For the third time in the last four seasons, the path to the Super Bowl goes through Gillette Stadium, as the Indianapolis Colts take on the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game Sunday night on CBS. After knocking off Peyton Manning and Denver, Andrew Luck and the Colts (13-5) are looking for their second straight road upset, while Tom Brady and the Patriots (13-4) are aiming to get back to the Super Bowl after coming up just short the past two seasons.
Coming off of his first career road playoff victory (against the man he replaced in Indianapolis no less), Luck will need to beat another future Hall of Fame quarterback to secure his first Super Bowl berth. Luck is 0-3 in his career against the Patriots, including a 42-20 home loss back in November.
With a win, Brady would earn the right to play in a record-tying sixth Super Bowl, giving him and Bill Belichick a shot at their fourth ring. However, the last time they were in this position, playing in the AFC title game at home; they were unable to get the job done, losing 28-13 to Baltimore two seasons ago.
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 18 at 6:40 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: New England -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Andrew Luck Solve His Patriot Problem?
Luck has already accomplished much in his first three seasons. Although not a Super Bowl winner like 2012 draft classmate Russell Wilson, Luck is a three-time Pro Bowler who has experienced postseason success with the Colts quicker than his predecessor, future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. Luck is 3-2 in the playoffs in his first three seasons. Manning didn’t get his first playoff victory until his sixth season and it took three more after that before he played in his first Super Bowl. For Luck to get to the Super Bowl it will require his first career victory over New England. Luck is 0-3 against the Patriots, including a 43-22 loss in last season’s Divisional Round. While he’s averaged 322.7 yards passing per game against the Patriots, he’s completed less than 54 percent of his attempts with more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (six). Luck is not the first elite quarterback to struggle against Bill Belichick’s team (see Manning), but if he wants to continue to eclipse the man he replaced under center and get Indianapolis back to the Super Bowl, he will need to elevate his play against the team that has ruled the AFC since 2001.
2. Tom Brady’s Conference Championship Game Curse?
The all-time leader in NFL playoff history in yards (6,791) and touchdowns (46), Brady’s postseason resume speaks for itself. He’s 19-8 overall, 13-3 at home and has won three Super Bowls in five appearances. For all of Brady’s success, however, he has not been at his best in the AFC Championship Game. Since the 2006 season, Brady is just 2-3 in these contests, including losses in each of the past two seasons. Beyond the record, however, is the fact that Brady’s numbers haven’t been that impressive. In these five games, he’s thrown more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (five) and his completion percentage of 60.5 is three points below his career rate. Last Saturday, Brady set a personal-best in the postseason with 367 yards passing in the Divisional Round win over Baltimore while the three touchdown passes tied for his second most (shares the record of six with two others). Brady’s status as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play is secure, regardless of what happens in this game. However, if he wants to get another shot at tying Joe Montana’s four Super Bowl rings, Brady needs to put together a better performance than he has in recent conference championship games. After all, there’s a reason the Patriots have played in the last three AFC title games but only made it to one Super Bowl.
3. Will Either Team Gain Much Ground?
New England’s 42-20 win In Indianapolis in November featured a season-high 246 yards rushing. Jonas Gray led the ground assault with 201 yards and franchise-record four touchdowns on 37 carries. The Colts managed a meager 19 yards on 16 carries, as they were forced to play catch up most of the game. Since then, plenty has changed in each team’s backfield. The Patriots brought back LeGarrette Blount after he was released by Pittsburgh, and he has taken over as the No. 1 rusher, while Gray has all but disappeared. Indianapolis also has overhauled its running back rotation, as Dan Herron (Cincinnati’s sixth-round pick in 2012) and undrafted rookie Zurlon Tipton have replaced an ineffective Trent Richardson and injured Ahmad Bradshaw, who broke his ankle against New England. While Blount has been solid (4.7 ypc, 3 TDs) in his second stint with the Patriots, the offense has relied less on the run, rushing for a season-low 14 yards in last week’s win over Baltimore. The Colts on the other hand, have made more of a concerted effort to get the ball into Herron’s and Tipton’s hands, as the team has averaged more than 100 yards rushing in each of its playoff victories. So what should we expect Sunday night? The Ravens’ Justin Forsett gashed New England for 129 yards on the ground on 24 carries (5.4 ypc) last week, while Indianapolis held Denver to just 88 yards rushing. Has the edge in the running game swung the Colts’ direction or will the Patriots try to reassert themselves on the ground once again?
Instead of Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady XVII, we get Andrew Luck vs. Tom Brady IV. While the magnitude of the latter pales in comparison to the former, the stakes for the latest head-to-head meeting between arguably the game’s top young quarterback and one of the best to ever play the position couldn’t be higher. Just like his predecessor, the obstacle that stands between Luck taking the next step in his stardom is none other than the combination of Bill Belichick and Brady. As impressive as the Colts’ postseason run has been thus far, the path to the Super Bowl goes through Gillette Stadium, which is still Belichick and Brady’s domain. Luck gives it his all, but in the end the Patriots have too much on both sides of the ball. New England exorcises some recent playoff demons by finishing the job it had set out to do the past two seasons.