AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots

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Tom Brady and the Patriots look to stay undefeated at home this season and advance to their third straight AFC title game

AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots

The Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots will renew their rivalry when they meet in the AFC Divisional Playoff game Saturday night at 8:15 p.m. ET on CBS. The Colts (12-5) staged the second-largest comeback in playoff history last week in their Wild Card win over the Chiefs. The Patriots (12-4) meanwhile got last week off and now have their sights set on a third straight AFC Championship Game appearance.

These two teams met in 10 straight regular seasons from 2003-12, a span that also included three playoff matchups. In the 2003 and ’06 playoffs, the Colts and Patriots faced off in the AFC title game, with the home team coming out victorious each contest. This game is at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots went 8-0 during the regular season and have gone 9-5 in the postseason during Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s time together.

The difference with this matchup is that Andrew Luck, not Peyton Manning, will be under center for Indianapolis. Much has been made of Brady’s 10-4 record against Manning in career head-to-head matchups, but this is just the second time Luck has played against his predecessor’s long-time foil. The first meeting didn’t go well, as the Patriots destroyed the Colts 59-24 last season. Luck and his teammates, however, are entering this one with plenty of confidence having pulled off the 28-point comeback against Kansas City last week.

3 Things to Watch

Captain Comeback vs. Tom Terrific
So it’s not Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady for the 15th time, not yet anyways, but it’s not like Andrew Luck vs. Tom Brady is a horrible consolation prize. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft, Luck has clearly established himself as the current face of the Colts franchise and the unquestioned leader of this team. He’s won more games (22) than Manning (16) in their first two regular seasons and has led the Colts to back-to-back playoff berths. Last week Luck won his first career postseason game in just his second attempt (Manning needed four), and he did so in historic fashion. Trailing Kansas City 38-10 early in the third quarter at home, Luck sparked the second-largest comeback in playoff history. Even though he finished the game with three interceptions, Luck had 443 yards passin and four touchdown passes and he also recovered a fumble for a score in the Colts’ improbable 45-44 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium. Comebacks are nothing new for Luck, who has orchestrated 11 game-winning drives since entering the league in 2012. Those are the most of any quarterback over the last two seasons and eight of these were in the fourth quarter. Whether Luck will have the opportunity to add to his total will come down to the play of his counterpart, Brady. Between the offseason departure of Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez’ legal issues and a rash of injuries to his other weapons, namely Rob Gronkowski, this has not been a typical season for Brady. His passer rating of 87.3 is his lowest in a full season since 2003 and his 25 touchdown passes are his fewest since 2006. That said, much of Brady’s Hall of Fame legacy is a result of what he’s done in the playoffs, as his 17 postseason victories are the most in NFL history and he has won three Super Bowl rings. Brady has gotten the better of Manning in his career and he’s 1-0 against Luck. However, Luck has already done several things that his legendary predecessor didn’t accomplish in his Colts tenure at a much earlier age. Will this success carry over against the Patriots? Or will the grizzled Brady run his career record against the Colts to 11-4?

When Luck and Brady Don’t Have the Ball
Neither team really wants their quarterback to have to drop back and pass the ball 40-plus times, as Andrew Luck did last week, which means each offense will need to run the ball effectively. New England has been able to do just that recently, as the Patriots have averaged 204.5 yards rushing per game over their last two. LeGarrette Blount has been the main catalyst, with more than half (265) of those yards, including 189 on 24 carries (7.9 ypc) in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay. Stevan Ridley still leads the team in rushing with 773 yards and could still be factor on Saturday, although his issues with ball security (four lost fumbles) are why Blount has been getting the majority of the carries. New England is dealing with some injury issues along its offensive line, but still needs to find a way to run the ball against an Indianapolis defense that finished 26th against the run (125.1 ypg) during the regular season. Last week, even with Jamaal Charles exiting after sustaining a concussion in the first quarter, Kansas City finished with 150 yards rushing on 32 carries against the Colts. Indianapolis also has employed a committee approach in its backfield for most of the season, as Trent Richardson (2.9 ypc) just hasn’t gotten the job done since being acquired by the Colts from Cleveland. Donald Brown has stepped up, averaging 5.3 yards per carry in the regular season and contributing 55 yards and two touchdowns (one rush, one receiving) in the Wild Card win. Luck also is capable of making plays with his legs, as he picked up 45 yards against the Chiefs. The Colts have averaged nearly 117 yards rushing over their last four games, and will need to maintain this balance to help open things up for the passing game. The Patriots fared even worse against the run (134.1 ypg) in the regular season than the Colts, so don’t be surprised if this game ends up being more of a ground-based encounter rather than an aerial one.

Patchwork Defenses
It’s been a rough season for New England’s defense with All-Pros Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork lost earlier due to injuries, along with fellow starters Tommy Kelly and Adrian Wilson. Unfortunately, the hits keep coming, as linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee) joined them on injured reserve this week. This means that the Patriots will be without two-thirds of their starting linebackers, as veteran Dane Fletcher and rookie Jamie Collins join Dont’a Hightower in the middle. This also means that the depth chart at the position has been stretched pretty thin, with Ja’Gared Davis added from the practice squad to take Spikes’ roster spot. Starting safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory also appear on the injury report, as they have been limited in practice this week. Indianapolis is dealing with some bumps and bruises of its own on that side of the ball, as starting cornerback Greg Toler and defensive end Fili Moala both were placed on injured reserve this week. The Colts had already lost linebacker Pat Angerer to injuries earlier and their other starting cornerback, Vontae Davis, has been hampered by a groin injury. Additionally, safety LaRon Landry sustained a concussion in the Wild Card win last week and will need to be cleared by the league before he can play. The bottom line is both teams have had to dig deep into their rosters to fill out their defenses. Some of these players have near been in a pressure-packed situation like this before. Come playoff time, it’s survive and advance and both defenses will more than likely need some “new” faces to step up to do just that.

Indianapolis Key Player: T.Y. Hilton, WR
Hilton came up big last week against Kansas City, to the tune of 13 catches for 224 yards and the game-winning 64-yard touchdown. The receptions and yards set new Colts franchise records for a playoff game, meaning Hilton has done something that neither Reggie Wayne nor Marvin Harrison accomplished. Hilton has been huge since Wayne, his teammate and mentor, was lost for the season after tearing his ACL in Week 7 at home against Denver. Even though Andrew Luck and the passing game struggled at times, Hilton was reliable, as he finished the regular season among the top 20 in both receptions (82) and yards (1,083). Hilton had just five touchdown catches, but his importance to the Colts’ offense can’t be overstated. No reliable, consistent secondary option has emerged behind Hilton, which means he will need to continue to have success against New England’s cornerback tandem of Logan Ryan and Aqib Talib. Hilton posted six catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns last season against the Patriots, but that was with Wayne on the field with him. Even though he stands just 5-9, there’s nowhere for Hilton to “hide” on the field this time around.

New England Key Player: Danny Amendola, WR
Following Wes Welker’s departure to Denver, the Patriots signed Amendola to a five-year, $31 million free-agent deal to essentially replace the productive wideout. Unfortunately, Amedola’s first season with the Patriots has not gone according to plan. After getting off to a great start (10 rec., 104 yds.) against Buffalo in Week 1, Amendola injured his groin late, which caused him to miss the next three games. A concussion later in the season cost him another game, which only reinforced the injury-prone label that’s already been attached to him. Whether it was injury or getting comfortable in a new system, Amendola’s impact was limited to just 54 catches for 633 yards and two touchdowns. The time missed also hurt Amendola’s chemistry with Tom Brady, who turned to Julian Edelman in the wake of Amendola’s and Rob Gronkowski’s injury issues. Edelman responded with a career year (105 rec., 1,056 yds., 6 TDs), but he can’t do it alone. With rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins dealing with their own injuries, there’s no better time than now for Amendola to step up and produce like the receiver the Patriots thought they were getting when they signed him. The opportunities should be there for Brady to make some plays, as the Colts are already down one starting cornerback (Greg Toler) and have two other defensive backs (Vontae Davis and LaRon Landry) dealing with injuries. Remember this is the same secondary that gave up 378 yards passing and four touchdowns to Alex Smith and the Chiefs last week. There’s no question that Brady is a better quarterback than Smith. The question is can Amendola help his signal-caller make plays against the Colts?

Final Analysis

Andrew Luck had some pretty big shoes to fill when he replaced Peyton Manning as quarterback of the Colts. However, in just two seasons, the 2012 No. 1 overall pick has already done several things that the future Hall of Famer didn’t accomplish during his time in Indianapolis. The latest of which was winning his first playoff game in just his second try, while orchestrating the second-biggest comeback in postseason history in the process.

The scene now shifts to New England, where Luck will try to do something else Manning hasn’t done – win a road playoff game against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Manning is 0-2 at Gillette Stadium in the postseason and just 4-10 against Belichick/Brady in his career. Luck lost his first head-to-head meeting against this duo last season, but the Colts are riding a ton of momentum entering this one following last week’s furious and historic comeback.

However, there’s a reason that Brady has the most playoff wins (17) of any quarterback in history and Belichick trails only Tom Landry and Don Shula with 18 postseason victories. The Patriots went 8-0 at home this season and I think they just have too much playoff experience, both on the roster and coaching staff, for the young, upstart Colts to overcome. Indianapolis puts up a good fight, thanks in large part to New England’s depleted defense, but in the end Brady does to Luck what he did to Manning twice before — sends the Colts home with a loss.

New England 27, Indianapolis 20

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