The Indianapolis Colts have one of the best young quarterbacks in the league in Andrew Luck, but there may be no better matchup for the New England Patriots in the AFC playoffs. When it comes to beating one-dimensional teams, there may be no better head coach in the league than Bill Belichick. As it turns out, the Colts are one-dimensional on both sides of the ball.
Luck of the draw.
The last time these two teams met, the Patriots beat the tar out of the Colts in a 59-24 decision that featured as many Luck interceptions as Tom Brady touchdowns -- three apiece. That was Aqib Talib's first game in a Patriots uniform, and he showed up big with a pick-six that gave the Patriots their first lead of the day in the second quarter.
This game may not be quite the blowout it was last time, but on paper, the Patriots should win. Things don't always work out that way, but here's an early look at what the Colts bring to the table.
Record: 12-5 (1-0 in the playoffs)
How they got here: The Colts won their division, earning a home playoff game in the Wild Card round. After falling behind 38-10 in the third quarter against the Chiefs, Luck authored the second-biggest comeback in postseason history for a 45-44 win, and earned his first playoff victory in the process.
Key cog, offense -- T.Y. Hilton, WR: With veteran receiver Reggie Wayne out of the picture, Hilton has emerged into one of the brightest young receivers in the league. He has carried the Colts' passing game with over 27 percent of their total receiving yards, and accounted for 224 of the team's 436 yards through the air against the Chiefs. Hilton's elite speed makes him a threat on deep patterns, as the Chiefs learned on the go-ahead 64-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
At 5-foot-9 and 178 pounds, Hilton is the kind of small, speedy, shifty receiver that often gives Talib problems -- Hilton had a 43-yard touchdown reception on Talib when the two met last year. If Talib struggles, the Patriots could call on Alfonzo Dennard to cover Hilton, but either way, expect the Patriots to double Hilton deep with a safety.
Key cog, defense -- Robert Mathis, OLB: The former Pro Bowl defensive end has made the switch to outside linebacker in Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense, and has been very successful in that role. The Colts flipped Mathis between the left and right side, but he was effective regardless. He finished the season with a league-high 19.5 sacks this season, and forced nine fumbles on those sacks.
At 6-foot-2 and 246 pounds, Mathis gives up a lot of size to Patriots offensive tackles Nate Solder (6-foot-8, 320 pounds) and Marcus Cannon (6-foot-5, 335 pounds), but even at 32 years old, Mathis still has elite burst off the snap. With 11 years of experience, he has veteran savvy as a pass-rusher, and is effective using a variety of moves. He's also lower to the ground, which could help him get leverage on the much taller offensive tackles.
X factor -- Coby Fleener, TE: The Patriots have struggled covering tight ends this year, and Fleener has been one of the top targets for Luck. Fleener doesn't overwhelm defenders with his speed, but his 6-foot-6, 251-pound frame helps him get open in tight quarters. His production has been up and down dramatically this year; he's had five games with five or more receptions, and six games with two catches or fewer.
Stats and notes:
- Notable injuries: Several Colts players went down with injuries during the playoff game. Safety LaRon Landry (concussion), wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring) and cornerback Greg Toler (groin) did not return after leaving with their respective injuries. In addition to Wayne, the Colts have lost several other players for the season, including tight end Dwayne Allen (hip), guard Donald Thomas (quad) and linebacker Pat Angerer (knee).
- One thing that stands out about the Colts on the stat sheet is their turnovers -- or lack thereof. They had just 14 turnovers on offense all year, the fewest in the league. They managed to win against the Chiefs despite turning it over four times (three interceptions, one fumble). The Patriots have often thrived off turnovers, but have struggled in recent weeks in that area, behind held without a turnover in three of the final seven games this year, after a string of 36 straight games with at least one turnover.
- The Patriots have had their share of unlikely comebacks this year -- five fourth-quarter comebacks, to be exact -- but Luck has already built a reputation for late-game heroics in his young career. His eight fourth-quarter comebacks are the most for any quarterback in the first two years of his career. As mentioned earlier, the Colts' 28-point comeback against the Chiefs was the second biggest comeback in playoff history.
- One big reason the Colts have been so successful with the art of the comeback has been their performance in the third quarter. They score 7.5 points per game in the third quarter, the second-most in the league behind the Denver Broncos' 8.1 points per game. New England has struggled in the third quarter at times this year, but has thoroughly dominated in the fourth quarter with an average of 11.1 points per game on offense and 6.0 points per game on defense.
- If there's one area the Patriots should look to exploit the Colts defense, it's in the running game. The Colts' run defense was in the 25th percentile across the board; they allowed 4.5 yards per carry and 125.1 yards per game. The Patriots were a solid running team all year, and finished in the top 10 in every category that matters. They got even better over the final eight games of the season, when they averaged 4.6 yards per carry and 137.5 yards per game. The Patriots could look to set up the play-action passing game with a heavy early dose of the running game.
- The Colts have utilized 346 unique lineup combinations on offense, the third-most for any one team in the league this year. Defensively, their 304 unique lineup combinations are the eighth-most in the league.
- The Colts don't do a great job of pass protecting for Luck. They allow him to be pressured on 37.5 percent of his dropbacks according to Pro Football Focus, the 10th-highest percentage in the league. He was only sacked 32 times, though, as he was able to use his legs to escape pressure. On Saturday against the Chiefs, he ran seven times for 45 yards. The Patriots will have to be mindful of their rush lanes and stay disciplined in containing Luck in the pocket.
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