Patriots-Colts is really a match-up that needs no introduction, but we’ll give you one anyway. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady meet once again, with Manning having gotten the better of the Patriots in five out of the last six meetings. At the beginning of the decade, Bill Belichick owned Manning and the Colts. Indianapolis has completely turned that around and won more head-to-head games, playoff games, and championships than New England over the last four years. The two teams find themselves in the thick of the playoff race in the AFC. What else is new?
1. Can the Colts Stop the Run?
The Colts’ rush defense has been a major issue this season to say the least. They’re one of the better teams in the AFC, yet they rank 29th in rushing yards allowed per game. Indy has also allowed nine scores on the ground — tied for 5th worst in the NFL. While the Patriots’ best running back is the average-at-best BenJarvus Green-Ellis, you can bet Belichick is going to run on Indy. The Patriots defense is too vulnerable to be giving Peyton Manning a lot of chances. It also helps that New England can now design a game plan without having to please Randy Moss. Look for the Pats to run the ball early and often to try to control the pace of the game.
2. New England’s Improving Defense
Before the season started we told you that we thought the Patriots would bring a young, underrated defense to the field in 2010. At first it looked like we were wrong, but the group seems to be starting to gel. New England is still allowing an average of 277.8 passing yard per game (3rd worst in the NFL) but we’re starting to see more of the “bend but don’t break” approach Belichick is known for. They’ve also started blitzing a lot more rather than relying on four pass rushers and overloading the secondary. That approach certainly paid off against the Steelers last Sunday. Manning is going to get his offense into the red zone more than once. If the Pats can turn those trips into three points more often than six, they’ll be in great shape.
3. Can the Colts Get to Tom Brady?
The Patriots’ offensive line was one of the biggest — if not the biggest — reasons they were able to dominate the Steelers on Sunday night. Tom Brady stood in the pocket practically untouched the entire game, allowing him to find the open receiver and pick apart a strong Pittsburgh defense. The Steelers have a good pass rush, but they don’t have Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. The Colts’ defensive ends are the epitome of speed rushing off the edge. While it allows Indy to pile up plenty of sacks and pressure the quarterback, it also allows teams to run the ball up the gut against them.
Without a run-stuffer like Vince Wilfork, the Colts tend to get caught with plenty of space up the middle because their defensive ends are so quick. When Brady does drop back to pass, Mathis and Freeney will need to put pressure on him and force some bad throws. If they allow No. 12 to get comfortable early, Indy could be in trouble.
Linebackers Gary Brackett (toe) and Clint Session (elbow) have not practiced this week, giving the Colts more cause for concern in defending the run. With Mike Hart still being held out of practice with an ankle injury and Joseph Addai still limited with a neck injury, it looks like Donald Brown will be relied on heavily once again. Freeney, Mathis, and Reggie Wayne have all been given a day off to rest this week but all three should be good to go on Sunday.
The Patriots are relatively healthy for the time being. Brady has missed Wednesday practice the past two weeks with “right shoulder” and “foot” injuries, but he’s just fine as we saw on Sunday night. Fred Taylor has been limited as usual with the toe injuries that he hasn’t been able to shake all season. If Taylor were able to go, it would give the Patriots a nice boost against a struggling Indy run defense.
Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, and Jacob Tamme are must starts against New England’s below average secondary. Tamme has stepped in and filled the Dallas Clark role with ease, emerging as a top-3 fantasy tight end option. Donald Brown will once again handle most of the rushing duties, but he hasn’t done much with the opportunity the past two weeks. The Patriots rank 12th against the run and Javarris James is stealing a few carries from Brown each week. I’d go in another direction unless you’re in need of a flex player.
You have to start Tom Brady, but don’t be expecting a repeat performance of Sunday’s game against the Steelers. Pittsburgh is phenomenal against the run which is why New England went into the game committed to throwing the football. The opposite could be the case this Sunday as teams have burned the Colts on the ground. Expect the Pats to run more play action and two tight end sets, resulting in more modest numbers for Brady. For the same reason, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is worth a start this week — especially if Fred Taylor is inactive again. Welker reestablished himself against Pittsburgh but expect his numbers to remain modest without Moss. If I had to chose between Rob Gonkowski and Aaron Hernandez this week, I’d go Hernandez. Both are decent options but the Colts will likely try to shut Gronkowski down in the red zone after he scored three times in Pittsburgh.
Because of the weird way scheduling works in the NFL, the Patriots haven’t played the Colts at home since 2006. I think that’s an underrated aspect when analyzing why the Colts have won five out of the last six meetings. After dominating the Steelers on the road, New England’s confidence should be sky high heading into this match-up. It should be close as usual, but I think the Pats will be happy to face Manning outside in the cold for a change.