When: 8:30 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis TV: NBC
Those two quarterbacks are definitely worth paying attention to, but playoff seeding in the AFC is the priority in the matchup between the two teams at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts need the victory to own the tiebreaker over the Patriots because it’s unlikely they’ll pass the Denver Broncos, who beat Indianapolis in Week 1. New England currently has a one-game lead over the Colts for the No. 2 seed, which gets you a bye in the first weekend of the playoffs.
ESPN.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells preview the game.
Wells: Mike, you’ve covered Bill Belichick for a long time. You’ve watched as he’s gotten the upper hand on some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. The Colts watched it with Peyton Manning early in his career and they’re watching it again with Luck (seven interceptions in two games vs. New England). What is it about Belichick’s style that makes it so tough on opposing young quarterbacks?
Reiss: Mike, I wouldn’t necessarily say Belichick always has the upper hand, as we could look at some games this year in which more inexperienced quarterbacks such as Oakland’s Derek Carr and the New York Jets’ Geno Smith had notable success. But one of the things I think Belichick’s defenses generally do well is take away the one or two things an offense wants to do, and make the opposition go to something else. In essence, his defenses take offenses out of their comfort zone. The other thing that stands out is the role turnovers play. The Patriots are traditionally one of the NFL’s leaders in turnover differential, and they currently rank tied for first at plus-12 (18 takeaways, 6 giveaways). As cornerback Darrelle Revis said earlier this year, the Patriots are at their best when playing physical and creating turnovers.
What have you noticed from Luck that is different this season compared to the previous two?
Wells: It’s no secret that Luck is an underrated runner. You were there when Brady talked about it during his news conference with the media earlier this week. I think Luck’s biggest growth this season has been his ability to not be predictable. It would be easy for him to constantly look for T.Y. Hilton, his big-play receiver, or Reggie Wayne, his security blanket in the time of need, but Luck is not doing that. He’s avoiding zeroing in on one or two targets when he’s in the pocket. The playmakers around him have made it possible for him to be able to spread the ball around. He’s completed passes to at least seven players in all nine games this season. He’s completed passes to nine players three times. I think that will help Luck against Belichick, the master of disguising his defense, on Sunday.
Colts fans don’t like to hear this, but I believe there’s no quarterback in the NFL, Peyton Manning included, who does a better job of getting the most out of his receivers and tight ends than Brady. Brady puts up numbers and wins every year even when you have to Google to see who some of his targets are. Is it Brady or the offensive system in New England that makes it happen?
Reiss: If I had to pick one, it would be Brady because I don’t think you can just put another quarterback in this system and expect the same results. He’s special in so many ways. At the same time, the system is part of it, too. It’s a “game plan” approach that morphs into something new on a week-to-week basis based on the perceived weaknesses of the opposition. Combine the fact that you have a Hall of Famer running the offense who has been in the same system for his entire 15-year career and it’s a pretty powerful force. Brady’s accuracy and decision-making are as sharp as ever and he’s been extending plays more in recent weeks by using his feet to buy more time. It’s been impressive to watch.
What do the Patriots have to be concerned about most when it comes to the Colts’ defense?
Wells: That’s a tricky question, Mike. The Colts have 23 sacks this season against quarterbacks not named Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger. Like any team in the league, the Colts are at their best when they’re able to get pressure on the quarterback. Roethlisberger picked them apart for 522 yards and six touchdowns last month. Brady will have similar success if Indianapolis defensive coordinator Greg Manusky isn’t able to put together a scheme that makes Brady uncomfortable in the pocket. Linebacker Robert Mathis supplied the majority of the pressure on the quarterback in the past. He’s out for the season with the torn Achilles, so Manusky has put together a package that allows a number of players to “eat,” as the Colts call their blitzes. You might see nickelback Darius Butler on one player. Mike Adams might come in from the safety position. The linebackers will also rush. The goal is to not be predictable with their blitz packages. It’s worked so far this season, as the Colts are tied for 10th in the league in sacks with 24.
Brandon Browner was in Seattle last season when Hilton (five catches, 140 yards and two TDs) went off against him and Richard Sherman in the Colts’ victory. How do the Patriots plan to slow down one of the NFL's most talented young receivers?
Reiss: The Patriots have been solid this year when it comes to protecting against the big play. Hilton, of course, is a big play waiting to happen. I’m anticipating the Patriots playing most of the game in their sub packages, which they’ve been in 67 percent of the time this season, and that ties in to how I’d envision they attempt to slow him down -- plenty of safety help over the top and physical play at the line of scrimmage. This is why safety Devin McCourty is a key player for the Patriots. A converted cornerback, he has very good range, is a solid tackler and plays a big part in limiting the big strike.
What should Patriots followers know about former New England Patriots players (kicker Adam Vinatieri, cornerback Darius Butler, safety Sergio Brown, injured guard Donald Thomas) and their roles and futures with the Colts, as well as the Boston College bookends on the offensive line, left tackle Anthony Castonzo and right tackle Gosder Cherilus?
Wells: Belichick hit it on the head about Vinatieri when he said he doesn’t see an end in sight for the ageless kicker. Vinatieri’s backing it up, as he’s currently on a streak of 26 consecutive made field goals. I know some people might not think much of nickelbacks, but Butler is very valuable to the Colts’ defense. He's so valuable that they keep him on the slot receiver even if starting cornerbacks Vontae Davis or Greg Toler go down with an injury. Butler missed two games earlier this season because of an ankle injury and there was a significant drop-off between him and Josh Gordy, the team’s fourth cornerback. Brown has proved over the past five games that he’s more than just a special-teams player. He stepped into the starting lineup after LaRon Landry was suspended four games for using performance-enhancing drugs. Many thought that would be a short-term situation until Landry returned. Landry is back, but Brown will be starting alongside veteran Mike Adams at safety on Sunday. Castonzo will continue to protect Luck’s blind side for the next 10 years. The interior part of the Colts’ line was supposed to be the weak link this season, but Cherilus has struggled, too. He’s been dealing with an assortment of injuries, including a groin injury that kept him out of practice some this week.