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Each week, PatriotsLife will be posting a scouting report of the Patriots upcoming opponent, going over their playmakers, tendencies, and how the Pats might match up. It's a hat and T-shirt game this week, as the Patriots host the Colts with a Super Bowl berth on the line. If Tom Brady's Patriots win, it will mark the legendary quarterback's record sixth start in the big game, while his counterpart, ascendant superstar Andrew Luck, looks to break through with his first. The Pats did beat down the Colts 42-20 in their regular season matchup, but much has changed since then. Indy has gotten several key contributors back since that Week 11 game, and they have momentum on their side after vanquishing Peyton Manning and the Broncos last week. Lets get right to the matchups that will determine Sunday's outcome.

Indianapolis offense

The Colts have been an explosive passing team all season, but they appear to be even deeper and more difficult to defend than the squad the Pats beat in the regular season. The Patriots were able to use their versatile secondary personnel to successfully take away Luck's preferred targets in that game, but that task becomes more difficult with tight end Dwayne Allen healthy and rookie receiver Donte Moncrief emerging as a big play threat.

Unlike last week, when the Pats played a lot of base defense with heavier personnel to combat Baltimore's run-heavy offense, this game will likely be won (or lost) in the secondary. The Colts led the league in passing attempts, yards and touchdowns this season, numbers that led to them having the sixth best scoring offense in football (28.6 points per game).

Unlike the Patriots and Broncos, whose recent passing success has come from extremely efficient dink-and-dunk offenses, the Colts are a team that stretches the field and attacks the defense down the field. Luck's completion percentage of 61.7% is actually shockingly low for a franchise quarterback, but his Colts were fifth in the league with 7.1 net yards per passing attempt, a number made even more impressive by Luck's sheer volume of passes. All in all, Indy's 15 pass plays of 40+ yards tied Green Bay and Pittsburgh for second in the league (Washington surprisingly led the league with 20), and their league leading 78 completions of 20+ yards were 11 more than second place Denver.

Safety helped limited Hilton's Week 11 impact
Many of those big plays have come from TY Hilton, who has solidified his status as a star and Luck's top target this year. Hilton's explosive speed makes him a constant threat to get behind the defense for big plays, and is an open-field terror after the catch. Unlike most superstar receivers, Hilton lines up primarily in the slot, where his explosiveness makes him a mismatch against most corners. Luck has fed him the ball, with the receiver seeing targets on 20.2% of his throws, and Hilton responded with an 82 catch, 1,345 yard (16.4 yards per catch), 7 touchdown season that earned him his first Pro Bowl nod.

Hilton's importance to the Indianapolis offense was painfully obvious in Week 11. The Patriots matched up slot corner Kyle Arrington on Hilton, with Devin McCourty constantly providing help over-the-top to prevent the big play. The strategy worked, as Hilton was held to season lows in catches (3) and yards (24). With his go-to guy essentially taken out of the equation, Luck had to look elsewhere on critical downs, and the Indy offense struggled to string drives together as a result.

I've heard plenty of speculation of the Pats mixing up their secondary matchups from Week 11, but I'm sticking with Arrington/McCourty on Hilton if I'm them. The counter-argument is simple: Hilton is their best receiver, so he should be covered by Darrelle Revis. However, Arrington has already proven capable of the assignment. Given that Hilton's speed demands attention from safeties no matter who covers him, why waste Revis there when Arrington and safety help can get the job done?

In fact, if anyone sees a change in assignment, it could be Revis. Revis erased Reggie Wayne in the Week 11 matchup, holding him to one five yard catch in four targets against his coverage. The veteran star has struggled this year (not surprisingly, given he's a 36 year old coming off of an ACL tear), and has seen his role in the offense steadily decline. Wayne still plays the majority of the snaps in a starting, outside role, but his targets have dropped sharply with the emergence of Moncrief. Wayne averaged 8.4 targets per game during the first 10 games of the season, but since Week 13 that number has been cut in half to 4.1. His decline has been increasingly clear this postseason, as he has just three targets and one 12 yard catch to show for two games.

I still think Revis will see some time on Wayne, particularly if the crafty veteran stays on the field in two receiver sets. However, three receiver sets could see Revis Island relocate to the explosive rookie Moncrief. The Ole Miss rookie has been erratic, but his tantalizing combination of size (6'2", 221), length and speed make him a major big play threat.

With Hilton and the Colts tight ends occupying the safeties, the Pats will have to trust their non-Hilton corners to hold up in man coverage without help. Given Revis' transcendent ability, the question becomes which matchup the Pats feel better about: third corner Logan Ryan on Moncrief or Wayne? Luck will surely take his shots at Ryan if he sees one-on-one coverage outside, and Moncrief has the talent to make a big impact when he's involved. Wayne may be the steadier, more consistent player, but Moncrief's explosiveness makes him a bigger threat.

Fleener's size and length make him a difficult cover
Brandon Browner's size makes him another candidate to check Moncrief, but I suspect he'll be a key strategic piece in whatever they have drawn up for tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. Browner drew Fleener in the week 11 matchup and struggled, allowing him to catch all five of his targets for 118 yards (23.6 ypc). Despite that performance, I wouldn't be surprised if Browner sees his share of time on Fleener again this go round. Fleener is essentially a big receiver, as he offers little as a blocker but is a major part of the passing game thanks to his combination of speed, size (6'6") and massive catch radius. For the season, Fleener caught 51 balls for 774 yards. His 15.2 yards per catch would be impressive for an outside receiver, let alone a tight end, and he also emerged as a red zone target with 8 touchdowns.

Needless to say, this guy is a weapon that needs to be accounted for, and Browner is the only member of the Pats secondary with close to the size or length to contest Fleener down the field. He'll simply have to play better than he did in Week 11, when it was Fleener making the plays on the 50/50 balls.

However, that Week 11 game was dramatically altered when the Colts lost tight end Dwayne Allen after just 14 snaps. Drafted one round after Fleener in the 2012 draft, Allen is a true tight end, excelling both as a blocker and as a bruising possession receiver, who is dangerous in the red zone. Allen isn't a focal point of the passing game between 20s, as he's comfortably behind Hilton, Wayne, Fleener and Hakeem Nicks in both targets and receptions. However, he becomes Luck's go-to guy in the red zone, where he excels at using his thick 6'3", 255 pound frame to box out smaller defenders for the ball. With his touchdown last week (against Denver's Aqib Talib, no less), Allen has now caught a touchdown in 9 of the 14 games he's played this year.

With Allen lining up mostly as a traditional, in-line tight end, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him become largely the responsibility of linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower, both of whom have the size to negate the power advantage Allen usually plays with. Collins could also see some time on Fleener, particularly when the Colts use him on in-line looks. Remember, Collins' coverage on Fleener in last year's divisional round was just one of the many ways he flashed in that memorable breakout game.

The emergence of Moncrief has meant less playing time for Hakeem Nicks, but the former Giant has been playing better in his reduced role. He's no longer the monster that dominated them in Super Bowl XLVI, but Nicks still has enough speed, length and explosiveness to make plays against the backups that inevitably wind up covering him. Nicks chipped in 3 catches for 59 yards (including a 45 yarder) in the Wild Card round against the Bengals, and caught his fifth touchdown of the season last week against Broncos rookie Bradley Roby.

Nicks was the Colts third receiver back in Week 11, matched-up mostly by Logan Ryan. Nicks did beat Ryan for a 10 yard touchdown just before the half, but Ryan decisively won the matchup for most of the night. Excluding that play, Nicks was held to one five yard catch on four targets. He'll likely see coverage from the likes of Ryan and perhaps even Malcolm Butler, depending on how many receivers are on the field.

Throwing down the field may be the Colts bread-and-butter, but Luck has done a great job of utilizing checkdown option Dan Herron out of the backfield in recent weeks. Herron has caught 18 of his 19 targets through two postseason games, providing 117 yards to the cause. He may not be particularly explosive, but his reliable hands make him one more guy an already stretched-thin defense has to account for.

All of this is tough enough to defend before factoring in that the man running the offense is a 6'4", 240 pound behemoth with a cannon of a right arm and more than enough speed to gain chunks of yardage with his legs when the play breaks down. Bill Belichick has spoken at length this week about the stress Luck's running ability puts on a defense, equating the threat to that of a "sixth receiver". That seems to allude to the spy technique the defense used against the (then) similarly mobile Aaron Rodgers, with one defender cutting off his rush to "spy" on the quarterback and account for any potential scramble.

This is a tough job for any defender, and it's a case where the Patriots versatility in their front seven could come in handy. Much of the pressure the Pats have generated this season has come from disguised four man rushes. The Pats will often show all seven defenders close to the line at the snap, forcing the offense to figure out who is coming and who is dropping back into coverage on the fly. Looks like that have created tons of confusion for opposing lines, and they also allow the team to provide that "spy" element without compromising the pass rush.

Costonzo will be charged with stopping Chandler Jones on Sunday
A strong pass rush is another way for the Pats to compromise the Colts ability to strike for big passing plays. Luck was once again one of the most hit quarterbacks in football despite enjoying a breakout season from former first rounder Anthony Costonzo at left tackle. For the season, Luck has been hit, sacked or hurried on 33.8% of his dropbacks, with constant injury-induced reshuffling of his offensive line being the main culprit.

Luck is built to withstand that kind of punishment, and flashes a Roethlesberger-esque ability to get throws off even with defenders hanging off of him, but like all quarterbacks his performance suffers when under pressure. The achilles heel of Luck's game has continued to be turnovers, as his 22 combined regular interceptions and fumbles lost trailed only Jay Cutler this year. I think Luck's high interception total is more a product of his aggressiveness (and volume) throwing downfield than anything else, but like any quarterback his decision making suffers and his interception percentage jumps when under pressure. Getting pressure will also give the Pats defenders chances to attack Luck's spotty ball security (13 fumbles, six lost).

The weak interior of the Colts offensive line could be a spot to target. Center Khaled Holmes has struggled since overtaking undrafted rookie Jonotthan Harrison for the starting job in Week 16 (Harrison was dominated by Vince Wilfork in the Week 11 game). At right guard, Lance Louis has struggled in protection filling in for the injured Hugh Thornton.

Right tackle has also been a revolving door since Gosder Cherilus was lost for the season, and it appears that journeyman Joe Reitz will get the call at that spot this week. Reitz is limited, but the veteran guard has earned versatility points for starting games at three different positions (left guard, right guard, right tackle) this year.

Wilfork really was tone-setting monster in the first half of the regular season matchup, as the Patriots were able to shut down the run early and make the Colts offense one-dimensional. Doing so made it that much easier to deal with all of the Colts offensive weapons, and a repeat performance would obviously be welcome. The Pats big boys up front struggled last week against Baltimore's excellent offensive line, but the likes of Wilfork, Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch could feast on the inexperience of the Colts inside. Given the amount of nickel the defense will likely be playing, winning the line of scrimmage will be critical to stopping the run.

That inexperience and lack of continuity could also be targeted by the blitzing prowess of Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower. Those aforementioned disguised pressures have created a lot of rushing lanes for those two this season, which is bad news for running back Dan Herron. Collins and Hightower have made even the league's best blocking backs look bad in protection, and Herron has struggled in that role since his promotion as the closest thing the Colts have to a "feature" back. Collins and Hightower both played exceptionally well in the first meeting with the Colts, and they could both use a bounce back game after being part of the defense's run struggles last week.

The Colts running game isn't pretty, but it serves it's role as a functioning complement to their passing game. They aren't particularly good at running the football, but they do it just enough for the defense to have to account for it in the gameplan. Herron lacks the explosion of the injured Ahmad Bradshaw, but he's much more decisive than Trent Richardson and does a good job of at least getting what the line gives him. If the Patriots front seven plays up to it's potential, that should be very little, no matter how much nickel they play.

Indianapolis defense

This Colts defense will never be mistaken for one of the league's elite units, but they've shown improvement in recent weeks with some improved health. The Colts got run over the last time these teams played, playing essentially without two of their best run defenders in the injured Arthur Jones and rusty Laron Landry. Both are back and will likely play big roles in the Colts game plan this week.

Jones gives the Colts some needed beef up front
The 337 pound Jones (Chandler's big brother) brings some much needed beef to an undermanned Colts defensive line. If the Colts are prioritizing stopping the run, they'll need Jones to exploit his matchups against an interior Patriots line weakened by the loss of starting center Bryan Stork. That injury will likely push Josh Kline into the starting lineup at right guard, where the Colts could target him with their pressure schemes.

Jones is a good player, but his presence in the lineup will make little difference if his teammates on the defensive line don't play better than they did in November. Aside from Jones' inclusion, the rotation is pretty much the same. It's still 316 pound Josh Chapman manning the nose tackle of the Colts 3-4, with undersized but quick interior rushers Cory Redding and Ricky Jean-Francois in the defensive end rotation. Redding has been the Colts most consistent source of pressure this year, but he was bowled over by a Patriots team that attacked the left of the Colts defensive line. Chapman was also moved far too easily in that game, and he'll have to be much better for the Colts to have a chance at stopping the Pats running game.

That defensive line is backed by the inside linebacker duo of D'Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman. Freeman is an athletic asset in coverage, but at 220 pounds he can easily be overpowered in the running game. He'll likely be tasked with covering Shane Vereen out of the backfield, a matchup Brady won't shy away from testing. Jackson is still a capable run defender (although the horrid Week 11 tape says otherwise), but at 31 he's lost a step and can be exploited in coverage. The Colts are asking for serious trouble if they have him trying to run down the seam with Rob Gronkowski.

Another big change since the Week 11 game has been the emergence of rookie Jonathan Newsome as a playmaking speed rusher off the edge. Newsome has brought a pass rushing spark to this defense that former first rounder (and Week 11 starter) Bjoern Werner wasn't providing. He displayed his disruptive potential with a momentum turning strip sack of Peyton Manning last week, and it will be imperative for Nate Solder to build on his good divisional round showing with another solid performance against his speed. Newsome's emergence has also open things up a bit for Erik Walden on the left side, and the former Packer has responded with seven combined hits, hurries and sacks in their two playoff games.

The strength of this Colts defense normally lies within the secondary, where the Colts have enough good cover guys to play physical, man coverage and disrupt the timing of opposing passing games. It's similar to how the Patriots play, with the shutdown abilities of Vontae Davis being the catalyst for the Colts success. The Colts hot-and-cold defensive performance as a whole has generally swung on the performance of their secondary; when Davis plays like he did last week in Denver (just 5 catches for 21 yards allowed on 11 targets, with two more passes defensed), the Colts become a difficult defense to play against.

If Toler plays through a groin injury, Brady will target him early and often
However, that strength could be severely compromised on Sunday, as Davis and fellow starter Greg Toler are listed as questionable. Little is known about the severity of Davis' knee or Toler's groin injury, but Brady will be sure to test them early and often if they play to see how well they can run with receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell. The Patriots will mercilessly pick on a weakness when they find it, and Toler playing on a groin injury has potential to be Brady's next target.

If either Davis or Toler are out of the lineup, former Patriot Darius Butler will likely see more time on the outside. Butler has been competitive as the Colts slot corner this year, but his lack of size would put him at a major disadvantage on the outside, particularly if the Pats could get catch him on the 6'2" LaFell. That would also mean more snaps for reserve corner Josh Gordy, who would likely immediately become another Brady target.

Of course, Brady's biggest mismatch in the passing game is always Rob Gronkowski, and the presence of Landry in the lineup does little to change that. Landry may be bigger and more physical than either Mike or Sergio Brown, but coverage has always been a weakpoint in his game. The over-aggressive Landry is susceptible to play-fakes, which could have a big role in the game plan this week given the Pats recent run-heavy history against these Colts.

Given all the factors at play, it wouldn't surprise me to see Brady and the passing game be a much bigger part of the game plan than they were in Week 11. I still think the Pats can and will run on this improved Colts defense, but they might find even better mismatches in the passing game, depending on just how hurt Toler and Davis are.

I'd expect the Pats to continue their "hot hand" approach to the running game, with LeGarrette Blount getting the first crack at them. Jonas Gray is reportedly healthy enough to play, but that doesn't necessarily mean that his injured ankle wont limit his performance. Blount appears to have more trust with the coaching staff, and his physical running style makes him a very tough matchup for these undersized Colts. Remember, Blount went off for a Jonas Gray-esque game against these Colts just last year in the playoffs.

Special teams

The Patriots have gotten big contributions all season long from their special teams. One week after defeating the dangerous Ravens, they'll face another one of the league's best special teams units in the Colts. 

The strengths of these Colts special teams lies in the kicking game. The ageless Adam Vinatieri was nearly flawless on field goals, and Pats fans need not question his guts in big moments. Meanwhile, Pat McAfee has emerged as one of the game's best punters, while also utilizing his strong leg to be a touchback machine on kickoffs. McAfee has been supported by strong coverage units that rank near the top of the league against both punt (5.9 yards per return) and kick returns (22.6 yards per return).

McAfee will find himself kicking outside in the New England winter, rather than inside the comfy confines of Lucas Oil Stadium. Therefore, expect the return game to be a factor, with Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman proving reliable sources of field position on both kickoffs and punts.

The Colts return game is paced by former Browns star Josh Cribbs. Cribbs isn't quite the explosive threat he once was in Cleveland, but his 32 yards per kick return illustrate that he can still make some plays. Cribbs was less effective returning punts, averaging only 6.6 yards per return. The Patriots excellent coverage teams did a good job against the explosive Jacoby Jones last week, and they'll have to bring their "A" game again against Cribbs

Other factors to watch:

The bully factor: There's no way the Patriots aren't already in the Colts head. That's what happens when a team allow an opponent to average 240 rushing yards against them while getting outscored 85-42 in a calender year.

The Patriots have very publicly embarrassed the Colts run defense their past two meetings, and the Colts will surely be looking to prove early on that they won't be pushed around like those previous contests. Expect some chippyness early, as the Colts try to send a message that they won't be bullied this time.

The lasting effects of those past two contests could also open things up for New England's passing game. They certainly won't abandon the run the way they did last week, but look for them to attack Indy's injured corners with playaction, particularly if the Colts are true to their word and load up to stop the running game.

Wet Potato: Ball security was a lingering concern from the Pats divisional win over Baltimore, as they were lucky not lose either of their two fumbles (with Shane Vereen also having a fumble overturned by replay). Ball security could become one of the stories of the game, as wet, miserable conditions are currently in the Sunday Foxborough forecast, and Bill Belichick reportedly made it a point of emphasis throughout the week in practice.

Of course, ball security in wet conditions is a factor for both teams, and the Colts have some notable players with alarmingly high fumble rates. Luck has put the ball on the ground 13 times this year (the Colts have been fortunate to recover all but six), and Herron coughed it up 4 times in only 99 regular season touches. The Pats coaching staff has surely made the defense aware of both stats, and both will be targets the hard hitting front seven.


 Legacies on the line: There's no underselling the stakes on the line for the Patriots in this one. While the stakes are naturally always high in the AFC championship game, a win or loss could swing a bunch of legacy-related narratives (at least until next postseason).

Think about it. A win puts Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in even more rarified air. For Brady, it will mean a record sixth Super Bowl start, with a chance to tie Montana and Bradshaw with his fourth title. Meanwhile, a win will give Belichick the most postseason wins in NFL history, breaking his current tie with Tom Landry.

However, a loss to a Colts team that the Pats have owned in recent years would be devastating. This Patriots team was clearly put together with a championship in mind, and failing to reach the big game after getting this far would be a tremendous disappointment. Losing to the inferior Colts would also play into the (ridiculous) narrative that Brady and Belichick have been playoff chokers in the past 10 years.

With that much on the line, expect a focused, businesslike performance from these Pats. They are on a mission, and I am far from the only one that will be shocked if they let a fairly one-dimensional Colts team deny them.


Ned Brady 1/17/2015 11:12:00 AM Edit
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