AFC Championship Game Preview

The first in a two-part series by Staff Writer Eric Ting

AFC+Championship+Game+Preview

Eric Ting, Staff Writer

AFC Championship: Indianapolis Colts vs New England Patriots

3:40 PT

Line: NE -7

 

Each team is fresh off of impressive victories over the last two AFC Champions, with the Patriots downing the Ravens and the Colts dismantling the Broncos. People always talk about how hard New England is to beat at home, but in the past five years they have lost three of the four home playoff games in franchise history. To advance to the Super Bowl, Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck and head coach Chuck Pagano need to do something they have yet to do in their careers: beat the New England Patriots. Luck and Pagano arrived in Indy in 2012 and are 0-3 against the Patriots, with Luck throwing six touchdowns but eight interceptions in those games. These teams faced each other back in November in Indianapolis, which resulted in a 42-20 victory for the Patriots.

 

New England Offense vs. Indianapolis Defense

 

Tom Brady was a man on fire last week, throwing for 367 yards and three touchdowns with just one interception. The Patriots exploded for 35 points against a stingy Baltimore team that ranked 8th in the NFL in total defense. Tight End Rob Gronkowski is looking like the Gronk of old, and Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell form a formidable trio at wide receiver, giving Brady the best receiving core he’s had since 2011. When these teams squared off back in November, the Colts held Brady to just 257 yards and two touchdowns while forcing him to throw two interceptions, both to strong safety Mike Adams. Brady didn’t need to do much against the Colts however, as Patriots’ running back Jonas Gray ran all over the Colts for 207 yards and four TDs. The even more damning statistics are the 42 points the Patriots scored that day, and the 503 yards of total offense the Colts’ defense allowed. It is imperative the Colts stop the Patriots’ running game, and things are looking up for the Colts in that department. Gray has fizzled out dramatically since that game, struggling with an ankle injury and time in Bill Belichick’s doghouse. The Patriots rushed for an embarrassing 14 yards against the Ravens, the lowest total ever for a playoff team in a win. The Colts’ front seven played well last week against CJ Anderson, holding him to just 80 yards on 18 carries. Inside linebackers D’Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman played a key role in their defensive success, combining for 18 tackles and providing stellar coverage.

But even if the Colts force New England into being one-dimensional, the Patriots could still experience offensive success. The Colts are talented at corner with Greg Toler, Vontae Davis and Darius Butler playing well for them. Safety is a different story however, where they have a major question mark at free safety. Sergio Brown and LaRon Landry have each seen time there, but each have been inconsistent. Even more concerning is the Colts’ pass rush. They did tie for ninth in the NFL in sacks, but they fail to get consistent pressure with a four man rush, as most of their sacks came off of blitzes. The Colts do not have a single player with more than seven sacks this season. The Patriots’ offensive line is as solid as they come, as Tom Brady has been sacked only 21 times this year. If the Colts don’t get pressure on Brady, his weapons will buy themselves extra time to find soft spots in the Colts’ defense, and Brady will make them pay. Blitzing Brady is also a risky proposition, as he leads the NFL in passer rating this season (135.6) when a defense brings five or more rushers. It’s very simple: if the Colts don’t stop the run, they will lose. But even if they are able to stop the run, they need to get better pressure on Brady without bringing a blitz.

Advantage: New England

 

Indianapolis Offense vs New England Defense

 

Speaking of potentially putrid rushing attacks, the Colts have yet to have a 100 yard rusher in a game this season. Ahmad Bradshaw was running the football well this season until he broke his leg in November against these same Patriots. Bradshaw has been on Injured Reserve ever since, and with Trent Richardson being incredibly underwhelming, the Colts have had to lean on the inexperienced duo of Daniel Herron and Zurlon Tipton, who have proved lackluster so far in the postseason. The Colts have weapons in the receiving game with T.Y. Hilton, a still semi-serviceable Reggie Wayne, free agent pickup Hakeem Nicks and emerging rookie Donte Moncrief. In addition to their quartet at wide receiver, they boast as formidable a tight end duo as anyone with Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. If there is one team in the NFL with enough depth in the secondary to compete with this receiving core, it is the New England Patriots. (No offense Seattle, but you really don’t have much behind Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor.) For New England, Darrelle Revis, Logan Ryan, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty are all contributors in a secondary that has consistently shut down top wideouts this season. Their front seven is incredibly versatile, as players such as Jamie Collins, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones take on several roles for this defense.

Advantage: New England

Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have bamboozled Andrew Luck in the past with exotic blitzes and coverages, which have in large part led to the eight interceptions Luck has thrown in three games against New England. Will Luck break that trend? I believe he can do so, due to improved pass protection and more targets in the receiving game. Luck actually played better than advertised when these teams played earlier this season, as he threw for 303 yards, two touchdowns and just one interception. His production was largely overshadowed by the success of New England’s offense. On Sunday the Colts will have their work cut out for them, and will need to play the game of their lives on defense. I just don’t think there’s enough talent on that side of the ball, namely in the front seven to keep up with New England. Luck will continue to play well, but he will be largely overshadowed again by Tom Brady and the Patriots, as they advance to yet another Super Bowl.

Prediction: New England 34, Indianapolis 24