It’s playoff time! Playoffs! PLAYOFFS!
After a positively wacky Wild-Card Weekend, in which the Chiefs scored 44 points without Jamaal Charles and still lost, the Saints won on the road on the merits of their running game, and Phillip Rivers upped his already tremendous bolo-tie game, expectations are high for the divisional round. As well they should be.
This Saturday, January 11th, the New England Patriots play host to the upstart Indianapolis Colts at 8:15 PM EST. Dan Dierdorf, set to retire a the end of this season, and Greg Gumbel will provide commentary on the game.
So normally, I do a short preview for each week’s game, but because this is PLAYOFF time, these things require a more epic scale. Football is a battle, and we must treat it as such. We’re gonna break this thing down properly.
This preview will be in three parts. This first part will cover everything on the field, seeing how the Colts and Patriots stack up with one another head to head. So let’s begin with what may be one of the most epic matchups in these 2013 playoffs.
KICKER: Stephen Gostkowski vs. Adam Vinatieri
What? You thought I was talking about Brady vs. Luck? For shame! You couldn’t make up this kicking duel. Young vs. old. Star in the making vs. Beloved Folk Hero. The only thing that would make it better would be Doug Flutie storming onto the field like The Rock at Wrestlemania 27, and drop-kicking the Pats to freedom.
The 29-year old Gostkowski just finished up an amazing 2013 season putting up career highs in field goal percentage (92.7), points (158), and longest kick (54 yards). He also accomplished one of the greatest onside kicks in NFL history, has completely dispelled all worries of being inconsistent, and has a gigantic All-Pro-snub sized chip on his shoulder.
And isn’t it fitting that he takes on his predecessor, mentor, and Boston sports hero Adam Vinatieri? The 41-year old may not be automatic anymore (though 87.5% is nothing to sneeze at) but he was made for the playoffs. At the very least can’t we see some Rocky Balboa/Tommy Gun screaming on the sidelines? Please??
Winner: All of us. We all win.
PUNTER: Ryan Allen vs. Pat McAfee
Both punters are having similarly solid seasons (Allen’s net of 39.9 vs. McAfee’s 38.5), and Allen has been one of the Patriots many rookie contributors, filling the cleats of the departed Zoltan Mesko, overcoming some shaky punts in the first half of the season to be truly dependable.
I’d say push, but Pat McAfee accidentally tweeted out a pic of a half-naked Andrew Luck. And if that happened to Brady, Allen would not survive the week.
Winner: Allen, by the tiniest sliver of Andrew Luck’s thigh hair.
In this area, the Colts are decidedly banged up. It appears Greg Toler appears to have reinjured his groin against the Chiefs on Saturday, and Vontae Davis was notably slowed by his own tweaked groin. That being said, this is still a solid secondary. Former Pat Darius Butler has played exceedingly well and safety LaRon Landry is probably licking his lips at the opportunity of knocking out the smaller Edelman/Amendola on a crossing route. Overall the Colts ranked 18th overall in passing defense, picking up 16 interceptions. That being said, giving up 378 yards and no INT to Alex Smith isn’t exactly reassuring for Colts fans.
The Patriots secondary, of course, isn’t any more certain from a health standpoint. Alfonzo Dennard (knee/shoulder), Aqib Talib (hip), Kyle Arrington (groin), Devin McCourty (concussion), and Steve Gregory (finger/knee) are all licking their wounds, though only Dennard seems a real concern to miss the game. When everyone is present and accounted for, this is an above average group, especially when adding standout rookie Logan Ryan into the equation. It’s weird to say, but the Pats might actually have a stronger secondary at the moment, though not by much.
Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins have overcome their occasional pass-coverage slipups and are definitely better players than they were at the beginning of the year. Brandon Spikes is still a dependable thumper on run D, and Dane Fletcher is playing well as a fill-in on pass coverage.
But the fact of the matter is, none of them are as good as Robert Mathis (though a Robert Mathis vs. Jerod Mayo argument…). The 11-year veteran has blown up this season with a much-ballyhooed 19.5 sacks and a less bally-hooed (and league leading) 8 forced fumbles. Dude is a beast. And, unfortunately for New England, the rest of the Colts’ linebackers are decent as well. Jerrell Freeman has a solid 6 FF, 5.5 sacks and 2 INT and was tied for 14th in the league in combined tackles. Erik Walden and Kavell Conner are both athletic linebackers who are underappreciated enough that they seem destined for a big play. Ugh.
And now some good news! The Colts running defense may be just as bad as the Patriots run defense. Both teams are giving up 4.5 yds/att, with the Patriots giving up slightly more yds/game (134.1 vs. 125.1) while the Colts are allowing more rushing TDs (14 vs. 11).
While it may not be fair as they operate out of different base defenses, the Pats defensive line does have an edge in the pass rush. The Colts three starting linemen (Redding, Franklin, Jean Francois) have combined for 7 sacks on the season. Chandler Jones has 11.5 sacks by himself. Rob Ninkovich has 8. Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, and Seaver Siliga have combined for 11 in limited time.
While the rush defense may be a wash in terms of awfulness, the pass rush on the front line is a big advantage for New England.
To the other side of the ball. Look, I like Anthony Costonzo and Gosder Cherilus as much as the next guy, and am eternally frustrated that these two BC alums are playing in Indiana, but the middle of their line has been a mess all year. Hugh Thornton, Mike McGlynn, and (the once great) Samson Satele won’t strike fear in the hearts of any defensive lineman.
The Patriots line is also a bit of a mixed bag, though less concernedly. Nate Solder and Logan Mankins have been absolute stalwarts on Brady’s blind side. Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly have been a bit troubled in pass protection. But it’s hard not to come off last week’s dominating performance against a vaunted Bills frontline and not think that the Pats O-Line will have little trouble.
Plus, Dante Scarnecchia.
Cue every Pats’ fan screaming like Nancy Kerrigan. Having Gronk back would’ve obviously been a huge bonus. But as it is, the Pats will have to make do with Hooman and Matthew Mulligan.
And this is where the Colts have an advantage. Coby Fleener, who was of course a college teammate of Luck’s at Stanford, has taken full advantage of his mental connection with the second year QB, hauling in 52 receptions for 608 yards and 4 TDs, and seems exactly like the kind of player who will give Pats’ linebackers fits.
This is a weird matchup. If Reggie Wayne were healthy I’d give the edge to the Colts, but now?
I’d say, without question, T.Y. Hilton is the best receiver on the field. He’s fast, electric, and relatively sure-handed, serving as Luck’s bailout target time after time. But also, without question, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are the No.2 and No. 3 receivers by a gigantic margin. And I think, if hard-pressed, wouldn’t you take Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins over Darrius Heyward-Bey and Griff Whalen? It’s close, but you’d do it right?
Winner: Pretty much a push. Pats have overall edge, but Colts have more big-play potential, arguably.
Weirdly, both the Colts and the Pats make frequent use of their fullbacks, a position thought to be going the way of the dodo in recent years. Both Stanley Havili and (former Brown Bear) James Develin are apt run blockers, Develin an especially rough-and-tumble nasty force out of the backfield. Havili is a bit more prominent of a receiver, and has great hands for a fullback (though by no means is Develin a slouch in this regard).
To make a decision let’s go to the running stats, as the playoffs seem to be filled to the brim with 4th-and-1s, where having a fullback is useful. Havili has run 7 times for 7 yards. Develin has run 4 times for 10 yards and a TD. And on top of that, Develin has converted for a first down every time he’s run the ball.
Winner: Pats by a slight edge
It’s weird to see what’s happened to Trent Richardson this year. Wasn’t this guy a Top-5 pick? One minute he’s the only shining star on a Cleveland Browns offense, next the ball’s being knocked out of his hands by Casper the Friendly Ghost and he’s backing up Donald Brown?
As for the Patriots? I’ll talk about this more in Part 3, but LeGarrette Blount absolutely eviscerated an elite Bills’ defense to the tune of 189 yards and 2 TD. By himself, the Pats would get the slight edge, but New England also has big play producers in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen in uniform. Vereen especially is a player to watch in this upcoming game, as he will be invaluable to Brady with Robert Mathis to worry about.
Know that I’m writing this entire paragraph with gritted teeth and a bloody nose.
This is an almost impossible choice. Brady is the Golden Child, a Top 5 Quarterback of all time, Ares-The-God-of-War, owner of three Super Bowl rings, and his 17 playoff wins are the most in NFL history. But Luck is the future. He’s gigantic, strong, smart, plucky, quick on his feet (that read-option this past weekend was immensely pretty), and an absolute leader.
Statistically, the two quarterbacks are having insanely similar seasons with nearly identical completion percentages (60.5 and 60.2), yards per attempt (6.9 and 6.7), touchdown passes (25 vs. 23), and overall passer rating (87.3 and 87.0). Luck has already shown a tendency to shine in the clutch, while this season, Brady has basically written the textbook chapter on “Putting My Team On My Back In The Last 2 Minutes of a Game”.
Luck’s legs are a huge advantage over Brady’s, and the Pats haven’t always planned so well for these types of QBs (see: Cam Newton). But this is the playoffs! Isn’t this Brady’s time? More than a decade of experience and just full-on winning has to mean something, right? Right?
Winner: I officially recuse myself from this debate.
So if we tally that up:
Times I wimped out: 1
On paper, the Patriots are the better team. But since when has that meant anything?
On Wednesday, look for Part 2, in which we look at who has the off-the-field advantage. On Friday, final predictions and thoughts.