by Kent Sterling
The Patriots are the most enigmatic successful team in the NFL led by the most baffling of coaches. Finishing with a 12-4 regular season record, it’s not possible to figure out what path they use to win.
The Colts might be the second most vexing team in the league. One Pro Bowl invitee, but an 11-5 record with wins over the only two teams in the league with 13-3 records.
These two teams who will fight tomorrow night for a spot in the AFC Championship have combined to finish 23-9, and deciphering why is like expelling the ratings success of “Two Broke Girls.”
It’s not really about what they do, as much as what they don’t do. Their shared genius is not in winning but in avoiding losses.
Neither the Colts nor Pats beat themselves. Both protect the ball great, with the Colts leading the NFL during the regular season with only 14 turnovers. The Patriots were 8th with 20 giveaways.
Both the Colts and Patriots are at the top of the NFL for least penalties (NE #1 with 69; Colts #3 with 70) and least penalty yards (NE #3 with 625 yards; Colts #2 with 595 yards). Interestingly, the Colts and Patriots are #1 and #2 in net yards gained through penalty (Colts – 410 yards, Pats – 326 yards).
Who wins the game tomorrow will not be the team that makes the most plays, but the team that makes the fewest mistakes.
The difficulty for the Colts is that the Patriots know exactly who they need to take away to be able to remove the likelihood of surrendering big plays on both sides of the ball. Receiver T.Y. Hilton is the one offensive weapon at Andrew Luck’s disposal who can score quickly, and Robert Mathis is the critical piece of the defensive puzzle for the Colts.
Neutralize those two, and the Colts ability to score or cause havoc is reduced to a manageable level.
On the other side, does any defensive coordinator really look at Julian Edelman, and say, “That’s the guy we need to stop!”
This promises to be a chess match between two very adept coaches who do an excellent job of minimizing ways they might lose.
There are very few answers to be found, but here are five things for Colts fans to look for:
- Robert Mathis will need to move around to get pressure on Brady. Nate Solder is a very solid left tackle, who only allowed 35 pressures this season – none against the Bills in Week 17. RT Marcus Cannon – filling in for injured starter Sebastian Vollmer – is not nearly as good. The Colts like sliding Mathis around, and the key to turning Mathis loose against the Patriots will be in getting Brady into third and long situations by shutting down the running game early.
- The Colts run defense has been very successful against the best running teams in the NFL. Including the wild card round win against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Colts are 4-0 against teams ranked in the top 10 in rushing yards, and 8-1 against teams in the top 15. The Patriots were ninth.
- A lot of blather is coming from Boston about how the Patriots destroyed the Colts 59-24 last season in Foxborough, but the men who surrounded Brady on offense are mostly gone. Rob Gronkowski caught seven passes for 137 yards and two TDs. Wes Welker caught another seven for 72 yards. Brandon Lloyd caught four for 45. That leaves six catches between Edelman and Shane Vereen.
- The Colts have both played very well and quite poorly this season, while the Patriots have been a consistent group. The Colts were 5-2 against playoff teams – including last weekend – but also badly lost to the Rams. The Colts are capable of playing well enough to win this game, but are also capable of being run out of Gillette Stadium. Hard to pick against always favors the underdog.
- Bill Belichick’s team went undefeated at home in 2013, but three of those wins were by a field goal and another was by a single point. The Patriots were 2-2 against teams with 10 or more wins, and 10-2 against teams with non-winning records. They beat who they should, and are a cin flip against those in their strata.
The Colts and Patriots played very similar schedules. The opponent’s record for the Pats – 121-135. For the Colts it was 124-132.
Prior to the 2013 season, the actuarials who cloud the mind with statistical tables, predicted that the Colts would revert to norm because they had posted a 9-1 record in games decided by seven or fewer points. They said that because the Colts were outscored by 30 points through the 2012 season, it was very likely they would slide from their 11-5 record to a 7-9 mark. The Colts matched their 11-5 2012 record showing that accountants should stick to preparing tax returns, and stay out of football.
The Patriots are a very similar group. Look at the roster, and tell me how they are 12-4. Julian Edelman and Danny “Mr. Brittle” Amendola are Tom Brady’s best weapons, and the running game is manned by the mostly mediocre LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley. Nothing scare you, but that’s what is scariest about the Pats.
As decimated by injury as the Colts offense has been, that’s what has happened to the Patriots defense. Gone are Jared Mayo. Vince Wilfork, Brandon Spikes, and Tommy Kelly. Non-specialists named to the Pro Bowl – Brady and safety Devin McCourty.
Anyone who tells you they have a great handle on what the Colts will bring to the party tomorrow is a fool. There is no way to predict the outcome of this game. Patriots are -8, and with a gun to my head, I would bet the Colts because the Patriots two wins against playoff teams were both by three.