Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Patriots vs. Colts Preview (1/12/2005)

Did Sherman just crank up the "way back machine"? Did Doctor Brown just zip by in his DeLorean at 88 miles per hour? Did we just blast through some Star Trek worm hole? Somehow, we seem to be back in January 2004. The new and improved Peyton Manning is coming to town, and you better lock up your Super Bowl rings 'cause he's here to take down the local 11.

One year ago, I read all the same stories ("No one can stop Manning"), heard all the same stats ("Look at Manning's unbelievable run"), read all the same pronouncements ("This is the year offense wins the Super Bowl" and "It's Manning's time now"), read all the same posts ("INDY WILL CRUSH YOUR PATSIES"), and heard all the same questions ("Can anyone stop this offense?" and "How many times can Bill Belichick pull the rabbit out of the hat").

Well, the best way to answer those questions is to play the game, and they will do so this Sunday. The Colts romped over the Broncos last weekend (making me 0-4 in predicting games last weekend... thank you very much), and set up a showdown with their nemesis -- yoooouuuurrrrr New England Patriots! -- Sunday at 4:30. It makes for great theater and gives the sports press something to blab about for a week. But I'm here to help you sift through all the claims and counter-claims so you know what is likely to take place at the game. So here goes. (Note: if you don't have the time to wade through all this stuff, you can skip to the "Quick Points" and "Bottom Line" sections below.)

I believe the best way to think about this game is to consider recent history and update it with any factors that might have changed. And the best recent-history indicator is the Patriots opening day 27-24 win over the Colts. The game was in Foxboro this past September, and it should give us the best indication of what Sunday's game will look like. So the question is, what has changed that might affect the outcome of this game? The answers are below.

Point #1. The Manning will have more pass attempts and more passing yards, but the Colt offense won't necessarily score more touchdowns.

Manning is playing better than he did at the beginning of the season. He uses the no-huddle to identify defenses and then changes the play to attack the defense he sees; his receivers are all comfortable in the offense; his reads are quicker; and he makes fewer mistakes. Combine that with the Patriots woes at defensive back (both Ty Law and Tyrone Poole -- September's starters -- are out for the entire playoffs), and it sounds like a recipe for disaster.

However, the venue and the Patriots style of pass defense both favor the Patriots. Against Manning, the Patriots have not blitzed much; they've jammed receivers at the line and dropped into a zone. This has proven to be the best way to slow down Manning, because a seven- or eight-man zone can cover four or five receivers pretty well. And as the Broncos showed us last weekend, the a blitz has to get to Manning within 1.5 seconds or the ball is usually on its way to a receiver. Well, the Pats won't blitz much, perhaps sending as few as three pass rushers for the majority of the game and flooding the backfield zones with eight men.

In addition, the Patriots defenders hit and hit and hit, and the Colt receivers don't like to be hit. Even against the Broncos, you could see them diving to the ground to avoid contact. The Patriots will hit them at the line, hit them when they try to catch the ball, and hit them again on the tackle. And in cold weather, those hits hurt a lot more and the sting lingers for longer. The temperature at kickoff will be under 30-degrees, and the sun will already be down so it will only get colder as the game goes on. The Colt receivers aren't used to it, but the Patriot defenders thrive on it, and I think it will be a factor as the game goes on.

Peyton threw two touchdowns in the opening game. He might get three in this game, but it'll only be trouble if he gets four or five.

Point #2. The Colts will not run the ball well, unless the Patriots let them.

In the season opener, the Colts ran for 202 yards, and might have won the game if Edgerrin James hadn't fumbled twice inside the Patriots 20 yard line. The Colt offensive line toyed with the middle of the Patriot defensive line, and the bulk of the yards came up right up the gut. In fact, the Colts ran the ball 42 times in the game and passed only 30. The Patriots played a seven-man backfield, so with the Colts easily blocking the Pats defensive line, it was a quick 5-10 yards every time for Edgerrin James.

So why will it be different this time? Two words: Wilfork and Traylor. In that first game, both these guys looked like rookies (even though Keith Traylor is a 14 year veteran), with Jeff Saturday pushing them around like tackling dummies. But since then, Wilfork has progressed to the point that he takes up two offensive linemen and can still stop a running back or pressure the QB. Traylor needs more rest than Wilfork, but he also takes up the required two defenders and can make plays on a running back. With Wilfork and Traylor slowing down the running game, the Patriots will be free to drop more defenders into pass coverage, which is where they want them. In September, the Pats had no choice but to help the defensive line by bringing up more linebackers and safeties -- and given all that, they were lucky to escape with a 27-24 win -- but in this game, the defensive line won't need as much help.

The Pats won't stop the Indy running game, but they will slow it enough with their front line to force the Colts to pass into a defense with more defenders poised to defend the pass.

Point #3. Contrary to published reports, the Patriots offense and Indy defense will play this Sunday.

The Patriots have a pretty nifty offense, and the Colts have beatable defense. The Pats scored 27 points a game (fourth best in the NFL), rushed for over 4 yards a carry (first time in 20 years) and 2,134 yards for the year (with a team record 1,635 for Corey Dillon -- good for third place in the NFL), finished in the top 10 in time of possession (Indy finished in the bottom ten), and had some guy named Brady who was the eight-highest rated QB this season. In the first game, the Pats topped 400 total yards and gave up only two sacks in 40 attempts, and as I remember it, they moved the ball up and down the field with ease. Oh, and Dillon ran for 5.7 yards a carry.

To add to Indy's woes, not a single player on their defense plays better outdoors in the cold than he does in a heated dome. Their pass rush is slower, their defensive backs can't react as quickly, and their linebackers don't pursue as well. When Corey Dillon comes around end and barrels toward a safety, the Colt defender is less likely to put a hurt on Dillon as Dillon is to put a hurt on the defender. And the Colts just don't have the talent to keep up with the Patriots receiving corps. In the September game, the receiving numbers went as follows: Branch, 7 receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown, Graham 7-57-1, Patten 4-86-1, and Givens 4-80-0. That's 14 yards a catch and three touchdowns with just those four. Brady completed almost 70% of his passes, and ended the day with a 111.2 rating and almost 9 yards per attempt. To put a fine point on it, Brady outperformed Manning in every significant stat. And since that game, Indy replaced their strong safety and one starting cornerback with rookies (Bob Sanders and Jason David, respectively) and they lost their second best pass rusher, Robert Mathis.

The only mismatch bigger than Manning vs. the Patriots depleted secondary is the Patriots offense vs. the weak Colts defense.

Point #4 The Patriots are healthier than you think.

Sure, the Pats have injuries at cornerback, Richard Seymour might not be 100%, and Kevin Faulk, Eugene Wilson, and Bethel Johnson are a little banged up. But aside from the cornerback position, the Patriots enter the playoffs relatively healthy. They have adequate replacements for Seymour (Jarvis Green and Ty Warren have both filled in admirably this year), Deion Branch is back, Troy Brown has played more the past three games, Corey Dillon, Tom Brady, Johnson, Wilson, and Faulk have all had two weeks to rest up from nagging problems, and Rosevelt Colvin is back for limited action with a linebacker corps that has avoided injury all year long. In fact, given their health at linebacker, it wouldn't shock me to see them play with 5 linebackers and two defensive linemen.

It's true that the Patriots enter the playoffs with injury concerns. But wasn't it the same thing last year? Remember: Colvin and David Patten were out for the year, Damien Woody and Ted Johnson hardly played in the playoffs, and Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson were injured during the Super Bowl. At this point, the only injuries we know for sure are Tyrone Poole and Ty Law are out of the playoffs. We went 8-1 in games without them this year.

With both Law and Poole already out, the Patriots beat the Rams, Chiefs, and Bengals -- all of whom have explosive offenses and bad defenses. I see no reason they can't do the same to the Colts?

Quick Points:

A) The Patriots have a decided advantage in the kicking game. Adam Vinatieri is the unquestioned best kicker in the game. He missed only two field goals all year and neither cost the team a game. The Colts Mike Vanderjagt missed five field goals *and* an extra point, and his miss at Foxboro in September cost his team the chance at overtime.

B) The Colts play worse outside than inside. They went 3-3 outside this year, and over the last three years, they have scored five fewer points and given up four more points per game outdoors. That's a nine point swing, which is significant in a game deemed to be this close.

C) All the pressure is on Peyton Manning; if he can't beat the Patriots with Ty Law and Tyrone Poole out of the game, he might never do so. And he hasn't exactly risen to the occasion in pressure situations.

D) As for clutch performers, who have proven they can play well under pressure; it's no contest -- the Patriots have them all and the Colts have none. If they win on Sunday, then maybe the Colts players will emerge as pressure players, but to this point they have not.

E) For those really interested in the Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning debate, here are links to two stories that break it down statistically and anecdotally. Very interesting stuff.

Bottom Line

The Patriots won the September season opener and since then more factors have changed in their favor than in the Colts favor. The Pats run defense is vastly better with improved play from their nose tackles, so the Colts come into the game one-dimensional on offense. Aside from the defensive secondary, the Pats are very healthy with a full complement of running backs, receivers, linebackers, and maybe defensive linemen (come on Richard Seymour), whereas Indy just lost their second-best pass rusher (allowing the Patriots to double-team Dwight Freeney) and have replaced their starting strong safety *and* right cornerback with rookies. The injury factor alone makes New England's offense vs. Indy's defense a bigger mismatch than Indy's offense vs. New England defense, but that's not the story you hear from the press.

Add to that the Patriots superior kicking game, the Colts failures outdoors (3-3 this year), the pressure of the playoffs (and who has more pressure-tested players), and you get the same result as the last five times these teams have played. Patriots should win this one without too much difficulty. (Note: I know I was 0-4 picking last weekend's games, and I considered picking the Colts just to guarantee a Patriots win. But I just couldn't do it; the more of this update I wrote, the clearer it became that the Patriots would win. I apologize in advance if this pick jinxes the team.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Looking for that last little tidbit about this Sunday's showdown? How about this. Indy and New England had two common opponents this year: both played Baltimore at home and Kansas City on the road. The Patriots beat them both by a combined score of 51-22, Indy beat Baltimore and lost to KC; their combined score was 55-55."

Enjoy the game and keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

No comments:

Post a Comment