Friday, January 16, 2015

Playoff Preview: Colts at Patriots

It’s Patriots/Colts for all the AFC marbles this Sunday, third time they’ve played for a Super Bowl berth, and fifth time they’ve met in the playoffs. In fact, it was exactly 11 years ago this Sunday that they played in the postseason for the first time, the first playoff matchup of two guys named Brady and Manning. Brady versus Luck doesn’t have the same ring to it, but give it a few years and it might.

The best place to start analyzing this game is their most recent regular-season contest. They played on November 16, 2014, and the Patriots ground the Colts to dust with a 201-yard, 4 touchdown performance by Jonas Gray. The game was close at the half, but the Pats steamrolled them 28-10 in the second stanza.

With that recent game in mind, the question is whether enough has changed from that first game to change the outcome of the AFC Championship Game. Here are some answers.

1. No Luck Against the Patriots

In a lot of ways, the November game was typical for Andrew Luck, because he got waxed all three times against the Patriots. The aggregate score is 144-66, and Luck’s numbers are downright bad: 70 of 130 (58.3%), 6 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and a 67.6 QB rating. And even though he’s known as a quarterback who can run, Luck was sacked as many times as he ran the ball: five.

As for the post-season, his numbers and performance are better this year than in the past. In two playoff games this year, Luck completed 67% of his passes and sports a 90.3 QB rating. Those numbers should be encouraging to Colts fans hoping this will be the week Luck puts it together against New England.

On the other hand, the first two games have been in the friendly confines of his home dome and in 40-degree weather, with no precip and very little wind in Denver. Now we come to Foxboro: 33-degrees and freezing rain or snow during the game. No doubt that weather will slow down the Indy passing game; and they don’t have much of a rushing attack to fall back on.

2. Can Pagano Stop the Patriots Offense?

Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was on staff in Baltimore from 2008-2011, when the Ravens first tasted success against the Patriots. The teams played four times during that span, all in Foxboro. And even though Pagano’s team went 1-3, they outscored the Patriots 94-87, held New England 25% below their season scoring average, and in 2010 they handed the Pats their first home playoff loss since 1978.

Baltimore had always been capable of stopping the run. But Pagano dramatically improved their secondary play and pass defense immediately upon arrival. In his first year, the Ravens went from 29th in the league to 2nd in yards allowed per pass, and from 24th to 1st in opponent QB rating. In other words, Pagano knows his stuff.

That’s why it’s so odd the Patriots continually thrash his Colts. The Pats have averaged 48 points a game against Pagano, post Baltimore. And last weekend the Patriots more than doubled the average points allowed by the Ravens this season -- against a Ravens defense that is miles better than the Colts defense.

If Pagano channels his inner secondary coach and slows down the Patriots short passing game, his team has a chance to win. It might seem weird to target the passing game, given the Patriots recent success running on the Colts (480 yards and 8 touchdowns in their last two meetings). But they have to start somewhere.

Maybe returning safety LaRon Landry will help enough in the secondary. And maybe returning defensive run-stuffer Arthur Jones will slow down the Pats running game. But the betting here is that they won’t stop either.

The Patriots offense is just a bad matchup for the Colts, as currently constituted. If Pagano gets better players, he’s shown he can coach them well. But this game is Sunday, not next year, so he’ll have to go to battle with what he has. And that is unlikely to be good enough.

3. Rushing-Attempt Limbo: How Low Can You Go?

If you think the Patriots 13 rushes for 14 yards were low last week, don’t be surprised if Indianapolis goes even lower on Sunday. The Patriots gave up on the run because they couldn’t gain any yards against the Ravens. The Colts might give up because they had no success in the November tilt with the Patriots, and because they are running out of healthy backs.

The Colts gained just 19 yards on 15 carries in 42-20 loss to New England, with 15 of those yards coming on Luck scrambles. And 13 of the 19 carries were by Ahmad Bradshaw (now on injured reserve) and Trent Richardson (a healthy scratch last Sunday). The team might have to activate Richardson, just to give back Dan Herron an occasional breather.

The problem with the Colts' lackluster rushing attack is it bodes ill in a game that will feature rain, sleet, and snow. The Patriots have shown they can grind out yards on the ground against Indy. The Colts have nothing to show on the ground; and that might cost them in this game.

4. Vinatieri Or Gostkowski?

Adam Vinatieri is a legend in New England. He played an integral part in all three Super Bowl wins, including getting them to the first one with two clutch kicks in the snow. He lifted weights with the linebackers, and he once chased down running back Herschel Walker from behind on a kickoff return. Vinatieri left the Patriots as the most accurate kicker in team history (81.9%) and with the undying admiration of a generation of fans.

Stephen Gostkowski came along to replace Vinatieri nine years ago. And now he is the most accurate kicker the Patriots have ever had, and third-best in NFL history (86.8%). His kickoffs go further than those in Vinatieri’s dreams, and he’s led the league in scoring four times, including the last three consecutive years.

So why do I think that if it comes down to one kick, a money kick for a trip to the Super Bowl, in sloppy conditions in Foxboro -- why does that sound like a tailor-made scenario for Vinatieri? Maybe because he is the all-time leader with 30 postseason games, the all-time playoff scoring leader with 233 points (lapping the field with 33% more than second-place), and the kicker with the most Super Bowl rings in history with four.

Gostkowski has been great, nearly everything you could ask in replacing a legend. But for all he’s accomplished, Gostkowski has a tendency to whiff at big moments. Just this past season, against Green Bay he had a 47-yarder to make it a 2-point game late in the fourth quarter. He missed it wide right.

With the game on the line, who would you rather have? The younger guy with the big leg and more impressive stats? Or the older guy with so many clutch kicks you can’t even remember them all?

5. Dome-field Disadvantage

Face it folks, the elephant in the room is the change of venue. The last time a warm-weather or dome team came to Foxboro and won a playoff game was the aforementioned loss in 1978 (trivia question: name the team, answer below.)

Since 1978, eleven such teams have flown to New England for the playoffs. All eleven came in blustering about how the weather wouldn’t affect them, pointing out that both teams had to play in the same elements, and assuring their fans that they were built for that kind of weather. And all eleven flew home to dust off their golf clubs.

The latest Foxboro forecast is 35-degrees and a 90% chance of pouring rain at kickoff. No doubt it will affect both teams. But if history is any guide, playing outdoors in freezing rain favors the home team. Numbers don’t lie, and an 11-0 Patriots record makes a pretty compelling case.

6. Quick Hits

A) Patriots are 7-3 in AFC Championship Games, average win is 27-16 and average loss is 31-21. The Colts are 4-3 in AFCC Games, average win is 32-17 and average loss is 22-10.

B) Of the teams left in the playoffs, only Indianapolis has a negative turnover-differential. They finished at -5, whereas the Packers were +14, the Patriots were +12, and the Seahawks were +9.

C) Also, the Colts tied for an NFL-worst 15 fumbles lost on the season, not a good sign when there’s rain and snow in the forecast.

D) Two teams meeting three times for the AFC Championship in 11 years might sound impressive. But two other pairs of teams met three times in even closer proximity: the Broncos and Browns played in the AFCC Game thrice in four years (1986, 87, & 89), and the Steelers and Raiders played in three consecutive AFCC Games (1974-76)!

7. Prediction

The Patriots running game won’t dominate like it did the last two games. With Arthur Jones back for this game, there’s pretty much no chance for another 200+ yard rushing performance. Though the Patriots will run more than last week, without a doubt -- if only because 14 yards is pathetic.

And weather notwithstanding, those eleven warm-weather/dome teams lost by an aggregate score of 278-138, an average of 25-12.5 per game. And the Colts themselves have lost three playoff games in Foxboro, by an average of 29-13.

History like that doesn’t foretell the future, but it should not be ignored. The Patriots won’t roll like they did in November. But they should get the W.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 13-4! & 1-0!

PPS. Trivia answer: the Houston Oilers beat the Patriots 31-14 in Foxboro on December 31, 1978.

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