I recently read an article by a respected Boston Globe writer stating that this weekend’s Colts vs. Patriots Divisional Playoff game will turn out exactly like the last time these teams played in November 2012 with a similar outcome, a Patriots 59-24 blowout win. To that thought, I respectfully disagree. There are far more differences than similarities between the two teams that will match up this weekend as opposed to last season’s teams.
The first and possibly biggest difference is the absence of NE QB Tom Brady’s safety blankets, TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Wes Welker. In the 2012 game, those two alone combined for 14 receptions, 217 yards, and 2 TDs. New England does not have those kinds of weapons this time around, which may make Tom Terrific more like Tom Just Alright. The addition of WR Danny Amendola does lessen the blow caused by the Welker defection but does not make up for Welker’s consistent production. For an example of this, please see the Patriots offensive numbers from earlier this year without Gronkowski in the lineup. Don’t get me wrong, Tom Brady is still an elite QB and given the right game plan can carve up the Colts ailing defensive backfield, just like Alex Smith did last week. However, Smith had a big time WR in Dwayne Bowe that the Colts couldn’t stop with man coverage. The Patriots simply don’t have that type of player this time around.
Second, the current Colts defense is far more capable of stopping New England’s running game this year. Last season, the Colts did not have any massive bodies in the middle to stop, clog up, or at least slow down opposing RBs. This year, NT Josh Chapman is healthy and the Colts brought in Aubrayo Franklin in the offseason. While neither of these guys have been stellar this season, they have been better and more consistent run defenders than the Colts have seen from that position in years past. Very rarely do you see RBs getting huge gains up the middle. Most teams run to the outside to take advantage of the glaring weakness in the Colts linebacking corps with its inability to set the edge. NE does tout several options in their stable of RBs, each presenting a different problem. The biggest threat though is not LaGarrette Blount or Steven Ridley, but actually Shane Vareen. Vareen is the weapon the Miami Dolphins focused on taking away, which resulted in a surprising Miami victory. The Colts have shown the ability to focus on a player and find “Waldo,” as they did with Jamaal Charles in the first KC matchup from this season. The Colts defense has also gotten more consistent pressure on opposing QBs this year as opposed to last season. In last year’s game, the Colts only hit Brady 2 times with no sacks, while Luck was hit 6 times. All-Pro OLB Robert Mathis has really found his groove this season and will likely get much better pressure on Brady. The Colts defense as a whole looks better prepared and has much better talent than it did last season in the front seven.
Third, it is highly unlikely the Patriots will get four turnovers and 3, yes 3, Defensive or Special Teams TDs. Yes, I recognize that KC forced the Colts into four turnovers, but the KC defense is much, much better than the NE defense. KC had 5 defensive Pro Bowl players. NE, on the other hand, has 1, CB Aqib Talib. Further, the NE defense is beyond beat up. Their top two LBs, Mayo and Spikes, were placed on IR along with extremely talented NT Vince Wilfork. Those losses are huge to a team with only one real defensive threat remaining with Talib. Bill Belichick and the NE defense are known for bringing pressure from a variety of locations but with their lack of true defensive playmakers, that will likely need to be dialed down. The emergence of Donald Brown the Patriots also can’t simply focus on Andrew Luck, which likely opens up the play action for Colts OC Pep Hamilton. If NE has difficulty bringing pressure, then Luck, who doesn’t throw just to Reggie Wayne like last season, will have no problem spreading the ball around.
Speaking of Pep Hamilton, the Colts are unlikely to have the same “risky” play calling as they did last season. Pep will have a much more conservative game plan as compared to former play caller, and current ARI HC Bruce Arians, who was a bit of a risk taker. Arians enjoyed the deep ball. This forced Luck to hold onto the ball much longer because those deep routes take longer to develop. Pep has not shown the tendency to do that. Arians offense was fairly predictable. Everyone knew where Luck would be. However in recent weeks, Pep has changed his philosophy to match the talent he has and not the scheme he initially wanted to run, a “power” running game. He has begun to alter his game plan for each specific opponent and, as Bill Belichick mentioned earlier this week, is more difficult to plan for, which is a huge complement coming from the Hoodie. Pep has begun moving the pocket and getting Luck off “the spot” so NE will have a much more difficult time locating Luck, which will negate or at least slow down many of the NE blitzes, and cause difficulties in keeping track of Luck’s receiving options.
Finally, the final score from 2012 was indeed a blowout. However, what most people tend to forget is that the Colts led at the end of the first quarter and had gotten Brady off the field at the beginning of the second before NE scored TDs on a punt return and then an INT off a deep ball thrown to Reggie Wayne. Even after those two huge blows, the Colts did not fold and were only down 24-17 at halftime before Tom Brady started making big plays to his safety blankets, Welker and Gronkowski. At that point, that Colts team got overwhelmed. However, this Colts team has some crazy kind of grit and determination. They excel in situations where their backs are against the wall. They apparently love being pushed into a corner and doubter by everyone. In New England this weekend, no one seems to be giving this tough Colts team a chance . . . and that’s exactly how the Colts like it.