Talk about crashing a party. It seemed the AFC Championship Game was destined to be another installment of Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady, with the winner once again having a shot at hoisting the Lombardi trophy. Now, here come quarterback Andrew Luck and the upstart Indianapolis Colts. Judging by their performance Sunday, somebody forgot to send them the memo.
The New England Patriots gave us the best game of the AFC divisional round with their 35-31 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. The Colts delivered the biggest upset of the playoffs when they rolled into Denver and stunned the Broncos 24-13. What can we expect this weekend? The Patriots have been the best team in the AFC for the past three months, but the Colts could be this year's version of the 2012 Ravens, who also pulled an unlikely upset in Denver in the divisional round before winning at New England in the AFC title game.
Those are some of the things worth thinking about as we await Sunday's championship game in New England. Here are 10 others of note:
1. Which quarterback will play better Sunday? The Patriots seem to have taken the approach that they will ride Tom Brady's arm as far as it will take them. He looks very much up to the challenge. The Patriots called passes on 54 of their 66 total plays in their 35-31 divisional playoff win over the Ravens. That air assault led to some difficult moments in the first half -- Baltimore sacked Brady twice with a four-man rush before halftime -- but he hit his stride in the second half, when he completed 72.7 percent of his attempts for 151 yards and the game-winning touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell. Should we also mention Brady twice led his team back from a 14-point deficit, which made the Patriots the first squad to do that in the postseason? Last year, Brady looked like he was outmanned and frustrated during a loss in the AFC title game at Denver. This year, he's on his game and clearly confident in the weapons at his disposal.
2. Is Andrew Luck finally ready to beat New England? Maybe. Luck is the only quarterback left in the postseason who hasn't won a Super Bowl, but he's gaining confidence in a hurry. That will be critical to whatever success he achieves against the Patriots. The Colts have faced New England three times during Luck's career, and they've been destroyed on each occasion (a 42-20 loss this season, a 43-22 loss in last year's divisional playoffs and a 59-24 whipping during Luck's rookie year). He also accounted for eight turnovers by himself in those first two defeats. The encouraging thing about Luck is he just led his team to a huge upset over a team that had two Pro Bowl pass-rushers and three Pro Bowl defensive backs. If he can win in Denver, he could engineer another surprise in New England.
3. How significant will Darrelle Revis be in this contest? Huge. There's little question that New England's Super Bowl hopes suffered a huge blow in each of the past two AFC title games because of injuries to former cornerback Aqib Talib. As soon as Talib limped out of both contests, New England became more vulnerable to big passing plays. Revis has given the Patriots another Pro Bowl performer in the secondary, but he proved Saturday that he is human. Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith beat him on a 9-yard touchdown pass early in the game, and Revis also was flagged for two key penalties (one for pass interference and another for holding). Revis did help limit Smith to three receptions, but he needs to be better for the Patriots to advance.
4. Should the Colts be encouraged about their chances against New England's defense? Certainly. The Patriots won a tough game, but their defense didn't exactly show up. Baltimore gained 428 yards, averaged 4.9 yards per rushing attempt and went 3-for-3 on fourth-down conversions. New England managed to make the big plays when necessary, but Luck and Indy's coaches will be looking for ways to duplicate Baltimore's game plan. Two big things that need to happen: 1) The Colts' offensive line has to continue playing at the level that led to no sacks by Denver's vaunted pass rush and 2) Running back Daniel Herron (23 carries, 63 yards against Denver) has to continue to be a threat. New England head coach Bill Belichick is a master at taking away a team's strength. The Colts need to be versatile to stay viable.
5. Do the Patriots need more from their running game? Yes. The Patriots only attempted 13 rushes Saturday, including a 4-yard touchdown scramble by Brady after he dropped back to pass and gained 14 yards in the process. Brady didn't even attempt a handoff in the second half, and he accounted for the Patriots' last five rushing plays (four kneel-downs and a quarterback sneak). As great as Brady has been, the numbers suggest New England is playing with fire. Entering Saturday's game, teams that threw on 80 percent or more of their total plays were 3-59 over the past five years, including the postseason. Even though some of New England's running problems had plenty to do with playing from behind -- and facing a staunch run defense in Baltimore -- the Patriots backfield should be more involved in next week's action.
6. Can the Colts defense handle the Patriots offense? Given that New England has averaged 48 points the past three times these teams have met, it's difficult to think Indianapolis will suddenly find the magic formula to stifling Brady and Co. But this is the AFC title game, and the Colts did hold the Broncos -- a team that finished second in the NFL in scoring, with 30.1 points per game average -- to 13 points. If the Colts expect to succeed next week, they'll have to get New England off the field as consistently as they did Denver (the Broncos went 3-for-15 on third down). They also better keep strong safety LaRon Landry away from any one-on-one matchups with Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. That won't end well for the Colts.
7. Can the Patriots survive another slow start? No. There was a lot of postgame talk about whether the Patriots were guilty of "deception" on some offensive substitutions -- at least that's how Ravens head coach John Harbaugh viewed the matter -- but there wasn't nearly enough discussion about the Patriots' sloppy play. New England fumbled twice, and that number would've been three if instant replay hadn't overturned what initially was ruled a fumble by running back Shane Vereen. The Pats were fortunate the Ravens didn't benefit from any of those miscues. Brady also threw an uncharacteristic interception to linebacker Daryl Smith late in the second quarter, a turnover that allowed the Ravens to score on a reception by Owen Daniels right before halftime. In other words, the Patriots were lucky to not have fallen into a deeper hole against Baltimore.
8. Which player is going to be the X-factor in this contest? New England wide receiver Danny Amendola had been a disappointment since he signed with the team as a free agent in 2013. He caught 54 passes that first year and 27 this season and didn't make anybody think he would live up to his five-year, $28.5 million deal. Then everything changed on Saturday. Amendola had five receptions for 81 yards and averaged 25 yards on five kickoff returns. He also had two critical touchdown receptions: a 15-yard catch that tied the game at 14 and a 51-yard grab from fellow wide receiver Julian Edelman that tied the game at 28 in the third quarter. The Patriots will need Amendola to make similar contributions against Indianapolis. The Colts have a Pro Bowl cornerback in Vontae Davis, but he's likely to match up on Edelman or Brandon LaFell. That leaves Amendola with a chance to repeat his biggest performance in New England thus far.
9. What can we take away from the first game between these two teams this year? This much we do know: The Colts had better be prepared for more rushing attempts than Baltimore saw from New England. Belichick has loved pounding the football against Indianapolis, so much so that he gave previously unknown running back Jonas Gray 37 carries in that 42-20 win Nov. 16. (Gray gained 201 yards and scored four times.) Given that Gray has only had 20 carries since that game, including none against Baltimore, it's not worth betting on his repeating that effort. The Colts do have to think about LeGarrette Blount, however. Blount ran for 166 yards and four touchdowns in New England's win over Indianapolis in last year's playoffs.
10. Which team will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl? The Patriots have lost the AFC title game in each of the past two seasons, largely because of critical injuries. A broken left forearm plagued Gronkowski during the 2012 season, and a torn ACL sidelined him last year. Talib also was knocked out of both games, a bit of misfortune that quickly derailed New England's defensive strategy in those contests. Unless something equally devastating happens Sunday, don't expect to see another loss for the Patriots at this stage of the season. They've been the most dominant team in the AFC. They'll continue their run with a trip to Arizona.