The New England Patriots face the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night in a home playoff game for the right to go to the AFC Championship Game. After a week of rest and a chance to get some players as healthy as possible, New England has the comeback Colts in their sights. Following their 28 point comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card Round of the NFL Playoffs, Indianapolis is riding high in the saddle.
New England has a tough matchup on their hands as they face a Colts team brimming with confidence. The Colts are led by a young, hungry superstar with a number of regular season late game heroics under his belt. Quarterback Andrew Luck now has a huge postseason win on his resume and expectations are sky high. For New England to slow down the red hot Colts, there are a few key match-ups that need to be won to have success and win to move on to the AFC Championship Game.
Below is a look at three key matchups of the Colts’ offense versus the Patriots’ defense that will will be indicators to which side comes out victorious on Saturday night.
PATRIOTS DEFENSE VS COLTS OFFENSE:
1. In a homecoming of sorts, two former Boston College offensive linemen are back in the Boston area. Unfortunately for Colts tackles for Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus they have a difficult day ahead of them on Saturday night. Lining up opposite the two former Eagles are Patriots defensive ends Rob Ninkovich & Chandler Jones and their 19.5 combined sacks.
Chandler Jones has led the Patriots pass rush with 11.5 sacks in his sophomore season. On the right side, veteran Rob Ninkovich has continued to be one of the steadiest and dependable defenders on the New England defense. With 8 sacks this season he was no slouch getting after the quarterback. With both ends combing for almost 20 sacks, they also added a combined 28 quarterback hits and 85 hurries (per ProFootballFocus.com).
Where Ninkovich and Jones have truly shined have been against the running game. Setting the edge and getting after the running back is not often something that elite pass rushers do, but Chandler Jones does the dirty work. Rob Ninkovich’s value is highest in the rushing game: he is ranked at +25.1 by PFF.com, the highest rated 4-3 defensive end against the run this season.
Left tackle Anthony Castonzo and right tackle Gosder Cherilus have been Indianapolis’ best blockers all season long. Castonzo is a road-grader in the running game and struggles at times with speed rushers. Cherilus is a big, tall right end who is average in the running game but is difficult for pass rushers to get around and disrupt quarterback Andrew Luck.
If Ninkovich and Jones can set the edge and slow the running game it will be a huge boost to the Patriots’ defense. If Castonzo can move Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones it makes room for running back Donald Brown and helps the Colts keep the ball away from Tom Brady.
2. Another key match-up involves the New England linebackers in coverage against the Colts short passing attack. The Patriots, due to losing starting linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, are forced to go with second-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower and athletic linebackers Jamie Collins and Dane Fletcher. These three at some point will be forced into pass coverage of tight end Coby Fleener and running back Donald Brown.
Against Kansas City Donald Brown chipped in for 4 receptions for 47 yards and a touchdown. Coby Fleener added another five catches for 46 yards and a touchdown. While much was made of wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and how the Patriots will match-up against him, little has been mentioned of stopping Brown and Fleener.
Both Colts players have impressed with their resiliency: Fleener bouncing back from a tough rookie season in 2012; Brown from the team trading its first round pick to Cleveland for running back Trent Richardson. Despite the presence of Richardson, Brown has wrested the starting role and held onto it as the offense has been so much stronger with him in the lineup. For Fleener, it was a strong playoff game after fading a bit down the stretch and only catching three passes over the final three regular season games.
For New England, their top draft pick Jamie Collins seemed in position for a redshirt season early in the season. After struggling to get on the field, the athletic started getting additional playing time starting with 23 snaps against Denver in week 12. Over the last four weeks of the season Collins was on the field for 169 out of 287 defensive snaps (per PFF.com) after playing for only 133 total snaps in the first twelve games.
Dane Fletcher missed the first four regular season games and did not work himself into the snap rotation until midseason. His most snaps came against Denver as the Patriots defense loaded up on pass coverage and dared the Broncos to run. Over 50% of Fletcher’s defensive snaps were in pass coverage in 2013. In the playoffs his playing time should increase.
With Fletcher and Collins on the field, the Patriots pass defense should be greatly improved against the Colts; however, there may be issues with the undersized linebackers stopping the running game. With an offense that features running back Donald Brown and tight end Coby Fleener, the Patriots need that extra help in the pass defense to neutralize these overlooked receivers.
3. Finally, the New England Patriots’ secondary needs to have a strong game against Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. For New England, having safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory together will help in preventing big plays downfield. All three top cornerbacks struggled with injuries with Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard slowed by ankle injuries and Aqib Talib slowed by his lingering hip injury.
Even with a healthy secondary, New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia needs to find a way to keep rookie cornerback Logan Ryan and his big play potential on the field Saturday night. The Rutgers rookie has shown a knack for the big play this season. The third round draft pick made his presence felt in week seven with his first interception against the Jets a 79 yard touchdown and then added 1.5 sacks including a huge momentum-turning strip sack coming off the bench in the second half against Miami in week eight.
The Indianapolis Colts were left for dead as serious contenders with the loss of Reggie Wayne. Although not expected to be a big playmaker on Saturday night, the signing of former Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch has certainly fed the media swarm leading up to the game. Whether Branch even plays at all is up in the air.
Colts wide receiver Griff Whalen, an undrafted free agent from Stanford, was picking up snaps with Darrius Heyward-Bey slowed by a hamstring injury. Heyward-Bey is out of the game due to injury on Saturday night. LaVon Brazill and Da’Rick Rogers have been picking up playing time with Reggie Wayne lost for the season. The Patriots need all healthy bodies on board in the secondary to stop a Colts passing attack that looked unstoppable last week in the second half.
If the New England offense can slow down the Colts offense by winning these three key matchups, the Patriots are in a good position to find themselves in a third straight AFC Championship Game.
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