Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Patriots vs. Colts Preview (1/14/2004)

Alright then, almost time to get it on in Foxboro. Colts/Pats II should be a great match up. The first one was a classic and both teams are playing better now. It's January, it's cold, it's windy, it's the playoffs -- let's get ready to rumble!

Some thoughts on Sunday's game. I did a little research and came up with some interesting numbers. This will be the Pats second game against the Colts this season, and they've played four other teams twice this year: Bills, Jets, Dolphins, and Titans. The Patriots were 7-1 in those games (5-0 at home), with their only loss being the opener against Buffalo. The most telling stats from those games is how much better the Patriots did against those teams the second time the played them. On a per game basis, the Patriots defense improved by 38% in passing yards allowed (from 262 to 163), 86% in forced turnovers (1.75 to 3.25), 220% in sacks (1.25 to 4), and most importantly, 67% in points allowed (22.5 to 7.5). The Patriot offense improved in sacks allowed by 55% (2.75 down to 1.25) and in turnovers by 43% (1.75 to 1). Those numbers should give the Colts some pause. None of their opponents got more sacks or turnovers the second time around, none got more passing yards, and none scored more points. And here come the Colts with their high-powered passing game -- into windy Gillette Stadium with a hostile crowd and conditions that will get worse as the game goes on (possibility of snow and a dropping temperature).

The good news for the Colts is that their offense is on fire. Peyton Manning has played exceptionally well, and was already playing well toward the end of the season, so it isn't just a playoff phenomenon. He's making good decisions both before and after the snap, his receivers are making big plays, and they score touchdowns most every trip inside the opponent's 20 yard line. And Edgerrin James is a great running back and is complimented by Marcus Pollard at tight end. However, it's been a while since the Colts faced a defense as good as the Patriots. It was probably their last game against the Patriots, where they lost 38-34 in the RCA dome. Look for the Patriots to call some last-second blitzes to counteract Manning's penchant for faking the snap to get the defense to give away their coverage. Also, look for the Pats to be extra physical with the receivers and to make the Colts earn every yard by tackling a lot better than either KC or Denver the last two weeks. And don't expect James or the short passing game to control the Patriot defense -- they have too much size up front and too much speed at linebacker.

The bad news for the Colts is that their defense is also on fire. In fact,
it got third-degree burns against Kansas City. KC's offense is better than ours, but we did score 38 points against the Colts earlier in the year, and their defense has gotten worse since then. In fact, their secondary is banged up, with two starters listed as questionable (50% chance of playing) for Sunday's game. Indy reminds me of the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings of 1998, with a defense built to thrive on being ahead. Those Vikings would score 21 points in the first quarter, forcing the other team pass a lot to get back in the game. And it's a lot easier to play defense when you know the other team has to pass. Indy's defense isn't built to shut the other team down because they score so often they almost never have to. (Note: Colts head coach Tony Dungy has admitted that his defense is three years away from being as good as he wants them to be -- a scary omen for the future, but not very scary right now.)

The Patriots have the perfect offense to beat such a defense. Denver ran for 227 yards against the Colts four weeks ago, and a lot of people think the Pats should do the same. Control the clock and keep Peyton Manning on the sideline, win the time of possession battle and the game will be yours. I don't think the Pats will do that early on. They will run it some (as they always do), and they could pick up some decent yardage that way. But they will go deep against the Colts early in the game, just as they did against Tennessee. You have to get the other team's cornerbacks to drop back if you want to succeed in the short passing game, and the Pats will hit them with one or two haymakers in the first quarter. If the Pats get another first-drive touchdown and can hold the Colts on their first possession, it could be a long day for Peyton. In the last game, the Colts were down by 21 points, and they came back quickly because Tom Brady threw some terrible interceptions that gave Indy a short field. Well, Mr. Brady hasn't thrown an interception at home all year, so the Colts shouldn't count on such hospitality this time around. If the Pats establish a lead, look for heavy dose of Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk to keep Manning and the offense on the sideline.

As for kicking and other topics. Adam V. proved again that he is a money kicker, especially in the cold and wind. Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt hasn't missed a field goal or extra point all year, so I'm not counting on many screw-ups from him. However, it will be interesting to see him kick a frozen ball in the wind. That streak might just come to an end this Sunday. Ken Walter helped the Colt comeback in the earlier game with some bad kicks. But he's kicked better since he came back, and he covered-up for three long-snapping mistakes last Saturday, so I guess we'll go with him until next season and hope for the best. The weather will certainly favor the Patriots, as will the home crowd. And even though I don't usually put much stock in those "Belichick has gotten inside Manning's head" things, Peyton is 0-4 in Foxboro and Belichick comes up with great plans to beat immobile quarterbacks.

This is a classic match up of great offense and great defense. Over the years, teams with sub-par defenses and great offenses have made the Super Bowl. But they usually won their playoff games at home (e.g. last year's Oakland Raiders or the 1990-93 Bills). This being the NFL, there are no sure things. But I expect the Patriots can stop the Colts defense at least half the time. That means they should win if they can score on half their possessions -- which I believe they can do against a porous Colt defense. This is another chance to answer the "irresistible force versus immovable
object" question once again. And as has been the case over the years, I expect the immovable Patriots defense to win.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Great defense beats great offense. Just ask the 2002 Raiders, the 2001 Rams, the 2000 Giants, the 1990-93 Bills, the 1987-88 Broncos, the... well, you get the picture."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

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