The Patriots won the AFC East for the fifth consecutive year, finishing with a 12-4 record and earning the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. After a week of rest during the wild-card round, the Patriots now gear up for Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, who beat the Kansas City Chiefs in their first-round matchup. In Luck’s first career start against New England, the Patriots defeated the Colts, 59-24, on Nov. 18, 2012.
Here are some of the top matchups to watch this weekend in Foxborough as the Patriots try to clinch their third straight trip to the AFC Championship game.
Brady vs. Colts pass defense
Despite having his worst statistical season since 2006, Tom Brady has, once again, gotten the job done when he needed to. With top free-agent pickup Danny Amendola missing four games, Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski missing the first six games, then the last three and all of the playoffs, and all-around back Shane Vereen missing half the season, Brady was forced to rely on rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. The career year of Julian Edelman, who recorded his first 100-catch, 1,000-yard season, helped soften the blow, and Brady was able to still throw for more than 4,300 yards and be named to his ninth Pro Bowl.
The Colts pass defense ranked 13th in the league in yards allowed and yards per game. They gave up the seventh-fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL with 21, while totaling 15 interceptions. The Colts allowed opposing teams an average completion percentage of 60.4. In their opening-round matchup against Kansas City, the Colts allowed Alex Smith to throw for 378 yards and four touchdowns, while recording no interceptions.
Luck vs. Patriots pass defense
As a No. 1 overall draft pick and the successor to Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck has held his own during his two-year tenure in Indianapolis, leading the Colts to back-to-back playoff appearances.
This season, Luck threw for 3,822 yards with 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions, leading the Colts to an 11-5 record and the AFC South title. He lost his most reliable target, Reggie Wayne, on Oct. 20 to a torn ACL — Wayne had played 189 consecutive games, the longest streak among active players — but Luck and the Colts soldiered on, helped by the breakout year of receiver T.Y. Hilton.
Luck threw three interceptions against the Chiefs in the wild-card game but engineered an incredible comeback win, as Indianapolis trailed by 28 points in the third quarter. Luck finished with 443 yards passing and four touchdowns.
The Patriots pass defense allowed 3,824 yards in 2013, 18th in the league, at a rate of 239 yards per game. They allowed as many touchdowns through the air as Tom Brady threw – 25 – but recorded 17 interceptions, including a team-high five by rookie Logan Ryan, who filled in for Pro Bowler Aqib Talib when Talib went down with an injury.
The Patriots did, however, did finish fourth in the league in completion percentage allowed with 57 percent, as they allowed 336 completions on 589 attempts.
The Patriots allowed Luck to throw for 334 yards and two touchdowns in their 2012 meeting but did intercept three passes, including a pick-6 from Talib in his first game with the Patriots.
Patriots rushing attack vs. Colts run defense
The Patriots running attack has developed into a strong three-headed monster over the final parts of the season. LeGarrette Blount has had big games, Stevan Ridley seems to have figured out his fumbling issues, and Shane Vereen is just as dangerous as ever after recovering from a broken wrist. The Patriots combined for 2,065 rushing yards on the season, one of only 12 teams to break the 2,000-yard mark. Their 4.4 yards per attempt was ninth-best in the NFL, while their 19 rushing touchdowns were bested only by Minnesota’s 23. The Patriots have long been known for having a strong air attack, but their running game in 2013 has become just as impressive. The Patriots ran for 115 yards and two touchdowns against the Colts in Week 11 of 2012.
The Colts run defense, on the other hand, was ranked 26th in the league after allowing 2,002 yards on the ground at a rate of 4.5 yards per attempt. They allowed 125.1 yards per game and their 14 rushing touchdowns allowed was tied for 18th in the NFL. In the wild-card game against the Chiefs, the Colts allowed five runners to combine for 150 yards on the ground with a touchdown, and that was even after electric running back Jamaal Charles was forced to leave the game after only three carries.
Colts rushing attack vs. Patriots run defense
Lacking a true game-changing running back, the Colts made a deal with the Cleveland Browns prior to Week 3 for former No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson. Richardson never turned into the incredible runner the Colts had hoped for, rushing for 458 yards and three touchdowns, with an average of just 2.9 yards per rush on the season. The Colts lost top back Ahmad Bradshaw to a season-ending injury, but got good production from Donald Brown, who gained 537 yards on 102 carries with six scores. As a team, the Colts ran for 1,743 yards on the year, ranking them in the bottom half of the NFL. The Colts ran for 100 yards and one touchdown against the Chiefs last week, with 5 of those yards coming from Andrew Luck.
As bad as the Colts run defense has been, the Patriots run stoppers have been even worse. Patriots fans knew it wasn’t going to be pretty after losing Pro Bowl tackle Vince Wilfork in Week 4 against the Falcons, and it hasn’t been, with the Patriots allowing the third-most rushing yards in the NFL with 2,145, at an average of 134.1 yards per game. The Patriots have been better at stopping the run in the red zone, however, allowing 11 rushing touchdowns on the year for 11th in the league. The Patriots allowed 119 rushing yards and a touchdown to the Colts in Week 11 of 2012, though just 21 yards total to players still on the Colts active roster.
Patriots O-line vs. Colts D-line
With all the problems and turnover the Patriots were having in the receiving corps early on, the offensive line stepped up and provided Tom Brady and his targets to develop timing by not letting the pass rush get to the quarterback. On the season, Brady was sacked 40 times, the 10th-lowest total in the league, and threw 11 interceptions, the fifth-fewest in the NFL. The Patriots lost tackle Sebastian Vollmer for the season when he suffered a broken leg Oct. 27 against the Dolphins, but were able to produce with the “next man up’’ attitude. Guard Logan Mankins had an especially strong season, being named to the Pro Bowl, as he provided stability across the line, even sliding over to tackle when the team needed him there.
The Colts defensive line was overshadowed by the sensational year of linebacker Robert Mathis, who led the league with 19.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles. The defensive line had trouble stopping the run, and the team as a whole combined for 42 sacks, tied for 11th in the league.
In their 2012 meeting, the Colts defensive line had no sacks and just one quarterback hit on Brady, and against the Chiefs in the playoffs this year, the line had one sack — by Ricky Jean-François — and just two quarterback hits.
Patriots D-line vs. Colts O-line
The Patriots defensive line lost two of its essential pieces for the season in Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, but the rookie tandem of tackles Chris Jones and Joe Vellano helped pick up the slack in the middle. Sophomore defensive end Chandler Jones has a phenomenal year, recording 11.5 sacks, one forced fumble, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown, while Rob Ninkovich, who was named a team captain halfway through the season, had eight sacks, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries of his own. The Patriots sacked Andrew Luck once in their 2012 meeting.
The Colts offensive line provided very good protection for Luck in his second season, allowing the sophomore out of Stanford to be sacked just 32 times, fifth-lowest in the NFL. They couldn’t help the running game, though, as early-season acquisition Trent Richardson couldn’t get anything going, and season-ending injuries to Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw left the running corps even weaker. The Colts O-line held up well in the incredible comeback win over the Chiefs in the wild-card round, allowing Luck to be sacked just once and giving him the chance to outscore the Chiefs, 35-6, over the final 28 minutes of the game.
Patriots turnover rates vs. Colts turnover rates
The Patriots’ bend-but-don’t-break defense over the past few seasons has been saved by one strong point: turnovers. Heading into 2013, the Patriots led the AFC in turnover differential for three consecutive years. They finished third this season at plus-9. Their 17 interceptions tied the Broncos for fifth in the conference, while their 12 fumble recoveries tied them for third. The difference this season was the number of giveaways. Tom Brady threw 11 interceptions, but the real problem was fumbling, especially for Stevan Ridley, who lost four.
The Colts actually finished ahead of the Patriots in turnover differential at plus-13, second in the AFC behind Kansas City’s plus-18. The Colts recorded 15 interceptions and added 12 fumble recoveries. Andrew Luck threw just 10 interceptions, while the offense as a whole did a good job holding onto the football, losing only four fumbles, fewest in the AFC.
The Colts did have turnover problems in their playoff opener against the Chiefs, however, as they were minus-3 in differential after three Luck interceptions and a Trent Richardson fumble.
Patriots kick/punt returning vs. Colts kick/punt returning
The Patriots return game was average, finishing 16th in the NFL with 935 total yards. They averaged 24 yards on kickoff returns and scored no return touchdowns. LeGarrette Blount had a monster game returning kicks against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17, taking two kicks back for 83 and 62 yards, respectively. On punt returns, Julian Edelman continued to show how he has replaced Wes Welker in many aspects, returning all but one punt the Patriots saw this season. He finished the regular season with 374 yards, an average of 10.7 yards per return, and a long of 43. Danny Amendola returned one punt for 13 yards.
The Colts were fairly effective in the kickoff-return game with 1,011 total yards on 43 chances. Their average was lower than the Patriots, however, at 23.5 yards per return. David Reed was their top return man, totaling 590 yards on 24 returns.
On punt returns, the Colts totaled 326 yards on 33 attempts, averaging 11.3 yards per return. T.Y. Hilton led the team in punt returns with 17 and a total of 159 yards, while Griff Whalen returned eight punts for 104 yards.
Patriots kicking vs. Colts kicking
This is Patriots past vs. Patriots present and future. Stephen Gostkowski had a sensational season for the Patriots, leading the league with 38 field goals and just three misses. He also hit all 44 extra points he attempted and led the NFL in scoring with 158 points. Gostkowski was especially clutch from distance, including two 50-yard-plus field goals that helped the Patriots come back and win in Houston. Rookie punter Ryan Allen has been good since taking the job from Zoltan Mesko after training camp, averaging 45.9 yards per punt, while landing 29 of his 65 punts inside the 20-yard line.
Adam Vinatieri will no doubt enter the Patriots Hall of Fame someday, but for now, he is a member of the Colts and has one more Super Bowl ring than Tom Brady. The 41-year-old hit on 35 of 40 field goal attempts this season and was a perfect 34 for 34 on extra points. He missed only one field goal under 40 yards and finished the season with 139 points, eighth in the NFL. Punter Pat McAfee averaged 46 yards per punt, landing 27 of 76 inside the 20.
Bill Belichick vs. Chuck Pagano
Bill Belichick has a long history against the Colts, but the memorable games all had Peyton Manning as the Indianapolis quarterback and Tony Dungy or Jim Caldwell as coach. The Patriots went 6-0 in the first six matchups of the Brady-Belichick era, with the Colts’ first win coming in the 2005 regular season. The Colts won three straight from 2005-06, with the backbreaker coming in the 2006 AFC Championship game, as Manning led the Colts back from a 21-3 deficit to beat the Patriots and move on to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots are 10-4 against the Colts since 2001, including 2-1 in the playoffs. The Patriots won the last game the teams played, a 59-24 victory in Week 11 of the 2012 season.
Chuck Pagano was named coach of the Colts prior to the 2012 season. The Colts went 11-5 and made the playoffs that year, but Pagano coached only four of those games, as he was diagnosed with leukemia in September and took a leave of absence. He returned to the sideline in Week 17 and led the Colts to an emotional victory over the division champion Houston Texans. The Colts fell in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, but Pagano coached the Colts back to the top in 2013, winning their first division title since 2010, when Manning was still quarterbacking the offense.