Monday, January 19, 2015

Patriots Dismantle Colts, 45-7

The Patriots blew the doors off the Colts last night, smashing them 45-7 and earning a trip to the Super Bowl. It's the eighth trip to the big game for the franchise, and the sixth trip for Tom Brady, an NFL record for a quarterback. The opponent will be the #1 seed in the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks, who rode a furious comeback (and several Green Bay miscues) to punch their ticket to Arizona.

More on the Super Bowl later in the week. But for tonight, what a performance by the Patriots. This might be one of the shorter updates ever, since the Pats did exactly what we all thought they would -- they dominated on the ground and handled the weather better than their dome-team opponent.

Two side notes on Andrew Luck's struggles against the Patriots. First, he has played them much more competitively in the first half of games, with an average deficit of just 19-11.5. But in the second half of games, he's gotten steamrolled: the average second-half score is 28-7 Patriots. Second, the average rushing-yardage disparity in his four games against the Patriots: 193 to 72.5. Neither of those seem to be on Luck specifically: one is on poor in-game adjustments, and the other is on the GM and coach for not narrowing the rushing-yard gap.

(Trivia question: when was the last time Andrew Luck led a game against the Patriots? Answer below.)

The game plan was solid, the execution was nearly flawless, and both the offense and defense got better as the game progressed. The decision to put corner Kyle Arrington on the smaller Colts receiver, T.Y. Hilton was brilliant; much better than the previous week when Darrelle Revis covered the smaller receiver against Baltimore, Steve Smith Sr. The coaches even threw in another trick-play wrinkle; with tackle Nate Solder catching a touchdown pass late in the game.

Offensively this game resembled every game since Colts quarterback Andrew Luck entered the league. The Patriots ran it down their throats again, with running back LeGarrette Blount leading the way (30 carries for 148 yards, and 3 touchdowns). In two playoff games against Indy, Blount has 54 carries for 314 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and 7 touchdowns. It was all on Blount, too; Tom Brady was the second leading rusher on the night (3 carries, 13 yards).

The offensive line did a great job in pass protection and a decent one in the running game. There were good running holes about half the time, and the other half, Blount ran guys over to get extra yards. The Patriots mostly ran to the right, to avoid Colts defensive lineman Arthur Jones. But they also employed the six- and seven-linemen formations that proved dominant over Indy in the past. The smallish Colts line and linebackers simply can't hold up under that kind of size deficit.

Brady was kept mostly clean, sacked just once and hit only two other times (though one was a high-low shot after he should have been on the sideline, more on that in a bit). He was off early in the game, but he got himself on-track faster this week than last. The final numbers look pedestrian, but bear in mind that the rain and wind made things difficult and there were several dropped passes. Brady went 23 of 35 (65.7%), 226 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception, and a 100.4 QB rating.

The dropsies were mostly shared between receivers Brandon LaFell (4 catches for 28 yards) and Julian Edelman (9 for 98). LaFell had one and was out of the offense for a while after that. Edelman had one and they went right back to him; which shows you where those guys are on the pecking order. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was targeted 8 times, but had only 3 receptions (for 28 yards and a touchdown). Brady has a habit of trying to feed Gronkowski, throwing his only interception on double-coverage on the tight end.

The reception-distribution was good again this week. Against Baltimore the Patriots threw the ball more, so the numbers won't equal what they did in that game. But they had four receivers with at least 3 catches, and they targeted Danny Amendola three times, though only one of them was complete. They have to keep this up against Seattle in the Super Bowl, the Seahawks' secondary is too good to get beaten by one or two receivers on a regular basis.

The biggest stat of the game was this: the Patriots only had to make 27 tackles all game long. In 11 years of blogging, this is the lowest number I remember seeing. They were superb on third-down (allowed just 3 of 11 conversions), they had two takeaways, and of the 27 tackles, only 2 were assisted -- which means the first hit was usually the only one needed to bring down the ball-carrier.

The defensive line did a great job holding the edge and collapsing the pocket on Luck. They wanted to make him beat them from the pocket, and by the third quarter it was obvious he couldn't. Outside rushers Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich didn't have stand-out stats. But their upfield rushes pressured Luck into quicker throws or throw aways. Ninkovich ended up with 3 tackles, 2 quarterback hits, and 2 passes defended; not bad.

Jamie Collins paced the linebackers again this week. He led the team with 4 tackles, had a QB hit, an interception, and a pass defended. A well-rounded day. Dont'a Hightower had 3 tackles and -- wait a second... sorry, I got distracted, the Colts just dropped another pass! Where was I, oh, right -- Hightower also did a nice job stuffing the run and getting into the drop zones once the game was all-pass-all-the-time for the Colts.

In the secondary, Darrelle Revis had an interception and two passes defended. And the aforementioned Arrington was great jamming Hilton at the line. He was the Colts best receiver this year, but he caught just one pass on six targets last night. That was largely due to Arrington pushing him around at the line and safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung helping bracket Hilton. Revis missed one series with an injury, but even when he went out, Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler didn't get beaten deep once.

Special teams didn't do anything stupid, and they got a terrific return by Julian Edelman that set up a fourth-quarter touchdown. Contrast that with the Colts: they muffed a punt and the Patriots recovered it, and the Colts missed a field goal in the first half.

The coaching was excellent in this game. The plan to start the game was great; they kept the Colts offense completely under wraps until Brady's interception. And the offense started out much quicker this game than last one. They also won the adjustment battle; as the Patriots outscored Indy 28-0 in the second half.

The only coaching quibble was not getting the starters out of the game earlier. It's okay to leave in Brady if all he's going to do is hand off the ball. But he got crushed with about 6:00 left in the game, even though the result was no longer in doubt. Brady shouldn't have been on the field, let alone taken a shot like that.

So where does that leave us? With a very enjoyable two weeks to look forward to. Lots of Patriots talk, discussions about legacies and dynasties, and debates on which team should be favored and/or will win. Enjoy it while you can; the two week run-up to the Super Bowl is booooring when your team isn't in it!

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Both the AFC and NFC Championship Games features touchdown catches by offensive tackles. Gary Gilliam of the Seahawks got his on a fake field goal. And Nate Solder of the Patriots got his on a tackle-eligible play.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Maybe Boomer Esiason is right; maybe this is the most complete Patriots team since 2004!"

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-4 & 2-0!

PPS. Trivia Answer: In Luck's first start against the Patriots, he held the lead with 12:13 left in the second quarter. That is 222 minutes and 13 seconds of game time ago.

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