Going by the head to head record of both teams in recent years, the Indianapolis Colts and Andrew Luck are to be regarded as huge underdogs in their AFC championship game against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Whether it was last season’s divisional round game or this season’s game in Indianapolis, the Patriots chose to run the ball, getting a big performance from LaGarrette Blount one time and from Jonas Gray, the team’s leading rusher in the regular season, in this season’s 42-20 victory. But at some point the Colts are going to know it’s coming, so we might see something different from the Patriots. It’s impossible to know with Belichick.
One thing the Colts are going to try and avoid: Putting the game on Andrew Luck and his deep throwing ability. Don’t get me wrong – Luck is their best player and best shot of winning the game, but falling behind early, neglecting the running game and simply counting on Luck to throw deep bombs down the field against a very good secondary unit is going to end in tears for the Colts. The Ravens showed, at least early on in the game, how to surprise and confuse the Patriots but the Colts don’t have that kind of running game.
Another issue is Tom Brady. The Ravens did knock him around early on in the game and Brady bounced back from it. The “manual” says that hitting Brady hard and early usually takes him out of focus for the rest of the game, but the Patriots did a very good job later on of protecting him and giving him time. The Colts blitzed him quite a lot in the regular season game which didn’t work out well for them. Expect a different approach this time.
While the Patriots show time and time again that they’re versatile, creative and surprising, the bread and butter for them is Tom Brady connecting with Rob Gronkowski. It’s what opens up their entire passing game and offense. It’s the default option for Brady when he’s in trouble, and it’s the best tight end in the NFL, which means a very reliable option in the red zone. The Colts have a lot of variables to try and stop, but Gronkowski is the biggest of them, and yet they can’t commit to much too him. The offense doesn’t stop just because he’s in double coverage.
And that’s the thing about this game: The Colts need a lot of things to go their way in order to be the first team to beat the Patriots in Gillette this season. A running game that often struggles to scorch the field, Andrew Luck to avoid throwing interceptions (which rarely happens) and finding a way to take Brady out of his routine, like they managed to do with Manning last week.
Teams that win their wild card games and reach the championship stage often do well, but that’s taking a generalization and trying to put it on a different situation. The Colts have lost to the division leaders they’ve played against this season, and tend to lose when Luck counts for 80% or more of this offense. Pagano needs to get out more from his team in this opportunity. History shows that the difference between these two teams at the moment is too great.