Saturday, January 11, 2014

Four Point Stance: Colts at Patriots


New England's offense in 2013 wasn't exactly what it's been in years past, but the result was the same -- a first-round bye and a home game in the Divisional round of the playoffs.

The question now is whether the Patriots' new look look can get them where they were nearly a decade ago: back on top.

The first hurdle will be a familiar foe with a relatively unfamiliar leader. The Indianapolis Colts pulled out a thrilling come-from-behind victory last week to punch their ticket to Foxborough, where the Patriots are one of the best teams in the league when it comes to second-half stability.

Quarterback Andrew Luck struggled as a rookie against the New England defense, though the sophomore has cut his interception numbers in half from last season and upped his completion percentage, as well as his pocket presence.

The opposite can be said for the Pats' veteran signal-caller, though Tom Brady still managed to throw 25 touchdowns and carry a respectable quarterback rating despite a down year. New England instead leaned on its slew of multi-functional running backs and a stout pass defense to pick up the slack, not to mention an impressive yearlong performance by place kicker Stephen Gostkowski.

Brady is never more deadly than in the postseason, however, and it will be interesting to see if the experienced captain can turn up the intensity while missing his staple go-to receiving options.

When the Patriots have the ball:
With Aaron Dobson out and Kenbrell Thompkins nursing a hip injury, New England's receiving options are once again limited, forcing Brady to continue to rely on his trusted trio -- Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen -- to pick up the lion's share of the work. All three have been used mainly in a short-route scheme throughout the season, which will actually help Brady given defensive end Robert Mathis's likely presence in the backfield. Against a sub-par run defense, Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount will be expected to get going early and often, with a main emphasis on avoiding turnovers. Don't rule out the potential impact of wide receiver and former Colt Austin Collie either, who, like recent Indy acquisition Deion Branch, will likely have something to prove and will be looking to break off a game-changing play or two.

When the Colts have the ball:
Luck is now down a second top-tier receiver, as Darrius Heyward-Bey has been ruled out for Saturday's game. Couple that with the midseason loss of Reggie Wayne, and the pressure on young T.Y. Hilton to carry the offense only grows. Tight end Coby Fleener's production has been solid, particularly on first down, though losing 20 percent of the team's pass production will likely also weigh heavily on its rookie wideouts (Da'Rick Rogers anyone?) and its running backs to pick up some slack. Against the banged up and porous front seven of New England, Indy's best chance may be using their tailback duo of Trent Richardson and Ronnie Brown as often as possible, especially if they can get their screen game going and spread the defense out across the field.

Time of possession. Yes, it's a boring statistic, but it's a crucial one for two teams who have had to make some serious second-half comebacks this year due to flat starts. With both teams right around a TOP of 30 minutes per game in the regular season, each will be looking to get a lead quickly and then ground and pound to keep both the opposing defense on the field and a game-changing quarterback off of it. That once again puts the onus on each team's respective run games to pick up consistent yardage and first downs to keep the sticks moving and to keep the play-action pass a viable option.

This will be the 77th game played between the two storied franchises, and New England has won 61 percent of those meetings. More recently, Indianapolis will be looking to break a three-game losing streak against the Pats, with their last win coming back in 2009. In the two teams' 2012 matchup, Brady threw for three touchdowns -- two to Rob Gronkowski -- and Vereen and Ridley each added one on the ground as a turnover-happy Colts squad was ousted 59-24. Luck attempted 50 passes in that game, completing only 27 and throwing three interceptions. The last time Indy beat New England on the road was in 2006.

Follow Dan @DanBegnoche
Follow AFC East Daily @AFCEastDaily