With the Patriots on a much deserved (and needed) bye this week, I'll be taking a look at each AFC team playing on Wild Card weekend and how they could potentially match up with the Pats. Up next, the 11-5 Indianapolis Colts.
Season results: 11-5, First Place in the AFC South
Ranks: Offense: 14th, Defense: 9th
Reasons to fear: The Colts have, by far, the best quarterback of the Patriots three potential opponents. That alone should be reason to fear them. After back-to-back 11 win seasons, it's easy to forget that it was only two years ago that the Colts finished 2-14. The way that Andrew Luck has immediately lifted his team to respectability has been nothing short of remarkable, especially this season, as he's had to do so without two of his main targets (Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen) for much of the year. He's a guy who can make every throw, can hurt you with his legs, and who's already proven to have some late game magic in him. The Colts have a chance against anyone, on any given Sunday, because of Luck, and they have wins over the 49ers, Seahawks, Broncos and Chiefs to show for it.
- Mathis on the edge: How has the 32 year old Mathis adjusted to the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker? How about 19.5 sacks and 8 forced fumbles? I'd say that's pretty good. Not only is Mathis the kind of elite speed rusher that occasionally gives the Patriots troubles (see Miller, Von), he's the rare type of defender who can single-handedly wreck a game plan with his pressure. Turnovers are obviously key in any playoff game, and Mathis has made the strip-sack an art form. Patriots left tackle Nate Solder acquited himself well in his Week 17 return from a concussion, shutting down Pro Bowl DE Mario Williams. He'd need his absolute best effort to keep Mathis away from Brady.
- Luck in the Clutch: The Patriots have made their bacon this year by coming through in the clutch, going 6-1 in games determined by a field goal or less. Keeping it close down the stretch could be playing with fire against this quarterback, who added 3 game winning drives, giving him 10 in his two season career. Luck's Colts were 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less this season, including impressive wins over Seattle and Denver. Would any Pats fan in the country feel comfortable if Luck got the ball back against our banged-up defense with a chance to win the game? I know I wouldn't.
- Physical, man-to-man corners: The Colts secondary has been a bit of a mixed bag this season: perhaps no stretch illustrated that better than following up an excellent performance against the juggernaut Broncos offense with getting absolutely torched by Andre Johnson the next week. However, the one constant has been the Colts trusting their corners to play a physical, man-to-man style. It's a style that could be effective against the Patriots smaller, shiftier receivers; using their size and physicality advantages before Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola can get out of their breaks to use their quickness. Between Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, Cassius Vaughn and even old friend Darius Butler (who has been rejuvenated in Indy as a slot corner after being a bust in New England), the Colts certainly have the horses to battle Tom Brady's army of smurf-sized receivers.
- Running on Empty: It's often said that you win in the playoffs by stopping the run and running the ball. Colts fans better hope they can be an exception to that rule, because they haven't been very good at either. The Colts spent much of the season trying to force themselves to become a power rushing team, with in-season acquisition Trent Richardson as the centerpiece, but Richardson just couldn't get going all season long. Just two years removed from being the third overall pick in the draft, Richardson averaged a paltry 2.9 yards per carry in 14 regular season games with the Colts. Former first rounder Donald Brown added a little spark to the Colts running game later in the year, as he began to cut into Richardson's carries, but Brown is best suited as a third down/change of pace type back. The Patriots have struggled to stop the run for most of the season, but the Colts represent one team they could conceivably have success against. On the other side of the ball, the Colts rank in the bottom 10 in the league in nearly every statistical category against the run. They've allowed opponents to rush for 125 yards a game at 4.5 yards a pop, numbers nearly identical to the Patriots 2013 struggles. They also head into this weekend's matchup with the Chiefs with three of their starting defensive linemen questionable due to injury (Cory Redding, Aubrayo Franklin and Ricky Jean-Francois). This could be very good news for a Patriots offense that seems to be prioritizing a power rushing attack since Rob Gronkowski's injury.
- Where are the Weapons? As I mentioned earlier, Andrew Luck has managed to cover up some of the inevitable weaknesses of a roster only two years removed from a two win season. One of those weaknesses was depth, particularly amongst Luck's weapons, and that weakness has been exposed by two major injuries. Tight end Dwayne Allen, expected to be a focal point of Pep Hamilton's new offense, was lost to a hip injury in Week One, forcing the inconsistent Coby Fleener into a more prominent role. That loss hurt, but was a minor blip compared to the impact of losing Reggie Wayne to a torn ACL in Week 7. Without Wayne, whom Luck had leaned on heavily throughout his rookie year, TY Hilton was bumped up from a supporting role to lead receiver, and the second year big play threat struggled to adjust to the drawing the opposing team's top corner each week. The injury also had a domino effect, as players like Darrius Heyward-Bey, LaVon Brazill, Da'Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen starting getting meaningful snaps behind Hilton. The Colts hit a major roadblock in the aftermath of Wayne's injury, going 3-3 with blowout losses to St. Louis and Arizona in that span, as Luck struggled to adjust to his sudden lack of weaponry. They did go on a 3-0 run to close out the year, with a win over Kansas City sandwiched between beatdowns of Houston and Jacksonville. Needless to say, it's a receiving group the Patriots secondary should be able to match up with on paper, especially with an extra week off to heal their assorted injuries.
Fear Rating: 5/10
I have all the respect in the world for their quarterback, but this roster appears to have too many holes to make any serious postseason noise this year. The offense lacks consistent weapons, while the no-name defense has been up and down and struggles to stop the run. Their 3-0 stretch to close the season is impressive until you see it came against Houston, Jacksonville, and a Kansas City team that closed the season by losing 4 of it's final 6 games. Beating that Kansas City team is still, by far, the best win the Chiefs have since losing Reggie Wayne. There are no easy games in the NFL, let alone the NFL postseason, but I would argue that the Colts, at least on paper, present the most favorable potential matchup for the Patriots.