After a bye week, the New England Patriots will get their first taste of playoff action this Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts (8:15 ET, CBS). The bye week gave players such as cornerback Aqib Talib, left tackle Nate Solder, and safety Devin McCourty a chance to get healthy. However, the injury bug came back to Foxboro as linebacker Brandon Spikes was put on injured reserve with a knee injury. Spikes' production tailed off toward the second half of the season, but the team will miss his intensity for an already banged up linebacker position. Plus, wide receiver Aaron Dobson has not practiced all week due to a foot injury.
That being said, this matchup on Saturday was the one Patriots' fans probably wanted heading into Wild Card Weekend. However, the Colts' historic comeback on Saturday against the Chiefs has to make people think this game won't be easy one bit.
The AFC South champion Indianapolis Colts (11-5) found themselves down 38-10 in the 3rd quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs last week. After throwing three interceptions, quarterback Andrew Luck responded in the second half, leading his team to a 45-44 comeback win. This is a Colts' team that beat the Seahawks, 49ers, and Broncos during the season. They lost their best wide receiver Reggie Wayne early on due to a torn ACL. They traded a first round pick to the Browns to get running back Trent Richardson. In the month of December, Luck was a totally different quarterback. He had 8 touchdown passes to just 2 interceptions for a team that had the fewest takeaways in the NFL. Will this game be a repeat of November 2012 when the Patriots defeated the Colts 59-24 in Foxboro? We will find out!
Here are my keys to Saturday night's game in Foxboro:
1. Reservations At The Hilton: With Reggie Wayne out the Colts for looking for that number one wide receiver. Over the last two games, second year wide receiver T.Y Hilton has emerged as Andrew Luck's lead target. Hilton has 24 catches in his last two games and has been targeted 33 times. Against the Chiefs, he had 13 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots' defense may not be an elite unit, but they have done a good job this season at taking away a team's primary weapon.
They are preparing for Hilton by using Reggie Dunn, a player who is expected to be added to the practice squad, that runs a 4.24 40-yard dash. This is where Aqib Talib needs to perform to the level he was in the first half of the season. Other than Hilton and tight end Coby Fleener, the Colts don't have much depth at wide receiver. Yes, the Colts did bring in Deion Branch, but don’t expect much from him on the field in this game. Luck also has some young receivers in Da’Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen.
2. Mark Off Mathis: While the Colts' defense is much different compared to the days of the Brady-Manning rivalry, there is one constant that Tom Brady will have in the back of his mind: linebacker Robert Mathis. As I mentioned in the Wild Card previews last week, Mathis finished the season with 19.5 sacks, the most in the NFL. In the Wild Card game, Mathis had a critical sack in the 3rd quarter on Alex Smith that forced a turnover via a forced fumble. This gives him at least one sack in each of the last four games. In his career against the Patriots, he has five sacks in seven meetings. He didn't have a sack in the last matchup vs. the Patriots. Nate Solder will have to do a solid job protecting Brady in this game. Another player to watch is linebacker Jerrell Freeman. GM Ryan Grigson was high on him when Freeman was in the CFL from 2009-2011. In the NFL, Freeman has become the leader of the linebacker corps with 126 tackles (leads the team) and two interceptions.
3. What Can Brown Do For You?: When you think about the Colts' run game, the first name that pops in your mind is Trent Richardson. However, the more consistent running back is former Connecticut running back Donald Brown. Brown has had a touchdown in each of his last three games. He has become the feature back in Indy due to his consistent production both running the ball and catching it out of the backfield.
As for Richardson, he had a fumble in the first half of last week's game and has struggled since being traded from the Browns early this season. Indy will need their running game against a Pats' rush defense that is 30th in the NFL to provide balance in the offense for Andrew Luck. The Patriots' rushing attack of LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, and Shane Vereen will be equally important against a Colts' rush defense that is not much better than the Patriots. (26th in the NFL).
4. A Little Luck Goes A Long Way: Andrew Luck had his playoff coming out party last week in the comeback against Chiefs. Since his meeting with the Patriots last season where he threw three interceptions, he has become a different quarterback. Luck has had to take a lot on his shoulder with the loss of Wayne and injuries at the running back position to start the year to running backs Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw. This season, he threw for 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions. It has been impressive to watch his consistency over the last five games as the Colts' offense has had to make several changes to their game plan.
You have to credit Colts' offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, who coached Luck back at Stanford. If the Patriots are going to contain Luck, they have to take away his running ability. Look for Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich to be the main reasons if the Patriots do succeed by neutralizing him on the edges. Plus, you can never count the Colts out of a game. In his career, Luck has eight 4th quarter comebacks and 11 game-winning drives. He has shown some great flashes that lead a lot of people believe he could be a top quarterback in this league sooner rather than later.
The Patriots have done a good job the last two games on being physical and running the football. I would expect that they start off with the same strategy on Saturday. Julian Edelman had 105 catches during the season, but I think the key receiver for the Patriots is Danny Amendola. The Colts are banged up in the secondary with the loss of cornerback Greg Toler. Amendola has only seen six combined targets the last two games, but if Dobson can't go, he should see more targets in the passing game. I would expect Brady to go after former Patriots' defensive back Darius Butler, who had four interceptions this season.
There is supposed to be heavy rain on Saturday in Foxboro, but I expect this to be a high scoring game. Can the Patriots take advantage of red zone opportunities? Also, this game will come down to who can force the most turnovers with the two teams coming into this game with a combined +19 in turnover margin. This game will be close, but New England finds a way to take another close game and advances to another AFC Championship game.
PATRIOTS 31 COLTS 24