Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Boston Patriots reporter Mike Reiss break down the game. This week, it's the AFC divisional-round playoff, at home against the Indianapolis Colts (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET):
Mike: There are a few common threads between these teams. They were the two least-penalized clubs in the NFL this season, so they generally don't make the type of mistakes that can be magnified in the playoffs. And they are both among the NFL leaders in turnover differential -- the Colts third in the NFL at plus-13 and the Patriots eighth at plus-9. You have to beat these teams because they seldom beat themselves.
Tedy: Another common thread is overcoming adversity. We know about all of the Patriots' injuries and where they've come from; this Colts team has had a similar situation. Running back Vick Ballard -- IR. Tight end Dwayne Allen -- IR. Receiver Reggie Wayne -- IR. Linebacker Pat Angerer -- IR. You talk about key cogs in your team. They've had their share of injuries, too, and they've been able to come back from it. It's a mentally tough team and that's a credit to head coach Chuck Pagano.
Mike: And, of course, it helps when you have a rising star at quarterback in Andrew Luck.
Tedy: Luck is a special player. He reminds me of Ben Roethlisberger and might be better at this stage of his career. He has everything you want in a franchise quarterback, including the right demeanor, and you can see that he's earned the respect of his teammates. This is a guy I'm going to enjoy watching for the next decade and I think we all will. For Patriots fans, you just hope he doesn't look that way this week.
Mike: What is it about Luck's skill set that stands out to you?
Tedy: He does a great job of moving in the pocket and getting back to the spot about 6-7 yards behind the center, and also recreating the spot by shuffling to his right or left and stepping up in the pocket and finding a different spot to throw the ball from. He's that athletic. Also, one thing people might underestimate is how strong Luck is. Just ask Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who was all over him in the Nov. 18, 2012, matchup between the teams after Luck ran through the arm of Vince Wilfork. Ninkovich grabbed him by the jersey and was draped over him like a backpack and Luck still completed the ball downfield for a 16-yard gain (third quarter, 10:17). This is the type of player they're going up against.
Mike: Another thing that has been easy to see is Luck's ability as a runner. The first thing I thought of was the importance of defensive ends Chandler Jones and Ninkovich not losing containment on the edges. Rush-lane integrity figures to be stressed.
Tedy: For sure, it will be imperative defensively to not only keep Luck in the pocket, but also collapse the pocket on him. You don't want him running. At the same time, you have to respect the arm. So he threatens you in multiple ways. Just when you think the Colts want to keep him healthy and safe, they run a zone read versus the Chiefs last week and Luck keeps it and runs for about 20. So the Patriots have their work cut out for them going up against him. The playoffs are the perfect time to rely on that added element of Luck and call well-timed quarterback run plays in the red area or short yardage to keep the Patriots' defense off guard. That said, with all of the superlatives mentioned about Luck, he will still give you chances for interceptions. He only threw nine in the regular season, but you saw the Chiefs capitalize last week against him. So he'll take some chances, trusting his arm, and when he does the defense needs to rise up.
Mike: While it's helpful to revisit last year's Patriots-Colts game, a 59-24 Patriots win at Gillette Stadium, it's also important to note that the Colts have a different offensive coordinator this year in Pep Hamilton. While the personnel is similar, there are some changes.
Tedy: The Colts came out last week against the Chiefs and spread them out. Luck picked them apart. This isn't really a power running team, like they were at times in 2012 under former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, and I think that's due to their lack of depth at the running back spot. Their offensive line also isn't the most physical. They trust their quarterback and his arm. Maybe this is a case where Hamilton has realized "This is who we are," because it's not a run-it-down-your-throat type of team. Although that's who Hamilton wants to be at times, personnel limits that. That could be an effective way to attack the Patriots -- spread them out and if you want to run it, do it when they only have five or six in the box. That's basically what Peyton Manning did when he came in here with the Broncos this year and they had a huge day running the ball.
Mike: It's surprising that the Colts aren't better running the ball after trading a first-round pick for running back Trent Richardson.
Tedy: I have to think they are regretting that trade because Richardson hasn't been productive and Donald Brown has turned out to be more of a weapon at this point. Maybe if Richardson gets an offseason under his belt and they improve the offensive line, he'll be better next year. Right now, Richardson is hurting the offense, as we saw with the fumble against the Chiefs that contributed to the Colts facing a 28-point deficit.
Mike: So what do the Patriots have to be concerned with in the running game?
Tedy: I think it's the "sub" running game, when the Colts have multiple receivers and Brown in the game. Brown is their featured back, but it wasn't necessarily by design. Ballard got hurt. Ahmad Bradshaw got hurt. They traded for Richardson. Only after all that did Brown emerge and lead the team in rushing. He's done just about everything for them. He's a very good sub runner, especially on draws. You see the "take-two" draw, where the offensive tackle will kick out and club the defensive end up the field and then go down the field and try to block a secondary defender. I have a lot of respect for Brown. He's made big plays for them all year, whether it's a 50-yard run or a 30-yard reception. In critical situations, he's come through for them all year. He's not the most physical back, but he just runs hard.
Mike: Brown runs hard and receiver T.Y. Hilton runs fast. There's been a heavy focus on Hilton this week, with the Patriots signing speedy receiver Reggie Dunn to the practice squad Tuesday specifically to play the role of Hilton at practice. That tells you how the Patriots view Hilton as a key this week.
Tedy: Hilton had a huge day last week and he's obviously a guy the Patriots will have to stop. He doesn't have a particular route, or a way that they use him, that you can focus on. They move him around. They send him deep. They run the short to intermediate route. They really ask him to do everything and he's Luck's No. 1 option. Do you possibly double-team Hilton? Absolutely, at times. Do you use top corner Aqib Talib on him? Yes. Do you try to be physical with him at the line of scrimmage? Yes. You can't just show him one thing. You throw everything at him. If Alfonzo Dennard is on him, you definitely want to give him help. But Dennard will battle you -- at the line of scrimmage and all the way through the down. Maybe that's a guy you want on him. Do you want Talib on him, for his work early in the down to jam him at the line of scrimmage, with a safety over the top? I'm sure Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia will have various defensive coverage combinations for Hilton. If you look at how they defended the top receivers in the league earlier in the year they utilized Talib. Whether it was Julio Jones, A.J. Green or Steve Smith, Talib was involved in coverage concepts that had a safety over the top, challenging leverage to one side based on the coverage, or playing off. Talib is that valuable a player, but the versatility of Hilton can cause problems. This is no one-trick pony.
Mike: Hilton has obviously become the go-to guy since Reggie Wayne was lost to a season-ending knee injury, but in watching the Colts' Dec. 8 loss at Cincinnati, I was impressed with some of their other receivers making plays too. I don't think this is necessarily a one-man band.
Tedy: The entire stable of Colts receivers -- LaVon Brazill, Da'Rick Rogers, Griff Whalen -- they know that if they're open, Luck will find them. That's why you have a total pass-route distribution that covers the entire field. When receivers trust their quarterback will get them the ball if they're open, they'll run their route efficiently. There are some receivers out there that know when they are on the secondary side of the pass pattern, they probably aren't getting the ball because the quarterback they are playing with isn't capable of getting to that point. So those receivers might not run their routes as efficiently. This is the opposite. It isn't a one-sided passing offense. Luck covers the whole field. Also, you have to understand how athletic and strong Luck is and how he keeps plays alive. So receivers know that when the quarterback does that, they have a responsibility to find the open areas. That's another aspect of this passing game that is dangerous.
Mike: Let's get in to their tight ends and how they fit into the attack.
Tedy: The loss of Dwayne Allen has been notable to me. Without him, it took them out of some of their two-tight end options. All they really have is Coby Fleener and he isn't a do-it-all type of tight end like Allen. He's more of a wide receiver and the Patriots will have to treat him accordingly. He caught a touchdown pass against the Chiefs and he was spread out. They'll move him around because with his size and athletic ability he can get favorable matchups. The Patriots have bigger linebackers and they have to win within that first five yards to get a solid jam on him. That helps buy some time for your pass rush.
Mike: Up front, New England college football fans will recognize the tackles as they both played at Boston College: left tackle Anthony Castonzo and right tackle Gosder Cherilus. The interior of the line has been a bit of a weak spot.
Tedy: It's not the most physical offensive line. The Patriots had some success against Castonzo last year with Ninkovich getting a strip sack on Luck with a great speed-to-power move, playing the hands to get free. I'm sure Ninkovich is thinking about that type of thing and I see the Patriots -- with Ninkovich and Chandler Jones -- having an advantage on the edge.
Mike: Defensively, from a big-picture standpoint, this isn't the undersized-but-quick 4-3 Colts defense we grew used to seeing under Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell. It's more of a Ravens-like system, which makes sense because Pagano, the head coach, was the Ravens' former defensive coordinator.
Tedy: It's a 3-4 system under second-year coordinator Greg Manusky. They're 26th against the run, with opponents averaging 125 yards per game. This isn't the most physical front and with Pagano coming from Baltimore, you know that's what he wants to build, but they don't really have that identity. They do have some things going for them: They're seventh in the NFL for fewest points allowed, 15th in third-down percentage, 20th in red-zone efficiency and tied for 18th in takeaways. There are elements of pressure in the Manusky defensive system. He can be complex with some of the pressure looks he throws at an offense -- overloading one side, dropping out defensive linemen.
Mike: When you talk pressure, there is an obvious place to start.
Tedy: With Robert Mathis, who led the NFL with 19.5 sacks this season. He is more of an undersized outside linebacker/defensive end and when you're playing against someone like that, the idea of running right at them is always in play. When that happens, Mathis does a nice job countering it with penetration through the gaps. There is a clock that Tom Brady will need to have, knowing Mathis is on the other side. The strip sack that Mathis had last week against the Chiefs, that's one where quarterback Alex Smith should have known was coming because the longer you're back there, you know someone is coming. Most often, it's Mathis, who has one of the best motors in the NFL. He'll crawl on the ground and try to bite your ankles. He'll fly over the top. He'll spin, dip and rip. He'll do everything to get to the passer. It's like the quarterback stole something from him and he's trying to get it back. So Brady has to know he's coming, have that clock in his head, and get rid of it. You have to feel that.
Mike: A good pass rush can make life easier on a secondary and that's what the Colts figure to rely on Saturday. Their secondary is banged-up.
Tedy: At safety, Antoine Bethea is a solid player and LaRon Landry has always been that big, physical presence. In run support, he'll come downhill and hit you. He needs to be tested down the field, and you figure offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Brady will do so when it comes to Landry's range. They've had some injuries at cornerback. Darius Butler, a player the Patriots know well from having drafted him in the second round in 2009, is usually on the inside but they might have to use him outside with the injuries. Look for the Patriots to test Butler as well. He's never been a solid tackler, so they'll want to force him to tackle as well. I wouldn't put it past the Patriots to leave Butler unblocked on the outside and send LeGarrette Blount right after him.
Mike: The linebackers look active and I know you're high on Jerrell Freeman.
Tedy: He is a solid player. At 6-feet and 230 pounds, he's an undersized guy but I like the way he plays. He came from the Canadian Football League and plays the game like he never wants to go to Canada again. He finished with 126 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions. He's a very productive player and he does a lot for the defense -- I've seen him defend tight ends like Antonio Gates one-on-one, play the read option well and effectively rush the passer. Strategy-wise, one thing to consider is that this is a defense that matches personnel. You bring in all of your multiple-receiver sets, and they'll take a linebacker off the field and add an extra defensive back. In those situations, I think the Patriots could have success running the ball. That could be where running back Shane Vereen comes into play.
Mike: Special-teams wise, former Patriots safety Sergio Brown is one of their leaders. You often see him first down the field on punt coverage. And, of course, the kicker needs no introduction.
Tedy: It would be painful to see Adam Vinatieri make a game-winning field goal. We were in the same draft class and I've been retired for five years. He's still playing -- it's the life of the kicker versus the life of the linebacker, especially when you're as clutch as he is. Watching him kick, it's still just business out there. He goes through his routine and makes kicks. If this is a close game, as I anticipate it to be, Stephen Gostkowski versus Adam Vinatieri. We'll see who makes their kicks.
Mike: One final point to make is that every team needs some breaks. The Patriots have received their share, and the Colts, with the horseshoe on their helmet, have as well.
Tedy: You go back to the wild-card win over the Chiefs and how Brown fumbled at the goal line and it bounced into the hands of Luck, who ran it in for a touchdown. To me, that's a "destiny" play. You see that and it makes you wonder if these guys have luck on their side. I've been part of those teams before.
Mike: Let's end it with our predictions. I think the Patriots are the better overall team, but very little has come easy to them this year. This probably won't be much different. Patriots 34, Colts 27.
Tedy: The Brandon Spikes injury worries me. He was such a tone-setter for that defense. Luck will have success moving the ball. This will be a high-scoring game, but one of the Patriots' edge rushers will make a play and cause the game-winning turnover. Patriots 31, Colts 28.