Patriots

The Colts are ripe for a defeat Sunday. Can the Patriots deliver it?

If the Colts aren’t in turmoil, they’re on the verge of it.

Colts quarterback Sam Ehlinger played competently in his first start last Sunday against the Commanders, completing 17 of 23 passes without a touchdown or interception in the 17-16 loss. ZACH BOLINGER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Welcome to Season 11, Episode 9 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.

The Patriots can’t afford to think of anything as a revenge game right now. After getting back to .500 with a 22-17 win over interception specialist Zach Wilson and the Jets last Sunday, all focus needs to be on how they’re playing, not who they’re playing. They need to stack some wins together in November — before that first showdown with the loaded Bills on Dec. 1 — if they’re going to make a legitimate playoff run.

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But there is something to avenge in Sunday’s matchup with the Colts. The Patriots’ 2021 season took the wrong detour with a 27-17 loss to Indianapolis in Week 15. The Patriots, coming off their bye week with a 9-4 record and a seven-game winning streak, made fundamental mistake after fundamental mistake on offense, while the defense could not slow star Colts running back Jonathan Taylor, who accumulated 67 of his 170 rushing yards on a clinching touchdown run just before the two-minute warning. The Patriots would win just one more game the rest of the season.

The Patriots have been so unpredictable this season, in both good ways and — I’m thinking of the 19-point loss to the Bears here ― bad, that it’s difficult to draw conclusions about where they’re headed. But this matchup should provide some valuable clues.

If the Colts aren’t in turmoil, they’re on the verge of it. Quarterback Matt Ryan, the 37-year-old former Boston College star and high-profile offseason acquisition, was benched after throwing nine interceptions and nine touchdown passes in seven games. He also had 11 fumbles in his first five starts.

He was replaced by former sixth-round pick Sam Ehlinger, who is essentially Bailey Zappe with fleeter feet, having scored 16 rushing touchdowns during his sophomore season at the University of Texas. Ehlinger played competently in his first start last Sunday against the Commanders, completing 17 of 23 passes without a touchdown or interception in the 17-16 loss.

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His first start screams “game manager at best,” but Ehlinger does present an interesting test for Bill Belichick and the Patriots defense. He is the kind of inexperienced quarterback Belichick usually torments, but he does run well, which is something they’ve had trouble defending lately, most notably when the Bears’ Justin Fields ran past them for 82 yards two weeks ago.

More about that pending turmoil: The Colts fired offensive coordinator Marcus Brady after the Washington loss, making him the greatest scapegoat in sports this week that doesn’t answer to the name Steve Nash. Coach Frank Reich is the so-called architect of the Colts’ 30th-ranked scoring offense (16.1 points per game). Taylor hasn’t been the same this season (462 yards, one touchdown) as he deals with an ankle injury, and speedy backup/third-down running back Nyheim Hines was dealt to the Bills at the deadline. And now they’re leaning on a rookie quarterback with a modest pedigree?

Sometimes it’s not obvious when a team is about to fall apart. Who saw it coming with the Patriots last year? But sometimes it is. The Colts are ripe for defeat Sunday. If the Patriots can deliver it, maybe we’ll learn a little something about them too.

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Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started …

Three players to watch other than the quarterbacks

Stephon Gilmore: Most of the successful big-money free agent signings in NFL history have been quarterbacks — Drew Brees with the Saints, Peyton Manning with the Broncos, and Tom Brady with the Buccaneers, all of whom won Super Bowls with their second teams.

Gilmore has had a strong stat to his Indy career.
Gilmore has had a strong stat to his Indy career.ZACH BOLINGER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

But the best overall free agent addition in NFL history was a defensive player — end Reggie White with the Packers in 1993, when he signed a massive (well, for the time) four-year, $17 million deal. He, too, was essential in a Super Bowl victory, as Drew Bledsoe’s ribcage can attest.

I bring this up because I think a case can be made that Gilmore, now in his first season with the Colts, turned out to be the second-best high-priced free agent signing of a defensive player ever when the Patriots plucked him from the Bills with a five-year, $65 million deal in March 2017. The move was a stunner — the majority of Patriots observers figured incumbent cornerback Malcolm Butler would get the big payday.

After a rough first few games, Gilmore’s time in New England was mostly brilliant, validating what Belichick saw in him. He clinched the 2018 Patriots’ Super Bowl victory over the Rams by baiting hapless quarterback Jared Goff into a late interception. The next season was his individual pinnacle: He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year after leading the league with six interceptions and 20 pass breakups.

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After contract and injury issues that may not have been mutually exclusive, the Patriots sent Gilmore to the Panthers at the trade deadline last year. He signed with the Colts in the offseason, and he teams with Kenny Moore — a Patriot for a brief time — as their starting cornerback tandem. In his 11th NFL season, it would not be a surprise if he pulls a sly one and baits Mac Jones into an interception Sunday. Gilmore has played well for the Colts. But for the Patriots, he was often spectacular, and big money well-spent.

Hunter Henry: One of the most perplexing ongoing story lines with the Patriots offense is the inability or failure to get Henry involved. He was their most dependable non-Jakobi Meyers option in the passing game last year, catching 50 passes on 75 targets for 603 yards and 9 touchdowns. It was a solid first season in New England, right in line with his production in 2020 with the Chargers (60-613-4).

But through eight games this season, his stat totals — 15 catches, 190 yards, 1 touchdown — look like they belong on the profootballreference.com pages of his ineffective tight end predecessors, like Matt LaFleur or Ryan Izzo.

Stranger still, after building that connection with Jones last year, his two most productive games — a 4-61-1 performance against Cleveland in Week 6, which followed up a 4-54-0 game against the Lions in Week 5 — came with Zappe at quarterback. That might indicate that some of this is on Jones, who has had issues seeing the field this season, but the hunch here is that it’s more a Matt Patricia thing.

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Conventional wisdom or recency bias might suggest that Henry will be a non-factor this week given the pattern of his season, but this might just be the week and the opponent to get a talented player properly involved again.

Henry delivered his best performance as a Patriot against the Colts in Week 15 last season, catching six passes for 77 yards and a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, including one with a little more than twoleft that cut the Colts’ lead to 20-17. The Patriots could use that player right now. It’s Patricia and Jones’s duty to find him.

Henry caught six passes for 77 yards and two touchdowns last season against the Colts.
Henry caught six passes for 77 yards and two touchdowns last season against the Colts.BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF

Shaquille Leonard: The last time the Patriots ran into this guy, he had a hellacious game under a different name. Known as Darius Leonard until deciding to go by his middle name this season, the three-time All-Pro linebacker was a one-man swarm in last year’s matchup, making a game-high 10 tackles, forcing a Rhamondre Stevenson fumble, breaking up a pass, and picking off another on a Jones throw intended for Henry. (Jones did not appear to see the defender on Leonard’s pick, which has been a problem with the quarterback this season.)

Leonard has played just two games this season. He missed the first three games while recovering from offseason back surgery, made his season debut in Week 4 against the Titans, but suffered a concussion as well as nose and back injuries that kept him out until his return last Sunday against the Commanders.

The Colts, who have the 17th-ranked run defense at 120 yards per game, eased him back in their loss to Washington, limiting him to 24 snaps. But he was typically effective, with three tackles and an interception.

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Leonard, with assistance from a talented defensive line that includes DeForest Buckner and Yannick Ngakoue (who have a combined eight sacks and 19 QB hits), could dominate against the Patriots. Their offensive line struggled against the Jets without center David Andrews (concussion), allowing Jones to be sacked six times.

Grievance of the week

After mentioning this past week that Jabrill Peppers — who has been a heck of a pickup, by the way — made a “big-time shortstop play” in fielding a skittering onside kick to secure the win over the Jets, Belichick was asked who his favorite shortstop was growing up.

His answer indicated two things: He is sadly not familiar with the work of one Anthony Nomar Garciaparra. And he apparently matured way later than we thought.

“There’s a lot of good ones, but I’d have to go with [Derek] Jeter here in the long haul — not that I was growing up then,” he said, clarifying at least that much. “It’d be hard to put anyone ahead of Jeter.”

I suppose this is somewhat understandable. Belichick was riding shotgun to Bill Parcells with the Jets from 1997-99, when Jeter was the toast of New York, New Jersey, certain parts of Connecticut, and every single Fox baseball broadcast. Belichick was probably in a film bunker cooking up new ways to torment Bledsoe while Garciaparra was ripping line drives every single at-bat on those “Nomar, Pedro, and 23 role players against the world” Red Sox teams.

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He missed out on the Nomar heyday. I’d feel for him if he wasn’t so mistaken. Jeter? We’re shocked you didn’t say Mark Belanger. Stick to football and some occasional lacrosse, Bill.

Prediction, or when did Jim Irsay become the conscience of the NFL?

There’s no other word for it. The Patriots were sloppy against the Colts last year. Jones threw two interceptions, including one in the red zone. The Colts blocked a Jake Bailey punt and recovered for a touchdown. The Patriots committed two false start penalties in short-yardage situations. Another penalty negated a missed Colts field goal, with kicker Michael Badgley hitting the second chance.

They’ve been sloppy too often this season. Jones has seven interceptions and just three touchdown passes. The offensive line has been penalty-prone. Promising drives too often end with 3 points rather than 7. This has to be a week to keep it simple, protect the football, give Stevenson touches, and let Matthew Judon and the defense flummox Ehlinger. That is not much to ask. Patriots 23, Colts 6.

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