The Indianapolis Colts roll into Foxboro this weekend with a new quarterback to renew an old rivalry as the Colts face the Patriots in a 4:25 pm match-up at Gillette Stadium on Sunday. Both teams enter the game with a 6-3 record. For the Patriots, the 6-3 record is reflective of a poor start in which the Patriots’ defense has made nearly every opposing quarterback look like Joe Montana, coupled with an offense that, while productive, has struggled to close out games when it has the the lead and the ball. The Colts’ 6-3 is just the opposite; they have already surpassed the season win total projected for them by most experts and seem poised to make a surprising run into the playoffs. The Colts still enter this game deserving to be the underdogs, but they are a team the Patriots cannot afford to take lightly.
Here’s how the game breaks down:
When the Patriots run
The Patriots have the fifth best rushing attack in the league, averaging 146 yards per game and led by Stevan Ridley. The Colts surrender just over 120 yards per game, ranking 22nd in the league, and this match-up favors the Patriots. In order to apply pressure to Brady, the Colts will have to rush four to five players and drop the rest into coverage. A weak secondary will put strain on the linebackers to take away the dink and dunk offense, making them susceptible to draw plays. Robert Mathis, Jerry Hughes and Dwight Freeney are effective pass rushers, but their hunger to get to Brady will open running lanes for Ridley, Danny Woodhead, and Shane Vereen. Using a hurry-up attack will also force the Colts to limit their substitutions, tire their defenders, and make them even more vulnerable to the Patriots’ ground game. Look for the Patriots to run in excess of 140 yards again on Sunday.
When the Patriots pass
Safeties Antoine Bethea and Tom Zbikowski are in for a tough day. The relatively weak cornerbacks are going to have their hands full with Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker. Darius Butler had a great game against the Jaguars, but wasn’t facing Tom Brady that day. The Patriots’ cast-off is likely to be tested down the field a few times as Brady takes occasional stabs at big plays. The middle of the field should be wide open for short passes, and the 7th ranked passing attack should carve up the field and affect long drives against the Colts’ patchwork secondary. With Aaron Hernandez likely being held back again this week, look for Gronkowski to have a big day receiving, complemented by Visanthe Shiancoe and Julian Edelman. The Patriots may only get around 250 passing yards, but the way that they get them will dictate the pace of the game.
When the Colts run
The Patriots’ defense has shut down numerous running backs this season, yielding a 100 yard game only to Ray Rice this season. The Patriots have the 8th ranked rushing defense (96.6 ypg) and will focus on slowing down Andrew Luck, daring the Colts to run the ball. Vick Ballard is a promising back, complemented by Donald Brown and Delone Carter, but these backs pale to the competition that the Patriots have faced through their first nine games. Even in sub-packages, the Patriots are likely to be content rushing three or four defenders, and will hold the running backs to short gains. The Colts average 109.4 yards rushing per game, and will likely come in near that number for the game.
When the Colts pass
Andrew Luck is having an outstanding rookie season, and Reggie Wayne is having a Pro Bowl season, aiding the young quarterback’s development. Donnie Avery and TY Hilton are very capable receivers, and the Colts’ passing attack (8th in the NFL) should put up 300 or more yards against the Patriots’ secondary. The Patriots rank 29th against the pass and are set to ease newly-acquired Aqib Talib into the fold at cornerback this weekend, but the adjustment will take time and Talib will likely not have a huge impact in his first game. The move of Devin McCourty to safety looks like a semi-permanent one, which plays into McCourty’s skill set. The secondary is improving, but the Patriots lack of cohesiveness in the secondary, plus their refusal to sell out in rushing the quarterback, mean Luck will continue his march towards a rookie record for passing yards. Luck will get his yards and some points, but the Colts may find themselves playing catch-up against the Patriots’ offense. A potential tipping point is the inability of the Colts’ offensive line to consistently protect Andrew Luck. This could result in Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower getting pressure and forcing big plays, but it could also work in reverse by making Luck improvise against a secondary that is susceptible to quarterbacks who can extend plays.
Some guy named Adam Vanatieri is the Colts’ kicker. Seriously, Vinatieri is still pretty good, but Stephen Gostkowski is the superior kicker. Pat McAfee is a good punter with a slight edge over Zoltan Mesko, but Mesko excels at pinning opponents deep. Both return units are adequate, but neither represents a significant and consistent threat. Gostkowski tends to put most kickoffs through the end zone.
Turnovers represent a key statistic in any NFL game, and this does not bode well for the Colts, who are -12 in the turnover battle this season. The Patriots are third in the league with a +17 in turnovers, and Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower, Vince Wilfork, and Rob Ninkovich excel in creating opportunities for the Patriots offense to play with a short field. In order for the Colts to win, they likely have to win the turnover battle by +2 or +3, but this is simply not in their character so far this year as a team. The Patriots thrive on creating big plays, one of the reasons why the Patriots, while ranked 25th in total defense, rank 15th in points allowed. A second intangible is the pace of the play. If the Patriots move to a hurry up offense, the Colts’ defense will likely wear down, and by the second half the lead could be out of control for the Colts.
No game has been easy for the Patriots this season, save for perhaps the game against the Rams. The Colts will strike early through the air, and I expect a bit of a see-saw through the first quarter and a half as the teams trade scores. But as the second quarter goes on, the Patriots will begin using more and more of the clock on drives while limiting defensive substitutions, and the Patriots will secure the halftime lead. Look for more of the same in the third quarter, and then the fourth quarter becomes Andrew Luck putting up the ball to try and get back in the game. Predicted score: Patriots 38 Colts 27.