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New England Patriots vs. Indianapolis Colts Prediction and Preview

New England Patriots vs. Indianapolis Colts Prediction and Preview

The AFC rivalry is renewed on Saturday night when the Colts host the red-hot Patriots

On Saturday night, the New England Patriots take their seven-game winning streak to the Circle City to face the playoff-seeking Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Patriots (9-4) have emerged as the AFC's best team after starting the season just 2-4. When it comes to sheer size and physicality, New England might be the best team in the land. Two weeks ago, they absolutely imposed their will on the road against Buffalo, rushing the ball 46 times and throwing the fewest passes in an NFL ballgame since 1974 with three, beating the Bills 14-10 in wildly blustery conditions. Now, fresh off their bye week, the Patriots look to keep their train rolling to an eighth straight win and another impressive victory on the road.

The Colts (7-6) are also coming off a bye week and have now found themselves holding a playoff spot (sixth seed). Two weeks ago, they did exactly what they needed to against the Texans, dismantling Houston on the road, 31-0. Indy has won four of their last five ball games and six of their last eight to help overcome that terrible 0-3 start to the year. A win against New England on Saturday night would further cement their playoff positioning but also spark chaos amongst the rest of the postseason picture.

New England (9-4) at Indianapolis (7-6)

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 18 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: NFL Network
Spread: Colts -2.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Pats' run D vs. JT28
The New England defense has the biggest and arguably the most physically imposing front seven in all the NFL. But their greatest asset is their ability to adapt to each opponent as head coach Bill Belichick famously changes his defensive schemes from week to week. So far this season, this Patriots defensive unit has been as dynamic as any New England defense since their early Belichick Super Bowl runs with guys like Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Ty Law, and Tedy Bruschi.

This version of the Patriots D is the stingiest unit in the league at 15.4 points allowed per game. In their last five wins, they've been a pure force, limiting teams to just 7.2 points per game, never allowing more than 20 points. They've been exceptional against the run, holding opposing offenses to less than 100 yards rushing in five of their last seven games.

But the Patriots have yet to face a running attack as dangerous and tenacious as this Colts' rushing game. Indy is the best in the league at pounding the rock, ranking first in yards per carry (5.1) and second in rushing yards per game (151).

Jonathan Taylor is the best back in the NFL right now, bar none, leading the league with 1,348 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. Like the Pats' defense, Taylor doesn't have a distinct playing style. He can wear down a defense over the course of a game with power runs between the tackles, with enough shiftiness to skirt by linebackers in tight spaces, and breakaway speed to take one to the house from 40-plus yards out. He leads the league in evaded tackles, yards created, juke rate, rushing yards over expectation, rushing yards before and after contact, and explosive runs.

It's amazing it took head coach Frank Reich 10 games before he gave Taylor more than 20 carries in a game. Since then, the only non-20 carry game Taylor had was against Tampa Bay, a Colts loss. Taylor was still able to tag the Bucs for 5.1 yards per carry and a touchdown despite only having 16 carries. It's no surprise the Colts are 7-0 when Taylor hits the 100-yard mark this season. The man is a monster.

I would expect a heavy, heavy dose of Taylor this week against the Pats. Even though their run defense has been so tough as of late, New England did have a hiccup recently against a similar offensive line to that of the Colts when they allowed the Titans to shove 270 yards rushing down their throat with D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard (who?) running the ball.

Watching these two massive front lines push and shove one another up front could be the biggest factor in this game. With center Ryan Kelly back in the lineup this week for Indy, and the great Quenton Nelson to his immediate left, you have to like the Colts' chances with Taylor in the backfield.

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2. Be careful what you wish for: Mac Jones edition
There is no doubt about it, much like the Colts, the Patriots' offense is built around their power running game. The Pats have nine straight games of gaining at least 100 yards on the ground and run the ball on 49.1 percent of their offensive snaps, the sixth-highest mark in the league. Running backs Damien Harris (754 yds., 4.6 ypc) and Rhamondre Stevenson (429, 4.3) have formed a formidable one-two punch, and the Pats' O-line is as tough as they come. New England will be without Harris on Saturday because of a hamstring injury so Stevenson will assume a larger role with Brandon Bolden getting some touches as well.

I totally expect the Colts to be aggressive in their attempts to stop the Pats' ground game. Look for defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus to stack the box with his linebackers and dial run blitzes all night long. The Colts probably trust their dynamic defensive backs enough in man-to-man coverage to blitz more than usual against Jones. He is pretty average against the blitz, ranking 17th in yards per attempt (6.9) and rating (86.1) against pressure.

By attacking Jones, the Colts will hope to keep him from throwing to the sidelines, where he's the most dangerous, and more toward the middle of the field where he hardly ever throws. Jones has only five completed passes between the hashes since Week 6.

And therein lies the knock on Jones. He's too safe. He's just a game manager. He's 23rd in completed air yards (5.3) and intended air yards (7.6), 22nd in deep throws (43), and 20th in danger throws. He doesn't take a lot of chances with the football.

But safe doesn't mean bad. In the Patriots' case, it's about balance. In fact, the Patriots' passing attack, especially Jones, has been really good during this seven-game win streak. During this run, Jones is completing 69.4 percent of his throws, with a 106.1 rating, and a 9-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Jones' eight games of at least 70-percent completion rate are the most in the NFL this year. And his numbers in play-action passing situations are about eight points better across the board than in standard throws.

So, while his numbers may not be Rodgers or Brady-like (yet), Jones has proven that he's a vital part of this Patriots offense and the team's success as a whole. Test him if you dare, Indy.

3. Protect the ball, win the game
As has been said many times, success in the NFL comes down to who is the healthiest, who protects the football, and who takes the football away. That equation is our rock and a hard place for Saturday night.

The Colts and the Patriots are the two best teams in the league when it comes to forcing turnovers, ranking first and second in defensive turnover percentage, respectively. The Colts lead the league in forced turnovers with 29, including 14 fumbles recovered. New England's defense is third with 26 turnovers gained and ranks second with 19 interceptions. In each of their last three games, the Patriots have forced nine takeaways and the Colts eight. New England cornerback J.C. Jackson's seven interceptions and Indy linebacker Darius Leonard's five forced fumbles are both ranked second in their respective categories in the NFL this season.

On the flip side, both teams are very good at protecting the football, especially their quarterbacks. Despite some head-scratching, game-defying interceptions earlier in the year, Carson Wentz is still having the best year of his career protecting the football. Over the last five games, Wentz has just three turnovers, two of which were interceptions (that weren't his fault) against Tampa Bay. Jones protects the ball like a seasoned vet. He's only given the ball away three times in the Pats' seven-game streak with just eight picks this whole year.

Simply put, whichever team that protects the ball better will come out on top. If the game should turn into a turnover fest, I'd think that would favor Indy and their offense's ability to strike with the big play.

Final Analysis

This game is extremely evenly matched and with two very balanced teams. To me, it comes down to coaching styles. Reich is aggressive and bold but sometimes veers away from his bread and butter. While Belichick always sticks to the plan, even if that means only throwing three passes in a game. If Reich gives Taylor at least 25 carries, I like the Colts' chances at home. But, I've also learned to never count out a Belichick-coached team.

Prediction: Patriots 24, Colts 22

— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.