Every week leading into the New England Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's Sunday night's game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium (NBC, 8:30 p.m. ET):
Mike: The Patriots haven't been on the road since Oct. 12 when they beat the Buffalo Bills in the second game of their current five-game winning streak. This is the type of matchup that plays well in primetime, with top MVP candidate Tom Brady on one side and up-and-coming quarterback Andrew Luck on the other. It sort of reminds me of the Patriots-Colts games of the early 2000s when Peyton Manning was looking for his breakthrough against Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
Tedy: I don't necessarily see it at that level right now. The major rivalry in the NFL is still Manning-Brady, so this is obviously secondary to that. Everyone respects the abilities of Andrew Luck and the team the Colts seem to be becoming, but until they do something substantial, I don't think they'll get the nationwide AFC respect they desire as long as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are still leading their teams atop their respective divisions. Don't get me wrong, it's still exciting to have all three of these quarterbacks on top of their games. I think ahead to the playoffs and envision a divisional round where you could have Brady, Manning, Luck and Ben Roethlisberger, and how cool would that be? It would be a power-packed playoff round with those quarterbacks, with Roethlisberger fourth in line.
Mike: There are a lot of things to like about Luck, but some have asked the question if all the hype is too much, too soon.
Tedy: I think it's warranted and it starts with the leadership he's shown this early in his career. He might not be as fiery as Brady, but he leads in his own way. As a player, he can make many of the throws that a top quarterback like Manning makes. I also see a big-bodied athletic scrambler who picks his spots of when to turn into a makeshift running back and shed tackles to get the first down like Roethlisberger does. This combination of traits is rare -- big body (6-4, 240), arm talent, leadership and the element of extending plays. He's a very unique player, and his 7-yard touchdown throw to tight end Coby Fleener in Week 3 against the Jaguars (second quarter, 0:31) was a good reflection of his diverse skills -- he avoided the rush, scrambled to his right and threw on the run. Awesome throw.
Mike: I was a little surprised to see his interception total (9). Add in two lost fumbles and that's 11 turnovers.
Tedy: Sometimes he has blind faith in his receivers and that can hurt him. One example that Patriots fans probably remember is Alfonzo Dennard's interception in the 2013 divisional round of the playoffs. Receiver LaVon Brazill clearly loses at the line of scrimmage as Dennard delivered a strong jam (first quarter, 13:53), but Luck still threw the ball assuming he would win. There are other examples that showed up in film study this year. For example, last week, an incompletion to Reggie Wayne (second quarter, 1:32), he's trying to fit the ball into a window over one defender and in front of another. Very dangerous. It was incomplete but almost intercepted. In Week 4, against the Titans, he stared down receiver Hakeem Nicks before giving linebacker Wesley Woodyard a gift interception. In Week 7, against the Bengals, he threw it to a defender in the red zone who didn't bite on the slant by Reggie Wayne, but the defender dropped the easy interception. On plays like that, sometimes you're thinking, "What are you doing? Didn't you see him?" So Luck is very good, but he's still young and has flaws like the rest of them.
Mike: He doesn't seem to get rattled by those plays. That's part of why I think so many are impressed with him.
Tedy: The scary part for opponents is that you just don't know when that moment is going to come when the team around him starts to play at that championship level and then all of a sudden it's, "Step aside New England and Denver, we've arrived." I haven't seen that moment from them yet. Could it be this year? Possibly. They benefit from playing in a division similar to the Patriots in which you know they will be there in the end. The Texans, Titans and Jaguars are not going to be competitive late in the season. They may hang around a bit, but I don't see them pushing the Colts for the division title. That's the same way I feel about the Patriots when it comes to AFC East opponents.
Mike: So much of the focus on the Colts centers on Luck, but let's not overlook some of the others. What are you seeing at running back?
Tedy: They traded for Trent Richardson last year, and there's only one way to sum up that decision: It was a mistake. The way the running back trend is going throughout the league, why give up a first-round pick for anyone at that position? Richardson just isn't very sudden and shows limited quickness. He is powerful but borderline lumbering and takes a lot of shots. If the hole is there, he'll hit it hard. He just can't create on his own. There are times he can make the first guy miss, but if he has to redirect and get going again, the chances are low that he'll have success. While trading for Richardson has been a mistake, signing Ahmad Bradshaw was a coup. He's been the man back there. He's tough, hard to tackle, and he takes it as a personal insult when he gets tackled. You see him running it in on the goal line (vs. Bengals, Week 7, second quarter, 12:12) and he's a force. I really like the guy. He's battled through injuries and is also effective as a receiver out of the backfield. The Colts want to establish the run and then it sets up play-action.
Mike: In a lot of ways, that sounds like the Patriots' approach. Play-action has really been working for them. ESPN Stats & Information notes that Tom Brady has used play-action fakes on 91 pass attempts this season, tied for fourth-most among quarterbacks. All six of Brady's play-action touchdown passes have come since Week 5.
Tedy: The Colts are also like the Patriots in that they do a lot of things offensively, which means there is a lot for you to deal with defensively. They will incorporate two-back sets, using a fullback or a tight end back there. They've shown an empty look with one back and three tight ends. You see multiple receivers in the game. There's a spread look with Bradshaw catching the ball out of the backfield. So you never really know what you're going to get, and a big part of that is how they are confident with their tight ends to do different things -- they might be in the backfield, on the line or split out wide. That says a lot about Dwayne Allen (6-3, 265), a third-round pick in 2012 out of Clemson. There's a reason he was a Mackey Award winner as college football's best tight end -- he's tough and multidimensional. Meanwhile, Coby Fleener isn't the type of tight end you'd put in the backfield.
Mike: I got that sense from the Patriots this week -- they view Fleener as more of a big receiver. Speaking of receivers, the 1-2 combination of T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne is a good one for the Colts.
Tedy: They also have rookie Donte Moncrief (6-2, 221), a third-round pick out of Mississippi, whom they seem to like and who made a few plays in the loss to the Steelers in Week 8 that made you take notice. And we all know about Hakeem Nicks, the former Giant. But it starts with Hilton and Wayne. Specific to Hilton, here are the key letters this week: GTHB. What that stands for is: Get The Heck Back! When I was playing, coaches used to write those letters large on the board in front of us. And what that means is, "This player is really fast, we can't let him get behind us."
Mike: I guess we could say it's similar to Mike Wallace in that sense. Hilton is averaging 16.7 yards per catch so he's a big play waiting to happen. And Luck has completed a league-high 22 passes this season that carried 20 or more yards in the air. So they want to hit you deep.
Tedy: Exactly, but I'd also add this: Hilton is more than just a one-trick pony. Yes, they'll send him deep and take their shots, but there's catch-and-run stuff too. As good as Darrelle Revis is, I don't think he can run with him, so you always want to have a safety over the top of him, whether it's Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung or someone else. The Patriots will want to make Hilton earn everything on every route as he obviously prefers not to be touched. I thought a good example of what Hilton wants to do came in their Monday night win over the Giants (second quarter, 6:10) when he aligned close to the box, let Dwayne Allen run a clear-out route for him, and then Hilton ran the shallow cross for the short completion which he ran 27 yards against man coverage. So the Colts have the threat and then there's Wayne, who is going to run a lot of the underneath stuff, as he's more of a short-to-intermediate option. I could envision Brandon Browner jamming him at the line of scrimmage, and it will be interesting to see how he fares.
Mike: They've had some turnover on the interior of the offensive line, and that might be an area where the Patriots could have some success.
Tedy: This might be one of those games where it's less about getting to the quarterback and more about what you do when you get there. Can you bring Luck down? Luck holds the ball a bit, so I expect the Patriots to get there at times. Then on the back end, the question is, "Can you make the play on the ball?" You know Luck will challenge you because he has such faith in his receivers. So can you get a hand on it? Or intercept it?
Mike: Defensively, the Colts stand out on third down, as opponents are converting just 30.2 percent of the time. That ranks the Colts' defense No. 1 in the NFL. But they haven't been a strong red zone defense, with opponents converting 21 touchdowns in 30 trips.
Tedy: If we want to make a team comparison, we could say they are like the Ravens with a 3-4 defense and multiple pressure packages. But personnel-wise, I'd say the Colts are better than the Ravens on the back end. Vontae Davis is a good corner who will battle you and is very productive with passes defended. Just ask Bengals running back Giovani Bernard, who was rocked by Davis on a short reception in the Week 7 game between the teams (second quarter, 8:14). Between Davis, Greg Toler and former Patriot Darius Butler, that's a scrappy cornerback bunch that doesn't turn down challenges. You also have safety LaRon Landry coming off his suspension and I actually think the Patriots might welcome that because he's not the best cover man. He struggles when isolated. Between Landry, Sergio Brown and Mike Adams, it might be a three-man rotation at safety depending on the personnel groupings they focus on.
Mike: When Davis was a free agent in the offseason, he was viewed in the category of Aqib Talib and other top cornerbacks. The Colts paid big to keep him.
Tedy: I look at it from the Patriots' perspective. They have an "equal opportunity" offense that isn't handicapped if the other team has a solid cornerback because they aren't wide-receiver dependent. That's why having a player like Rob Gronkowski is so important. You look around the league and that's probably the same way the Saints feel about Jimmy Graham and the Chiefs feel about Travis Kelce.
Mike: Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels made the point that the Colts blitz as much as any team they've faced this year.
Tedy: They show different ways to get to the quarterback. There are some six-up looks (six defenders at the line of scrimmage) and different combinations of who is rushing and who is dropping, as well as some late pressure. In the win over the Titans in Week 4, on a third-and-6 play (third quarter, 6:51), inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson sacked quarterback Charlie Whitehurst on a six-man blitz and he wasn't picked up off the defensive right side. In the same game, cornerback Darius Butler came on a blitz and hit Whitehurst, forcing an incompletion. They'll play a lot of nickel defense, but then on third down, you actually might see them in base defense.
Tedy: I've always been a fan of Freeman and the way he came into the league, the small-college player (Mary Hardin-Baylor) who first played in Canada. He's more of an undersized player at the position (6-0, 240) but gets the job done and is slippery. He'll cover more than Jackson, who is physical and shows up with pressure and beating running backs to pick up sacks (three this season). You see a lot of them on the field together and they'll come up into those A gaps (on each side of the center) and show pressure looks.
Mike: Who else catches your eye?
Tedy: Normally you'd be starting with defensive end Robert Mathis, and it's unfortunate that he couldn't come back from injury. But outside linebacker Bjoern Werner, their first-round pick from 2013, is starting to show up a bit more. It's obviously not the same as Mathis. And then there's rookie Jonathan Newsome, the fifth-round pick out of Ball State. I thought Colts coach Chuck Pagano's remarks about him last week -- saying he had some slither to him -- were interesting.
Mike: One area we shouldn't overlook is special teams. The Patriots have been generally sharp in this area of the game, and the Colts do some things a bit outside the norm.
Tedy: They are a surprise onside-kick team. They'll use a unconventional kickoff team alignment -- with four to one side, five to another side, and one player with the kicker. Sometimes they'll flip-flop it. And they generally align everyone almost totally outside the numbers. Different teams have adjusted to it in different ways. In Week 4 against the Titans (first quarter, 7:06), the Colts were leading 7-0 and Tennessee poorly distributed their front five with two outside the numbers on each side of the field and only one in the middle over the kicker, Pat McAfee. So the kicker has a lead blocker and if they see they have the numbers advantage, they'll execute the onside kick to the outmanned side. On that play, they kicked it right to the two men outside the numbers. It was basically a 5-on-2 situation. Against the Texans two weeks later, Houston didn't leave anyone in the middle and over-accounted for the five-man side, so what happened? McAfee executed the onside kick on a middle slow-roller. McAfee is a weapon in this area.
Mike: Speaking of weapons in the kicking game, this is a good week to highlight Adam Vinatieri (Colts) and Stephen Gostkowski (Patriots), two excellent place-kickers. Gostkowski is closing on Vinatieri's franchise record for points, and he'd do it in one fewer season. This is a good time to revisit how there were a lot of questions about Gostkowski being able to fill Vinatieri's big shoes in 2006.
Tedy: I'd just say this: For the next quarterback who has to come in and replace Tom Brady, just go ask Stephen Gostkowski what it's like. It's the same thing in many ways. Tom Brady is one of the all-time best quarterbacks. Well, Adam Vinatieri is one of the all-time best kickers, maybe the best ever, especially when considering his work in the clutch. That was such a tough situation for a young kid out of Memphis to come in to, especially early when you're in the Super Bowl and the coach doesn't put you out there to attempt a 48-yard field goal on fourth-and-13, instead going for it. Gostkowski has proven to be one of the most mentally tough kickers, and part of that is what he had to go through and who he had to follow in New England. Our punter, Josh Miller, wouldn't leave him alone, giving him a hard time. I might have been guilty of that too early on -- that's sort of the life of a rookie kicker. You do it to test his resolve, to see how he would react. Well, throughout Gostkowski's nine-year career, you see the points he's racked up, how he hasn't missed in the playoffs since 2007, and just how consistently true the ball looks coming off his right foot -- the power, the accuracy -- and all you can say is that he's proven all those doubters wrong and shown all those veterans who gave him a hard time that he was more than capable. He's been everything the Patriots could have hoped for, and more.
Mike: The Patriots practice inside for a couple days this week to prepare for their only indoor game of the 2014 regular season. As Julian Edelman pointed out, that's a bit rare, as he estimated there might be three practices per season indoors.
Tedy: Coach Belichick is just trying to simulate game conditions and situations as much as he can. I remember as a player that we'd practice on grass and then when you got on the turf in a week like this, you'd just feel that much faster, almost like you were ready to explode. Everything is just more clean and crisp inside.
Mike: The Patriots have six turnovers on the season, and the Colts have 15. That's a big contrast and when considering how strongly turnovers correlate to wins and losses, it's hard to ignore. The Colts are the NFL's highest scoring team, but this might be the best secondary they've faced this season. Patriots 34, Colts 31.
Tedy: Tough one to call here. Especially with both teams coming off a bye. The Colts are a scrappy team that challenges you in many ways. Pagano will come up with a plan that slows down the Pats offense just enough. Hard to say this, but the Colts win on a late Adam Vinatieri field goal. Colts 34, Patriots 31.