The 4-0 New England Patriots travel to Indianapolis to face the 3-2 Colts in a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game. While everyone is penciling this in as New England's Deflategate "revenge" game, it's a still a battle between two of the conference's best teams, and with Indy's backs already somewhat against the wall, this should be a hard-fought battle.
The Patriots were just bitten by the injury bug for the first time this season, losing starting left tackle Nate Solder to a torn biceps. The Pats have decent depth at tackle, with Marcus Cannon likely to slide into Solder's spot, but he's had his inconsistencies and could be a weak link for the Colts to attack. But otherwise the Pats have looked like the best team in the NFL despite not facing any major challenges yet. This will be their hardest game of the season thus far, despite their recent history against the Colts.
The Colts have won their last three games, two of which came with Matt Hasselbeck under center. Andrew Luck could return in this one and they badly need him to get their first non-division win of the season. Indy made a number of splashy offensive acquisitions this offseason, including Frank Gore and Andre Johnson, but both have failed to find the fountain of youth thus far. Despite a sputtering start, the Colts should turn things around and make a playoff run. Knocking off New England would be a major turning point not just for their season, but for Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano and the organization as a whole.
The Pats have rolled over the Colts the last four games, but sooner or later Indianapolis is bound to give them a close game and this just might be it!
New England at Indianapolis
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Line: Patriots -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Colts Stop LeGarrette Blount?
In the last two playoff games between these teams Blount has a combined 54 carries for 314 yards and seven touchdowns. It's not so much that the Patriots simply overpower the Colts from the start of the game, but Blount is their hammer and he's been nearly unstoppable once the Colts defense is on its heels a bit. Expect New England to come out throwing with Dion Lewis early, but it's only a matter of time before the Pats start to incorporate Blount more. Indy's run defense has looked better this year behind its two rookie defensive tackles from Stanford, but stopping the Patriots' running game is their ultimate challenge and one that could determine the course for the rest of their season. But to get to the point of stopping Blount, the Colts will have to stop Brady and the aerial assault first.
2. How Good is New England's Defense Really?
The Patriots' defense really hasn't been challenged yet. Yes, they saw Ben Roethlisberger and a depleted Steelers receiver corps in Week 1, but since then Tyrod Taylor, Blake Bortles and Brandon Weeden haven't exactly been a murderer's row. Now the Pats must match up with the Colts' weapons, and while they haven't lit the league on fire yet, the talent around Andrew Luck is undeniable. New England's front seven talent also is undeniable, so this group will need to get pressure early and often. The Colts' best chance might just be to run all their receivers out there and exploit New England's lack of depth in the secondary. The Pats shut down the Colts' passing attack in the AFC title game in January, but Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington are all long gone. Can Luck keep up in a shootout against Brady while coming off a shoulder injury? That's the biggest question. And if it's Matt Hasselbeck in there, all hope might be lost.
3. Tom Brady
Of course the Patriots are downplaying the revenge angle this week, but it's hard to imagine they haven't had this game circled for a long time. That doesn't necessarily mean it translates into yet another 40-plus point game, but it's guaranteed that they will have their foot on the gas the entire game. Brady has had a different aura about him this year. Maybe it's because the pressure is off after getting his fourth ring or maybe he really is in "destroy" mode after being dragged through the dirt during Deflategate. But one thing is for sure, if Brady has his laser focus locked in on an Indy defense that is 28th in passing yards against, this one could get ugly.
All signs point to a New England victory here given the recent games and off-the-field motivation the Patriots might have. But the Colts need this game more than the Patriots do in the season-long scheme of things and you can never write off a team like that. The Pats' defense is still largely untested and if the Colts' ample weapons start to click they could put up a fair number of points. The x-factor is Andrew Luck. He'll need to play his very best game unless the Patriots' offense suddenly goes south. Luck has seven interceptions in the last three games against the Pats. That's always a recipe for a loss. If he doesn't turn the ball over and starts to pick apart the New England secondary, this one could come down to the end.