At least a year ahead of schedule, we arrive at another first: a truly big game for these young Colts.
At 6-3, the Colts are very likely the biggest surprise of the NFL season. At 6-3, the Patriots are simply experiencing the status quo. This will be an invaluable game for Indianapolis’ young players because it will offer them the intensity, atmosphere and challenge of a playoff game.
“It’s a big game obviously, a huge game,” said Andrew Luck. “In the AFC, two teams that are up there, in terms of the standings right now. So it’ll definitely be exciting. The big atmosphere in Foxborough. I don’ think we’ll make it bigger than it is. I don’t think we’ll get too caught up in the excitement of it. Hopefully we can go out and play solid football.”
On paper, this is a daunting challenge. Indianapolis’ defense, though improving, should be no match for the most prolific offense in the NFL. While the Patriots’ defense has been porous, it also has been wildly opportunistic.
On the field, however, the Colts have a proven capacity for beating the odds because of the sense of purpose they have drawn from playing for their leukemia-stricken head coach, Chuck Pagano.
What to watch
>> Bill Belichick has a reputation for building defensive packages that can daze and confuse veterans, let alone rookies. He no doubt has something special planned for Luck, whose biggest challenge will dancing the fine line between extending a play to try to make something happen and pushing too hard and making a critical mistake. While the Patriots yield yards by the boatload, they have 23 takeaways – and Luck has been especially charitable on the road with seven interceptions and four lost fumbles.
>> It generally is not a good thing to have both starting cornerbacks out when facing Tom Brady, but the Colts will have to make do without Vontae Davis and Jerraud Powers. Former Patriot Darius Butler moved past Powers on the depth chart last week, anyway, with his three takeaway game – doubling the team’s total – while Cassius Vaughn has been respectable though prone to penalties. Brady might take more deep shots than usual, at least early, to test the secondary.
>> Getting pressure on Brady would relieve some from the DBs and with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis both healthy – a rarity this season – the Colts might be able to do just that. They may also throw a resurgent Jerry Hughes into the pass-rush package, although over-committing is always dangerous against Brady.
>> Though the quarterback duel is the sexiest storyline, it may not be the most important. The Colts are 5-0 when they run at least 30 times, 2-3 when they attempt at least 40 passes. In all nine of their games, the winner has had the most rushing attempts. In their four-game win streak, the Colts have averaged 138.5 rushing yards – up more than 50 from the first five games – and 4.1 per carry. With Donald Brown returning to health and Vick Ballard building confidence, this is a critical area for the Colts. If they fall behind early, they will be tempted to abandon the run, which could be a big mistake.
>> New England’s Stevan Ridley will provide a challenge for the Colts’ improving run defense. In the win streak, the Colts have yielded 72 yards per game on the ground, less than half the 159 of the first five games. Ridley doesn’t have a marquee name but he does have 814 yards and a 4.7 per-carry average and backs with his running style have been particularly troublesome for the Colts.
>> Belichick also likes to try to take away the top target, which means Reggie Wayne, who leads the NFL with 7.7 receptions per game and is second with 103.4 yards. But the Patriots’ pass defense has been atrocious, yielding 285.3 yards per game and19 touchdowns. New England is expected to unveil cornerback Aqib Talib, acquired from the Bucs on Nov. 1.
>> Big games often are close games, and that could be good news for the Colts, who have five wins by six points or less, with Luck showing a remarkable knack for directing scoring drives with games on the line.
>> This will be the ultimate reality check for the Colts’ defense. New England leads the NFL in scoring (33.2 points per game), total yards (430.3) and third-down efficiency (49.6 percent). The defense has showed promising signs in the win streak but none of the opponents – Cleveland, Tennessee, Miami and Jacksonville – comes close to the challenge presented by Brady, Ridley, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski.
>> Bottom line: I really, really want to be able to pick the Colts to win this one but I just don’t have a good feeling about this. New England’s offense will simply be too much. Patriots 31, Colts 20.