Friday, January 19, 2007

Patriots vs. Colts Preview (1/19/2007)

So we meet again, my friend. It's Pats/Colts this Sunday in Indianapolis for the right to go to (and probably win) the Super Bowl. Patriots are playing for the chance to solidify their dynasty by becoming only the second team to win four Super Bowls in six years (the Pittsburgh Steelers did it from 1975 - 1980). The Colts are playing for a chance to build their legacy, attempting to crown their recent run of regular season success (60 wins in the past 5 seasons) with a Super Bowl championship.

The Colts won a regular season game against the Patriots, 27-20 on November 5 in Foxboro. And as is my standard practice in such cases, I will try to decide whether or not enough has changed since that game to give the Patriots a chance to make up the seven-point margin of defeat.

Point #1. Change of venue is exactly what the Patriots needed.

I know it sounds nonsensical, but the Patriots have a better chance to win this Sunday in the dome than they did at home in November. In the regular season game, the Gillette Stadium turf was all chewed up, and that slowed down the Patriots pass rush and gave the defensive backs fits. Between them, Colts receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne caught 14 balls for 235 yards and 2 touchdowns. You might think they'd be even more of a mismatch on turf. But beat up fields always favor the receivers who know where they're going over the defenders who can't cut or make up ground as easily once they recognize the play.

Additionally, Tom Brady is 10-0 in domes and 22-1 on artificial turf in his career (note: the November game was played on natural grass). And if you need more proof they are better off playing in Indy, they are 5-3 at home this season and 9-1 on the road. They showed last week they can handle a hostile crowd and thrive on the road.

Advantage New England.

Point #2. Don't be fooled by pretend-experts, the Colts cannot run the ball.

I'm still amazed at the number of media pundits who were impressed by the Colts running game last week. They gained 100 yards on 35 carries, but they only cracked triple-digits because they had so many carries. For the record, their 2.9 yards per carry was 12% lower than the 3.3 YPC the Baltimore defense allowed on the season *and* 28% lower than the 4.0 yards the Colts offense averaged. And in the November game in New England, their performance was even worse. In that contest, their 2.1 YPC was 46% lower than the 3.9 YPC allowed by the Patriots defense on the year and 48% lower than the Colts offense averaged on the year. And that was a game in which Richard Seymour was nursing a severe elbow injury and Rodney Harrison went out of the game after the first series.

The Colts will not run the ball well on Sunday, of that much I am certain. That makes the Colts offense one-dimensional; and historically, Belichick has feasted offenses like that.

Advantage New England.

Point #3. Once again, don't be fooled, the Colts can't stop the run, either.

Indy allowed an NFL-worst 173 yards rushing per game in the regular season, but in the playoffs, they've held opponents to 63.5 per game. So the press claims the Indy rushing defense is much better now, but I disagree. The Kansas City game was an aberration, with bad play-calling and dropped passes that limited KC's offensive chances (20:37 of possession time) and kept the Colts defense fresh. As for the Baltimore game, their running attack was overrated all year long (even by me, in my Playoff Preview). They ranked #24 in the league with 102.3 yards per game and #31 (2nd worst in the league) with 3.4 yards per carry. But even though they got only 83 yards last weekend, Indy allowed them to *increase* their YPC by 23% (to 4.2 YPC).

What does it all mean? That the press wants to believe the Colts defense is on the rise -- maybe because they want to fawn over the Colts during the two-week run-up to Super Bowl XLI. But the facts just don't support it, especially against Baltimore. Also consider that, even though the Colts had Hall-of-Famer-to-be Bob Sanders at safety in November, the Colts allowed 148 yards on the ground and 4.5 YPC. Those were increases of 20% and 15% over New England's regular season average, respectively.

Advantage New England.

Point #4. If it's all about the players, the Patriots are in good shape.

In the November game, the Patriots played without two of their best run-blockers (Stephen Neal and Daniel Graham) and still ran for 148 yards and 4.5 yards per carry. They also lost Rodney Harrison during the first drive of the game, and James Sanders was not very effective as an emergency replacement. I don't believe the rumors that Harrison will play on Sunday, but Sanders has rounded into a dependable safety who can make big stops in the running game and even rushing the passer (both he and Artrell Hawkins, the other safety, had sacks against the Chargers). In other words, he is a much better replacement now than he was when thrown into the fray in November.

Add to that the relative health of the team -- Harrison is listed as doubtful and the flu has made three players questionable, but they will play, count on it -- and it all looks good for New England.

Advantage New England.


A) New England is 5-0 in AFC Championship games, and that includes 3-0 on the road.

B) Tom Brady's average game the week after he throws at least 3 interceptions (as he did last week): 22 for 34, 234 yards, 1.5 touchdowns, 0.14 interceptions (that's 1 interception in 7 games), and 23 points. His record is 5-2.

C) This post-season, Brady has 4 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Peyton Manning has 1 touchdown and 5 interceptions.


I hated to do this for the Jets game, and I hate it even more now, but this game looks like a comfortable win for the Patriots. They are at the top of their game, their safeties are playing well and Asante Samuel is shutting down everything coming his way. All of the Chargers passing success came because the Patriots over-committed to stop the run (not that it did them much good), but they won't have to do that against Indy. If Ricky Proehl plays and is productive, that will even the game a bit more; but he's questionable.

I don't see how Indy scores on more than four of their drives, and that won't get it done with a balance and efficient Patriots offense going against a small and porous Indy defense. The Colts held it together against the poorly coached Chiefs and the unproductive Ravens. But the Pats QB/WR combination is coming together at the right time, the crowd noise rarely affects the Patriots offensive timing, and the Patriots have all their best run blockers back.. So I see a 10- or 13-point win. Something like 31-20 sounds about right.

(Amazing) Statistical Oddity of the Week: Two weeks ago, Asante Samuel became the first defensive player in NFL history to score in consecutive post-seasons (against the Jets this year and the Jaguars last year -- credit to for this tidbit). Think he'll get his payday in free agency?

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The Patriots *have* to win on Sunday. Otherwise, it'll be two weeks of 'Peyton Manning' this and 'Peyton Manning' that -- to be followed by his epic collapse in the Super Bowl. Yuck!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott



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