If New England’s rushing attack fails to get going (combined 13 carries for 14 yards last week), Indy will force Bill Belichick’s hand. Tom Brady may be the best playoff QB in NFL history, but the truth is he’s been without a consistent deep threat since the days of Randy Moss. Look for Indy to leave star CB Vontae Davis in single coverage on numerous occasions, while blitzing Tom Brady heavily or shutting down his famed short outs/slants.
Finally, one must not overlook the importance of special teams in strong playoff matchups such as this one. K Stephen Gostkowski has been one of the NFL’s most consistent kickers since breaking into the league in 2006, but the man he replaced may be the greatest playoff kicker in NFL history. Since Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard game-winning FG in Super Bowl XXXVI, he has made 44 of 51 postseason kicks (86.3%). At the tender age of 42 Vinatieri is still at his best, converting 30 of 31 field goals during the 2014 season. The importance of onside kicks in these types of games is also great. Though it’s a small sample size, the Colts have recovered all three of P Pat McAfee’s onside attempts on the season. To sum it up, if Sunday’s opening game comes down to one final drive, Indianapolis’ special teams unit matches up more favorably than that of New England.
Once again, Tom Brady may be an NFL playoff legend, but his postseason success has wavered in recent years. Look for Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts to knock off New England in the conference championship for the third consecutive season, leading to a Super Bowl matchup of 2012 draft class QB’s. Final Indianapolis Colts 31 New England Patriots 29
Matchup of the Game: IND T’s Joe Reitz & Anthony Castonzo vs. NE DE’s Chandler Jones & Rob Ninkovich
Breakout Player (NE): RB LaGarrett Blount
Breakout Player (IND): WR Donte Moncrief
Offensive Player of the Game: QB Andrew Luck
Defensive Player of the Game: CB Vontae Davis