Those games included the added wrinkle of the Brady-Peyton Manning storyline, but the Patriots and Colts will square off for the fourth time in postseason play this Saturday night (8:15 p.m. ET).
And while Manning is no longer a Colt, Indianapolis is once again built around a franchise quarterback, as Andrew Luck has solidified the foundation of the team for many years to come.
Indianapolis was one of three possible opponents for the Patriots in the divisional round, advancing past the Kansas City Chiefs in a spectacular game in Indianapolis and then seeing the San Diego Chargers defeat the Cincinnati Bengals, resulting in the divisional round matchup.
Just two years ago, the Colts were at the bottom of the NFL’s proverbial barrel, with Manning’s future with the franchise uncertain due to a neck injury and losses piling up during a forgettable 2011 season.
But the tradeoff of having the league’s worst record for the opportunity to pick Luck in the draft has been a fortuitous one, as he’s guided Indy to the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
For more on the Colts, here’s our introductory post:
Record: 11-5 (AFC South champions, fourth seed in the AFC)
Head coach: Chuck Pagano (second season)
Offensive coordinator: Pep Hamilton
Defensive coordinator: Greg Manusky
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. QB Andrew Luck. As mentioned, Luck was the first pick in the 2012 draft, as he was regarded by many as the best prospect at any position in nearly a decade (some believed since Manning himself). He’s been spectacular in two seasons, throwing for more yards than any other player during the first two years of his NFL career, but he’s more than simply a pocket passer. He’s an excellent athlete who can barrel through defenders in short-yardage rushing situations. What stands out most is Luck’s composure in playing from behind, as he’s orchestrated eight fourth-quarter comeback wins already in his career, highlighted by the 28-point rally against Kansas City on Saturday.
2. WR T.Y. Hilton. With Reggie Wayne on injured reserve, Hilton has been catapulted into a leading receiver role. The second-year wideout is incredibly fast, as was seen on Saturday on a long score against Kansas City. He can get behind a defense, but the Colts also have used him in the underneath passing game and from the slot. He had two touchdowns against the Patriots last season.
3. RB Donald Brown. The Colts shipped their first-round pick in the 2014 draft to Cleveland in exchange for running back Trent Richardson earlier this season. Richardson was the third player taken in 2012, and yet Brown has emerged as the most reliable Colts running back. The former UConn star had 102 total yards of offense in the wild-card game to go along with two touchdowns.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. DE Robert Mathis. A strong candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Mathis terrorized offensive tackles and quarterbacks all season with 19.5 sacks, most in the league. He continues to be productive at age 32, but it’s perhaps worth noting that the four games that Mathis was held without a sack this season were played away from Indianapolis, where the fast track works in his favor. Nonetheless, he’s an outstanding rusher.
2. LB Jerrell Freeman. Undrafted out of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Freeman found work with the Colts last season after time spent in the Canadian Football League. He’s been a sensational addition, with 271 tackles in his two seasons. He’s undersized at 6-0 and 232 pounds, but Freeman has exceptional instincts and will be all over the field for the Colts on Saturday night.
3. S Antoine Bethea. Another one of the holdover defensive players who has been a part of previous Patriots-Colts playoff matchups, Bethea is a complete safety who impacts both the passing and running games. He had 110 tackles this season, trailing only Freeman for the team high. He also managed two interceptions, a sack, six passes defensed and a fumble recovery. He patrols the back end of the defense along with LaRon Landry.
OTHER NOTES: The Colts have dealt with significant season-ending injuries, but their active roster is largely healthy. ... Only St. Louis (24) forced more fumbles than the Colts this season (23). ... This could be good news for Julian Edelman: The Colts allowed 13.7 yards per punt return, second highest in the NFL. ... Punter Pat McAfee also handles kickoff duties. ... Longtime Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri had a fine year for Indianapolis, connecting on 35 of 40 field goal attempts. ... The Colts' kickoff return team has been sufficient this year (23.5 yard average), but did not break a return of longer than 39 yards during the regular season.