Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts (CBS, 6:40 p.m. ET)
Mike: Tedy, the Patriots are heavy favorites, and with good reason. They have proved to be a tough team over the course of 17 games, they're playing at home, and they are facing a team they beat 42-20 back on Nov. 16.
Tedy: If there's a tough part of this week mentally for either team, it's on the Patriots' side. They beat them so handily last time and the Colts didn't put up much fight. You put up fight by running the football, stopping the run and covering kicks, and the Colts couldn't do much of anything in those areas. But when you get a rematch like this, and you know that, sometimes it can play tricks on players' minds. Mentally weak is one thing I wouldn't use to describe this Patriots team, but judging by the way they came out at the beginning of the game against the Ravens, it still looked like they hadn't played good football in a few weeks. So that opens the door for me that it's possible they could come out and underestimate this Colts team.
Mike: And one thing I've been saying throughout the week is that the Colts have nothing to lose.
Tedy: I don't doubt that they're going to come out and try to right the wrong that happened earlier this season, a blowout loss to the Patriots on a Sunday night on national television. In a game that everyone is watching, to have one of your defensive backs thrown into the television cameras and then have Rob Gronkowski say he was throwing you out of the club, that's plenty of motivation for this Colts team.
Mike: The progression of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck continues -- a playoff appearance as a rookie, a trip to the divisional round in his second year, and now advancing to the AFC title game in his third year.
Tedy: Luck is an intelligent player, and I remember games we played against Peyton Manning and you could tell he was starting to figure it out. It looks like Luck is starting to figure it out, with two consecutive playoff wins under his belt. If you're the Patriots, you don't want to come out like you did against the Ravens and get caught in that initial lull because maybe this is the time where the offense can't bail you out. You don't want Luck to have his coming-out party against you.
Mike: Luck has had his struggles in three losses to the Patriots, with the Patriots outscoring the Colts 144-66.
Tedy: I had been down on him during the regular season for fumbling the ball away and being careless with the football. Everyone was giving him high praise, but I'm seeing those turnover numbers and they're up there with Jay Cutler, which is a neighborhood you don't want to be in. I picked the Colts to lose their last two playoff games because of it, figuring the Bengals and Broncos would find a way to create turnovers, especially with Denver having Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware rushing off the edge. But what I've noticed is that Luck is doing a better job of using his checkdowns more -- going to the tight end and running back, taking what the defense is giving him.
Mike: Is there a play that stands out to you as a good example of this?
Tedy: Absolutely. This past Sunday in Denver, they tried a flea-flicker early in the second quarter (11:03) and that was a play in which Luck easily could have tried to force it down the field. But instead, he took the checkdown to tight end Jack Doyle, and when I see that, the first thought is that he's taken the cape off and realized that he doesn't have to be Superman. You can still be great when you're slowly going down the field and not taking chances with the football. Now, having said that, he still did throw two interceptions last week, so he does still turn the ball over. At the same time, he's put the team on his back at times, even running the football.
Mike: That is one thing Bill Belichick said this week, how Luck is almost like a sixth receiver with his ability to run.
Tedy: I could see the Colts playing a lot of empty sets and still having a rushing threat; his name is Andrew Luck. That would be one way they could maximize the threat of the pass and still have a quarterback that forces you to spy. People might forget, but I picked the Colts to beat the Patriots on Nov. 16. Now I don't pick against the Patriots very often; in fact, that might have been the only time this season. But what I had seen up to that point was a gritty Colts team, and I still feel the same way about them, with Luck a big reason why. I've gotten over the fact that he was a turnover machine at times and realized how much he's had to do for that team this year.
Mike: The Colts have pieced some things together in front of him on the offensive line, which has helped.
Tedy: I said earlier this week that there were two things that surprised me the most in divisional-round games. The first was how Patriots receiver Julian Edelman somehow came out of the pile with a fumble recovery, and the second was how Luck didn't get sacked. That's what the Colts needed to win that game against the Broncos, and I had figured that Luck would hold onto the ball and DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller would have a good chance of getting the ball off him. But their offensive line, tight ends, and running backs all did a great job in protection.
Mike: Outside of left tackle Anthony Castonzo (first round, 2011) and rookie left guard Jack Mewhort (second round, 2014), there aren't a lot of highly touted players up front. They've also turned to Daniel "Boom" Herron as their top running back, which is a change from Nov. 16.
Tedy: Herron has 20 receptions this postseason, and that's a matchup the Patriots could have problems with -- the receiving back out of the backfield, taking what the defense gives you. I've also seen him line up as the No. 1 receiver outside in empty sets, so they have a lot of confidence in him as a receiver. He's a player the Patriots didn't see much of on Nov. 16, but now that Ahmad Bradshaw is out, and Trent Richardson was a healthy scratch, he's their top back.
Mike: Talking with Patriots defenders this week, they are hoping to duplicate their defensive effort from Nov. 16 when they held the Colts to 19 rushing yards on 17 carries. Turning them one-dimensional played into their hands. But one change that seems significant for Indianapolis is having tight end Dwayne Allen back. He was injured early in the Nov. 16 game and Bill Belichick has pointed out his blocking prowess this season.
Tedy: I always liked Allen, feeling like he was a top player coming out of Clemson in the 2012 draft (third-round pick), and that has transferred to the NFL. He's had some injuries in his young career, but when he is on the field, this Colts offense is at its best. I love it when tight ends do the dirty work, and when you look at Boom Herron's 6-yard touchdown run in the second quarter of the win over the Broncos (14:19), it's Allen setting the edge. The Colts used an unbalanced line and it looked like Luck turned the wrong way on the handoff, but the play worked because of Allen, who takes on Denver's David Bruton Jr., the force player, and dominates. That's great stuff. Receiver Reggie Wayne is also out there leading the way. So that was an example of Allen making a difference as a blocker, and then you see him doing it as a pass-catcher, too, when he hauls in a 3-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter (7:28) as he's covered by cornerback Aqib Talib. In the Nov. 16 game between the Patriots and Colts, Belichick talked about how some of the matchups changed once Allen left with an injury. We saw Denver put Talib on Allen, so maybe the Patriots are thinking along the same lines when it comes to playing man coverage in the red zone. That's a matchup problem.
Mike: There's also tight end Coby Fleener, the 2012 second-round pick out of Stanford who led the Colts with seven catches for 144 yards in the Nov. 16 game. Cornerback Brandon Browner drew him a good portion of the time. Along with blocking-based Jack Doyle, the Colts go three-deep at the position and they throw quite a bit of personnel groupings at the opposition. What do you see at receiver?
Tedy: With T.Y. Hilton, the way to beat him is to battle him at the line of scrimmage and if he gets over the top you have safety help. That can eliminate him from the game, just like the Nov. 16 meeting when the Patriots used McCourty over the top. But what stands out is how rookie Donte Moncrief has taken on a larger role since the Patriots and Colts last met. This isn't a game where a player should be underestimated based on how much experience he has in the league and Luck really looks to Moncrief. Luck really has faith in all his targets and sometimes that gets him in trouble, forcing the ball in there when they might be covered.
Mike: That's a thorough breakdown of some of the Colts' offensive personnel. Let's get into the defense, where they blitzed Tom Brady more than any team this season -- 53.5 percent of the time -- in the first meeting.
Tedy: They play a lot of man coverage and Gronkowski has been the answer for the Patriots this season, so you start with that matchup. Based on what the Colts did last week, it will be safety LaRon Landry, who drew the assignment of Broncos tight end Julius Thomas. If the Colts do assign Landry to cover Gronkowski, expect him to be attacked like the Broncos did early on Sunday (first quarter, 10:40) when Landry tried to jam Thomas off the line as he ran a flat route. Thomas then turned it into a wheel route, which is a flat route curved into a vertical route up the sideline, and he beats Landry for a 32-yard gain. People often say being physical with Gronkowski is the way to go, but I don't think that's it. Even if one of the NFL's stronger safeties like Landry tries to get tough at the line of scrimmage, it won't be enough to alter Gronkowski's route, so I think the better approach is to keep your distance and use quickness as an advantage like Chargers safety Eric Weddle did in Week 14 (third quarter, 3:24).
Mike: Landry wasn't as big of a factor against the Patriots on Nov. 16, playing just eight defensive snaps, as he was coming off suspension.
Tedy: He played 67 against the Broncos on Sunday and there were times he did hold up against Julius Thomas (second quarter, 11:17) by using a physical jam and getting back in phase to defend the pass. But the Broncos consistently looked for that matchup, which everyone probably remembers on the first touchdown of the game (first quarter, 10:05) when an offensive shift had Demaryius Thomas split out wide to the left and Landry followed him out there. It wasn't hard to figure out what was going to happen there -- that's a pretty easy touchdown. Look for the Patriots to attack that matchup like the Broncos did.
Mike: Any specific way you see the Patriots doing that?
Tedy: One thing to watch for is when the tight end and running back are aligned on the same side of the field, like the Broncos did in the second quarter (3:01). The result of that specific play was an incomplete pass to Wes Welker over the middle, but if you look at the top of the screen, you had Julius Thomas and running back Ronnie Hillman lined up there, with linebacker Jerrell Freeman and Landry in man coverage. It's a pick type play, Freeman and Landry don't switch, and Hillman is wide open on the wheel route; it's just that Manning had already delivered the ball to Welker over the middle (incomplete, drawing a penalty). If the Patriots get that type of matchup with Gronkowski and running back Shane Vereen, I could see a big day for Vereen. That was a good example of how a team can use a formation against man coverage to exploit the Colts' defense.
Mike: One thing that helps the Colts is their ability to generate pressure. Brady called them an aggressive defense.
Tedy: This is a Colts defense with a Ravens-type mentality, which is what you'd expect because that's where head coach Chuck Pagano was before coming to Indianapolis in 2012. I don't think they are as good as the Ravens, but they have their moments that show complexities in their rush concepts, like the strip sack of Manning last Sunday (second quarter, 11:12). It's man coverage, and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson gives Julius Thomas a jam before he rushes, Erik Walden fakes to the A gap and then angles his rush outside, while Freeman starts outside and then goes in to take on the running back. Meanwhile, the nose tackle is rushing away to make it a three-man rush on the offensive left side. This creates stress for the Denver offensive line, with left tackle Ryan Clady staying on the inside rusher too long and rookie Jonathan Newsome has a free run at Manning off the edge. Newsome, a fifth-round pick out of Ball State in 2014, has speed that catches the eye.
Mike: Unlike the Ravens, this is a defense that has struggled against the run at times, although it looks like they've tightened some things up of late.
Tedy: They have a couple of good inside linebackers in D'Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman, but from a Patriots perspective you hope that Jonas Gray gets a shot as part of a 1-2 punch with LeGarrette Blount. I think you want to plant the seed in the mind of those running backs that whoever is going to get the ball will keep it if they get going and that can keep them motivated, which reminds me of a game against the Jets when I was playing and Corey Dillon was at running back. We weren't having great success, but Bill Belichick told us, "We're going to run the ball every time until we get two first downs." We're all sitting on the bench thinking, "Let's see if he's serious." He was. Those are the little things Belichick does, and I think the Patriots should work hard to establish the run based on their past success.
Mike: One of the themes in previewing the game is highlighting the differences between the teams since Nov. 16. The Colts have their big man at defensive tackle, Arthur Jones, back after an ankle injury. Jones is the brother of Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones.
Tedy: Yes, and with the Patriots probably playing without rookie center Bryan Stork, this could be one of their weaker lineups as they shift deep into the offensive line and possibly rotate guys in. It's the same thing at running back, where if it's going well for one of them, you leave him in. If not, you try the next guy. I don't anticipate the same type of success running the ball for the Patriots that they had in the last matchup when they had their regular offensive line. Stork has improved over the course of the season, so his loss is notable. Do they give up pressure? Yes. Has there been quick pressure up the middle? Yes, absolutely. But as long as Brady keeps getting rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds, it helps mask some of those issues. That can be tough to do against man coverage, and if you're a defense playing man, you need a pass rush for it to work.
Mike: What else stands out on defense?
Tedy: We talked about them having a Ravens-type mentality, but they don't have players like Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs, or Haloti Ngata up front. You see Walden coming off the edge. In the secondary, Vontae Davis is a good corner who fights and has the ability to play man and get in your face. We talked about Landry at safety and he'll go and hit someone, giving them a stronger presence in the run game. But I think he can be taken advantage of in coverage. Then there's Sergio Brown, and the one thing I'd say about him is that he should be careful about writing checks that his body can't cash when it comes to Rob Gronkowski.
Mike: On special teams, veteran Josh Cribbs is the primary returner, and that was one of the first areas Belichick pointed to when breaking down the Colts this week. He said, "They've really done a good job in the kicking game. They've got a great kicker, a great punter, added Cribbs in the return game. They're at the top of the league in kickoff coverage, kickoff returns, and do a great job with field position."
Tedy: With Adam Vinatieri, I can't believe this guy is still playing. I still remember sitting down with him at Bryant College having lunch our rookie year at training camp, and I guess this is the difference between a linebacker and a kicker. I'm in my sixth year at ESPN and he's still playing [laughing]. I love the guy, but if he makes a kick to win this game, I'm not talking to him anymore. This is a good Colts team that is going to do special things in this league. With Andrew Luck, you know he's going to get a Super Bowl at some point. If you're the Patriots, you just don't want to let this be the year.
Mike: Let's get to our predictions. The Colts' healthy stable at tight end is going to be a key in this game, as the Patriots have given up the third-most passing yards to opposing tight ends this season (1,006). I think the Colts can manipulate some favorable matchups with their tight ends and keep things close, so then the question becomes if their defense can be more stout against the run than it has previously been against New England. The return of Arthur Jones should help. I see this game being closer than the past three, but New England pulls it out in the end with Gronkowski once again throwing people out of the club. Patriots 27, Colts 21
Tedy: OK, my analyst hat is off. Yes, Reiss, the game will be closer, but not by much. Last week was a wake-up call for this Patriots team. I see the Stork injury being a significant change in what the Patriots do offensively. I see Tom Brady using quick throws from the pocket with the occasional shot down the middle of the field off of play action to Gronkowski. I'm an honorary captain of the game with Ty Law and Troy Brown. We will be sitting in the box with Mr. Kraft, and I look forward to watching this team punch its ticket to Arizona. Patriots 34, Colts 21