When: 6:40 p.m. Sunday. Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts. TV: CBS
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The AFC playoffs were set up to produce another Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning duel in the AFC Championship Game, but those plans were thwarted by Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.
Brady vs. Luck? We’ve seen this script before, although not with the stakes this high.
While Brady will play in his 28th career playoff game, looking to become the first quarterback in NFL history to win 20 playoff games, this is Luck’s sixth.
Luck’s postseason progression has been impressive -- a playoff appearance as a rookie, advancing to the divisional round in his second season, and now graduating to the AFC Championship Game.
ESPN reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Mike Wells (Colts) break down the action:
Reiss: How much of a concern is Luck’s high interception total to the Colts and how, if at all, does that pertain to the playoffs?
Wells: Luck’s turnovers in the regular season were definitely a problem. It’s not a good thing when you’re mentioned in the same category as Chicago’s Jay Cutler when it comes to turnovers. Luck’s 22 turnovers -- 16 interceptions and six fumbles -- were second to Cutler. But Luck has been a completely different player in the playoffs when it comes to turnovers. He threw two interceptions against Denver on Sunday, but they were both long third-down throws, basically punts for the Colts. Of course, it’s well-documented that Luck has thrown eight interceptions in three games against the Patriots. But Luck is making smarter decisions with the football. He’s no longer forcing throws down the field. He has no problem throwing the ball underneath to a running back or to a tight end on a short route. He’s been nearly flawless in the playoffs. And it’s because of him that I think the Colts have a chance to win the game.
Talking to the Colts' defense, the first thing they talk about with the Patriots is their running game. This is definitely not a knock on Tom Brady, but because New England has dominated them on the ground in the past two meetings. What makes New England such a good running team, no matter who is in the backfield for them?
Reiss: The Colts saw the Patriots’ running game at its best, Mike. It hasn’t always been like that this season. In fact, just this past Saturday against the Ravens, the running attack was nonexistent as they had just one traditional running play in the entire second half -- a Tom Brady sneak. They finished with 10 carries for 9 yards when taking away three kneel-downs. So a lot of it is contingent on matchups, and I think one thing the Patriots have liked against the Colts under Chuck Pagano is their ability to overpower what has been more of an undersized defensive front.
How different is this defense from the unit that the Patriots trampled for 244 rushing yards Nov. 16?
Wells: Outside of having defensive lineman Art Jones, who takes up a lot of space, back in the lineup, I’d say the confidence level is the biggest difference. They knew they were going to be tested by Denver running back C.J. Anderson last weekend. They responded to the challenge by holding Anderson to just 80 yards and the Broncos to a total of 88 yards rushing. Another key to be able to stop the run is that the Colts are comfortable leaving cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler by themselves one-one-one on the outside. Manning constantly tried to test the Colts’ secondary, and he constantly failed. Davis had five passes defended, which was the most in a playoff game since Jan. 18, 2004. Having confidence in the secondary means the Colts can have linebackers Jerrell Freeman and D’Qwell Jackson up in the box more to defend the run.
It wouldn’t be right if I asked you about New England’s running game but didn’t ask you about Brady. As you mentioned, the Pats abandoned the running game in the second half against Baltimore. What allows Brady to still be so effective despite not running the ball at times and being 37 years old?
Reiss: If you haven’t had a chance, check out this Sports Illustrated article on Brady from December. It will answer a lot of questions about Brady’s desire, drive and full-life commitment to his craft; seriously, he eats ice cream that is made from raw ingredients, mostly vegetables, with an avocado base and cocoa mixed in to make it taste like chocolate. That’s where it starts. Specific to the football, his arm remains strong, he’s as sharp mentally as ever (the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter Saturday was him at his best in the chess match), and he’s actually improved his mobility and ability to extend plays. So, in other words, he’s successfully fighting off Father Time.
Any sense on how much, if at all, Colts players are using the Nov. 16 game as a form of motivation?
Wells: The majority of the players on the current roster have never beaten the Patriots in a Colts uniform. Only five players remain on the active roster from when Luck was drafted in 2012. The Colts know they’re underdogs in this game, which they should be when you take into consideration that they’ve been outscored 144-66 in those three losses. They used that same underdog mentality against Denver on Sunday because many people had already penciled in a Brady vs. Manning AFC Championship Game. Punter Pat McAfee mocked our colleagues at ESPN by posting a Twitter picture of all of them picking the Broncos. A large majority of the players made comments to the media about not giving them a chance to win before even answering our questions inside the locker room after the game in Denver. The final thing is that the Colts have the mentality that they have nothing to lose Sunday. They’re only in Year 3 of the reloading phase that general manager Ryan Grigson talked about when he got hired in 2012, and they’re already in the AFC Championship Game.
Luck has been nearly flawless in the playoffs, but the Patriots have owned him in his career (eight interceptions). Why has Bill Belichick’s defense been so successful against him?
Reiss: The essence of a defense coached by Belichick and coordinator Matt Patricia is to take away the primary things that you rely on and force you out of your comfort zone. Take the Nov. 16 game as an example: The Patriots had their top cornerback on Reggie Wayne and then had Kyle Arrington on T.Y. Hilton, with safety help over the top quite a bit. I thought Luck adjusted pretty well to that, with tight end Coby Fleener having a big day (seven catches, 144 yards) because that was the more favorable matchup. For Luck, a big part of this is just gaining more experience, and I think he’s already making strides. A good comparison might be Baltimore’s Joe Flacco. In the Ravens’ wild-card round playoff victory over the Patriots following the 2009 season, his second in the NFL, he had 34 passing yards in the game. Now look at him. It just takes a little time.
The change at running back seems notable as Boom Herron played one offensive snap against the Patriots on Nov. 16. Tell us more about when the Colts made that switch and what the results have been?
Wells: The Colts tried over and over again to give Trent Richardson a shot at being the starter. But over and over again, Richardson failed. As you recall, the Colts lost Ahmad Bradshaw for the season because of a fractured fibula in the game against New England in November. Richardson’s lack of production meant they had to turn to somebody, and that player was Herron. His big moment came in a game against Cleveland in early December. The Colts had just driven 88 yards downfield when they were faced with four-and-inches from the Browns' 2-yard line with 44 seconds left in the game. Herron used a second effort to get the first down. The Colts won 25-24 because Herron picked up that first down. Luck has taken advantage of Herron’s pass-catching ability in the playoffs. Herron has 18 catches on 19 targets for 117 yards in the two playoff games.
Hilton had his worst game of the season against the Pats -- three catches for 24 yards. The Colts talked about the Pats providing safety help over top to stop Hilton from having big plays down the field. Is it safe to assume Hilton can expect to see a similar type of coverage?
Reiss: Yes, that’s fair. The Colts give a defense a lot to defend, particularly with their tight ends and various personnel groupings, but I would imagine protecting against Hilton and the big play remains near the top of the Patriots’ priority list. What will be interesting is if Arrington again draws the assignment on Hilton (with safety help) or if they switch some things up. The main thing is that I would expect the Patriots to spend the majority of the game in sub packages, so it will test the depth of the secondary. Starting cornerback Brandon Browner didn’t finish the divisional-round game with a knee injury, so his status bears monitoring.
What might be a Colts-based X factor in the game that could be slipping under the radar?
Wells: I’m going with a player you and Patriots fans are familiar with: receiver Hakeem Nicks, who has five catches for 83 yards and a touchdown this postseason. The Colts signed Nicks with the vision of him being the third receiver alongside of Reggie Wayne and Hilton. Nicks had a solid start, but then he dropped off so badly that he was replaced by rookie Donte Moncrief as the No. 3 receiver. But Nicks started to come on late in the season, and he often reminded me that he takes his game to another level in the playoffs. That was evident when he had 28 receptions for 444 yards and four touchdowns during the 2011 playoffs with the New York Giants. He capped his impressive playoff performance with 10 catches for 109 yards in the Giants’ Super Bowl victory over the Patriots.
You asked for my X factor from the Colts’ perspective. Who is New England’s X factor this weekend?
Reiss: Let’s go with kicker Stephen Gostkowski, the return game and special teams. Gostkowski had 53 touchbacks in the regular season, tied for fifth-most in the NFL, but he’s had only three in his last 14 kickoffs (Dec. 21, Dec. 28, Jan. 10). When the weather gets colder and the ball gets colder, it makes the return game more of a factor. Plus, I wanted to mention Gostkowski because it was a springboard to also reference Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, who knows a thing or two about pressure field goal attempts. Wouldn’t it be something if Vinatieri, the former Patriot, is called upon to deliver a game-winning field goal in the pressure moment? Patriots fans know the odds are high that he’d deliver.