Thursday, January 9, 2014

Playoff Preview: Patriots vs. Colts

Buckle up, everybody, the playoff ride is about to begin! It's Patriots/Colts at 8:15pm this Saturday, in scenic Foxboro, Mass. I'd usually look at the last game between the two teams, but in this case it was in 2012, so it wouldn't mean much. Without that off of which to springboard, here is my best attempt to figure out how things are likely to go this Saturday.

1. Patriots Shut Down the Primary Receiving Threat

What do the Bengals, Saints, Panthers, Broncos, and Ravens have in common? Their primary receivers were controlled or outright shut down in games against the Patriots this season. And that was no easy task, given the Patriots injuries on defense, especially in the secondary.

Not that the Pats were perfect at it, Houston's Andre Johnson had 8 catches for 121 yards, and Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez started slow but ended up with 12 for 149. But by and large Bill Belichick and his staff concocted plans to slow down or completely stop the main receiver on the other side of the ball.

Which brings us to the Colts victory over the Chiefs last weekend: T.Y Hilton had 13 catches for 224 yards and 2 touchdowns; the rest of the Colts team had 16 catches, 219 yards, and 2 touchdowns. The Colts offense has depended on Hilton since a season-ending injury to longtime receiver Reggie Wayne. Hilton led the team with 82 catches -- a whopping 30 more than the Colts second-leading receiver, and 53 more than the third-leading receiver (not named Reggie Wayne).

And that unidimensional offense is exactly the kind the Patriots shut down. The last few years we've seen the Patriots go into the playoffs with a two- or three-headed passing attack, only to see it shut down. That job will be even easier for the Patriots defense on Saturday, given the lack of even a decent second option for the Colts.

(Note: the Patriots need Devin McCourty to play if they want to make this work. His backups are inexperienced, and that is one place the Patriots can't afford a mistake -- at safety. One slip-up can cost you a touchdown, from anywhere on the field.)

2. Walking Wounded

Brandon Spikes was the latest Patriots addition to season-ending Injured Reserve. Already down three interior defenders (Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, and Tommy Kelly), both of the starting safeties are dinged up, and there are injuries at almost every corner back position.

Additionally, the offensive line is perilously thin, the receiving corps is not only missing some key weapons, but those remaining are either young (Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, and Josh Boyce) or injury-prone (Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman).

Not that you should expect the Patriots to lose this game, but eventually those injuries take their toll. They leave the team vulnerable to the Colts running attack, if they are able to commit to it and stay with it.

3. The Elements

You hear it every year, lots of brash talk from teams that play in domes or balmy weather. When they have to travel north to play in Foxboro, they are certain the weather won't affect them. It's often the same platitudes: both teams have to play in the same conditions, it's mind over matter, we're a hard-nosed team.

But setting aside the talk, cold hard reality is that the last time a dome/mild-weather team won a playoff game in Foxboro was... well, it's never happened. Jacksonville in 1996, 2005, and 2007; Miami in 1997; Oakland in 2001; Tennessee in 2003; Indianapolis in 2003 and 2004; San Diego in 2007; And Houston in 2012. The Patriots beat them all -- that's ten up and ten down, which has to be a factor when a dome team like the Colts come to town.

4. Colts' Captain Comeback

Colts QB Andrew Luck seems more comfortable playing from behind than ahead. He has 23 NFL wins so far, and in 11 of those wins the Colts were either behind or tied in the fourth quarter. If the Patriots expect to win on Saturday, they need to get up on the Colts and bury them.

If you need proof, just ask a Kansas City fan if a 28-point lead is safe.

5. Pats Run vs. Indy Run Defense

The Patriots rank a surprising 9th in rushing offense (4.4 yards a carry, 129.1 yards per game). And they have been remarkably consistent all year, topping 150 yards in the first game and 250 in the last game of the season. On the other side of the ball, the Colts ranked 24th in stopping the run. Their defense is built on speed, not on being stout against the run.

And with heavy rain in the forecast, having an advantage in the running game could prove pivotal.

6. Quick Hits

A) Adam Vinatieri can certainly hit clutch kicks, but he was 18 for 19 in home games (95%) and only 17 of 21 (81%) on the road.

B)  Home teams in this round of the playoffs have won 73% of their games since 1990 (67-25).

C)  The Patriots offense traditionally starts slow the week after a bye, and the Colts have a knack for late comebacks. So don't expect to knock off early to get some shut-eye, this one could go down to the wire.

D)  The Patriots had the fewest turnovers in the AFC in 2012; but the Colts took that crown in 2013 (the four-turnover game last week was an aberration).

7. Bold Prediction

Look for a low-scoring first quarter (and perhaps first half). Turnovers are always key, but in cold, wet conditions, ball-security is even more important. Don't count on four turnovers from the Colts again this week.

The Patriots should win, simply because the Colts shouldn't be able to stop their offense. And they won't let Hilton run all over them the way the Chiefs did -- the Patriots adjust better than most teams, and that will be crucial in this game.

Patriots win, with a late turnover making the margin more comfortable than it seemed during the game.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  12-4 & 0-0!

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