No matter who the New England Patriots play, it’s sure to come down to the wire. Luckily, the defense came up with a great pick to close out a game last week against Buffalo. They now face a vastly more successful team in the Indianapolis Colts, led by the extraordinarily talented Andrew Luck. There are multiple injuries on both sides, so let’s see how the match-ups should (theoretically) play out.
1. The New England receivers vs the Indianapolis defensive backs
Starting cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Jerraud Powers are both out, meaning Darius Butler will be starting. Patriots fans should remember how awful Butler was; he was eventually benched for Kyle Arrington, a former full time special teams gunner. While Antoine Bethea is good, Tom Zbikowski is supremely lacking.
I have no idea what to expect from the Patriots receivers this week. Aaron Hernandez is out and Deion Branch was just released. Rob Gronkowski is questionable, Wes Welker is a gametime decision, Visanthe Shiancoe was used sparingly last time out, and calling on Greg Salas to have a good game harkens back to the days when the Taylor Price siren remained eternally silent. Even so, the Patriots have Brandon Lloyd. Actually, the Patriots could have Greg Little and I’d still pick the Patriots. Seriously, the Colts are starting Darius Butler.
Edge: New England
2. The New England offensive line vs the Indianapolis defensive line
Antonio Johnson. Cory Redding. Whoever’s replacing Drake Nevis. Is there anyone of talent on this defense?
Sebastian Vollmer is having an All-Pro caliber year, and Nate Solder should be able to contend with whoever he lines up against. Ryan Wendell has been playing like a fringe top ten center. However, Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly are both likely to miss today’s game. Donald Thomas has been a revelation at guard, but Nick McDonald hasn’t. Then again, this is Antonio Johnson we’re talking about. I know judging an entire defensive unit by a single player is ill-advised, and I’ve done it twice, but these are very bad units.
Edge: New England
3. The New England runningbacks vs the Indianapolis linebackers
Alright, I’ll start giving credit here – this is a corps with talent. Unfortunately, this talent is somewhat misguided – Dwight Freeney could be a hall of famer, but he’s not doing well as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Jerrell Freeman is a nobody who has stepped up as an ILB. Robert Mathis has been decent, but he’s frequently spelled by Jerry Hughes, who does not impress me.
Stevan Ridley has been having a great year, and should get a lot of work today. Danny Woodhead is one who’ll also get work in the passing game. Don’t be surprised if either one is kept in to block.
Edge: New England
4. The Indianapolis receivers vs the New England defensive backs
Reggie Wayne leads the league in receptions and is having an absolutely stellar year. He finds the holes in zone coverage very well and will likely have more than 100 yards no matter who is covering him. Donnie Avery and T.Y. Hilton are extremely fast and will test the two deep coverage the Patriots frequently employ. Coby Fleener’s inactive, but Dwayne Allen has been outperforming him anyway. This is a team with weapons.
It’d be nice if I could just say “the Patriots can’t cover anyone, Edge: Indianapolis,” but the Patriots picked up Aqib Talib. While Talib is a talented corner, he got burned for more than 100 yards and a touchdown to Hakeem Nicks in Week 2. Sorry, but my verdict is the Patriots can’t cover anyone with a lemon twist.
5. The Indianapolis offensive line vs the New England defensive line
Samson Satele is a very underrated center, but he’s the only member of the offensive line I can praise. Anthony Castonzo doesn’t impress me. Joe Reitz is a nobody. Jeff Linkenbach is atrocious whether he plays guard or tackle.
Vince Wilfork was the subject of a scathing article by Pro Football Focus. While I have much respect for PFF’s work, I disagree with their central point. Wilfork occupies blockers, which the site rarely talks about. Anyway, Kyle Love should feast, but I seem to say that every week. He needs to come through, or the Patriots need to think about drafting a defensive tackle. Chandler Jones has a favorable matchup; hopefully he uses his speed moves. Rob Ninkovich also has a favorable matchup, but after last week’s horrendous game, I don’t know what to think. Justin Francis played well last game, but he’s inactive today. We may see a lot more Jermaine Cunningham.
Edge: New England
6. The Indianapolis runningbacks vs the New England linebackers
I don’t know who gets the start, whether it’s Donald Brown or Vick Ballard. For the Colts sake, it ought to be Ballard, who has impressed me as a rookie. They’re also used in passing formations, so the hook screens in the middle must be monitored.
Unfortunately, I can’t trust the young Patriots linebackers to maintain that coverage. Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo are all very good, but they’re not great, and the Bills game proved that. They’ve been exposed. They have a long way to go. No one’s been more effusive in their praise of this linebacking corps than I, and I have been caught with egg on my face.
It’s so very, very difficult to predict a victory for the Patriots. This team is far better than the Bills, with a far better quarterback and far better receivers. I’m not going to compare week to week, but Luck is arguably the second best quarterback the Patriots will have faced all season. The Patriots have home field advantage, which could be the deciding factor. Andrew Luck absolutely must be contained on the ground, as he is an adept scrambler. Brandon Spikes will be the focal point of my criticism if Luck is left uncontained. Of course, Talib will likely line up across from Wayne, and I still expect Wayne to get at least 100 yards no matter who lines up across from him. Don’t be surprised if Steve Gregory allows 60 of those yards and misses two key tackles on Ballard. How could anyone predict this game to come down to anything BUT a last second field goal?
Final score: New England 35, Indianapolis 34
You can follow Christopher Field on Twitter @ChrisDField.