8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: Indianapolis -3
An old rivalry is rekindled tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium as the Indianapolis Colts host the New England Patriots on Sunday Night Football. These teams met in the Division Round of last year’s Playoffs, where the Patriots dismantled the young Colts in a 43-23 victory; the hosts trampled the visitors’ inept defensive front to the tune of 234 rushing yards on their way 419 total, while their defense forced Andrew Luck and Co. into four turnovers. And there’s a good chance that we could seem them clash once more this postseason, with both leading their respective divisions. In the case of New England (7-2), Bill Belichick’s charges have overcome a slow start to the campaign in which they were a lethargic 2-2, to win five consecutive contests, emerging from their Bye Week as the Top Overall Seed in the AFC. In fact, if these guys are indeed able to secure yet another AFC East Title, it would mark eleven out of the last thirteen years in which they’ve held that crown. Of course, why wouldn’t they get another after pasting the Denver Broncos two weeks ago in Foxboro? On a dreary day at Gillette Stadium, Tom Brady and Co. took it to the defending AFC Champions, jumping on them early in the game before establishing a surprising 27-7 lead at Halftime. Despite being outgained by nearly 100 yards and only rushing for 66 themselves, the Pats received a spark on special Teams from Julian Edelman, who returned a Bronco’s’ punt 84 yards for a touchdown midway through the Second Quarter, breaking the game wide open. In a game where Brady was typical Brady, calmly completing 33-of-53 (62.3%) for 333 yards, four touchdowns and an interception, and Rob Gronkowski was a force (9 catches, 105 yards, 1 touchdown), it was Belichick’s defense that made the biggest impact; though they relinquished a total of 429 yards to Denver, they relegated them to just 43 yards on seventeen carries, allowed them to convert on only three of their eleven Third Downs (27.3%), and none of their four attempts on Fourth, while turning Peyton Manning and Co. over twice. With the second half of the season upon us, look for these guys to be there towards the end once more; since 2010, New England is a remarkable 30-3 (.909) during the second half of the campaign, by far and away the best record in the league over that period.
The more things change the more they stay the same in New England, and every time we seem to write off Tom Brady he seems to remind us just why he is one of the greatest to play the position. During the team’s poor start, the two-time MVP was dreadful (by his lofty standards); in the first four weeks of the campaign, Brady completed 59.1% of his passes for a mere 197.8 yards (5.8 yards.attempt), with four touchdowns and two interceptions. Behind a ravaged Offensive Line replacing a pair of starters, including a Pro Bowler at Left Guard, the 37-year old predictably struggled, but in the time that has since past, everything has changed for the better. During this latest five-game winning streak, Brady has never looked better, completing 67.2% of his attempts for 320.2 yards (8.1 yards/attempt), tossing eighteen touchdowns to just one lone interception. Not suprisingly, Play-Action has helped him tremendously throughout this stretch, for he has used Play Fakes on 91 occasions this season (4th overall), completing 71.4% of his passes (6th overall) for 9.7 yards per attempt (8th overall), and six touchdowns (1st overall), with a Total QBR of 93.8 (3rd overall). What has been surprising is the fact that he’s been able to sell the fake without a consistent running game; the Patriots are only averaging 101.2 yards on the ground (19th overall) on a mediocre 3.6 yards per attempt (26th overall). Despite improving vastly in Pass Protection, the young Offensive Line has yet fully figure out Run Blocking, which has been their forte over recent seasons. However, the backfield has been decimated, leaving Belichick to delve deeper into the platoon of rushers he’s enlisted in years past. With Stevan Ridley (340 yards, 2 touchdowns) on Injured Reserve with a torn ACL, Shane Vereen has seen the most snaps, rushing for 310 yards and a score on 4.5 yards per carry, while also factoring heavily into the passing game with 31 catches for 246 yards (7.9 yards/catch) and three more touchdowns. And speaking of the passing game, Rob Gronkowski looks about as healthy as he’s been in two years; the Tight End has played in all nine games this term, hauling in 49 balls on 75 targets, amassing 663 yards (13.5 yards/catch), and a team-best eight touchdowns. Outside of Brady, you’d be hard-pressed to find a player on this offense who is more important to their success, for in the 402 plays ran with Gronkowski on the field this season, nine of them have gone for thirty yards or more, with twenty-five culminating in touchdowns, opposed to just a pair of thirty-yard plays and one score in the 208 plays in which the towering Tight End has been on the sideline.
Meanwhile, the Colts (6-3) too emerge fresh from their Bye Week with a real opportunity to make a push for Home Field throughout the Playoffs. After tonight’s battle with New England, their final six games of the season come against the likes of the Jaguars, Redskins, Browns, Texans, Cowboys, and Titans, who together combine for a record of 23-33 (.412), with Cleveland and Dallas being the only teams with winning records at the moment. The contests against their AFC South brethren are the key, for Chuack Pagano’s charges have dominated their neighbors int he division this season, outscoring them 118-62 en route to winning each of those three meetings. Then again, this is a team that has literally feasted upon the weak parts of their schedule; Indianapolis is 4-0 against sub-.500 teams this season, winning by an average margin of eighteen points, but against teams above the .500 mark, they are just 2-3 with a plus-seven differential which is skewed in their favor due to a 27-0 shutout of the flat-lining Bengals. In fact, if you were to extract that victory from the equation, then the Colts would be minus-twenty points from the remainder of their opponents. In their last outing, they drubbed the Giants 40-24 at MetLife Stadium; though they only outgained the hosts by five yards, but scored on virtually every possession. Andrew Lick completed 25-of-46 passes for 354 yards and four touchdowns, spreading passes to nine different receivers, with seven racking up two or more catches.
Much of their success can be attributed to the play of their offense, or more importantly to Luck, who in just his third season in the league has risen to the ranks of the elite. Through the first nine games the former First Overall Pick has completed 63.6% of his passes for 3,085 yards (7.8 yards/attempt), 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions, while rushing for another two scores, 129 yards on 35 carries. He has thus far compiled seven consecutive 300-yard performances, the third-longest streak since 1970, and At this current pace will break Peyton Manning’s record which was set last season. With Luck pulling the trigger, the Comts have been the most explosive passing offense in the NFL; Indianapolis ranks first overall in points scored (32.2), total yards (458.8), and passing yards (345.0) along with fourth in net yards per pass (7.4). Furthermore, Pagano’s outfit leads the league with 52 offensive plays of twenty yards or more, with Luck contributing towards twenty-two pass plays of as many or more yards, also tops in the NFL. Stability at Tight End has made quite a difference, as Dwayne Allen has emerged as one of his most trusted weapons in the intermediate passing game. Allen missed all but one game last season with a hip injury, but has returned to help his Quarterback dish out 715 passing yards to that particular position, more than he had in all of 2013.