New England Patriots: AFC Divisional Round Preview, Pt. 3

On Monday, I broke down the matchup between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts head-to-head, how they stack up positionally and what the most intriguing on-field battles would be (in case you didn’t read it, it’s Gostkowski vs. Vinatieri).

On Wednesday, I took into consideration much of the off-the-field matchups to consider: karmic bouts, who has the uniform edge, whose facial hair will spur them to victory, and why Tom Brady and Andrew Luck should both tap into their inner Matty Saracen.

Today, I’m going to do my traditional weekly preview.

Since the Patriots didn’t play last week, let’s talk quickly about the Colts. I’ll freely admit that I missed a good 10 minutes of the first half of their game against the Chiefs. And that’s because, as entertaining as it was to see Alex Smith transform into, if not his brown-haired doppelganger Aaron Rodgers, a Top-10 NFL QB, I thought the game was over. The Colts looked done, toast, cooked, gassed, gone the way of the dodo.

And yet they somehow clawed their way back into the game. Call it the Inevitability of Andy Reid, blame it on an unbelievably unfortunate string of in-game injuries as Jamaal Charles, Brandon Flowers, Knile Davis, Donnie Avery, and Justin Houston were all off the field for good when T.Y. Hilton scored his game-winning touchdown, but give the Colts some credit.

downloadAnd give most of it to Andrew Luck. From his instant-classic fumble recovery TD, to his uncanny mental connection with Hilton, he came through when his team needed the most, even when staring down a 3.6% chance of winning. He deserves all the credit.

But that was last week, and now the Patriots will play host to these pluckiest-of-the-plucky Colts. Instead of Alex Smith, the Colts defense will worry about Tom Brady, the Golden Child, the Terrific. Instead of Andy Reid, Chuck Pagano will go head-to-head with Bill Belichick, one of the few constants in an ever-changing sea of coaching hires, scheming from underneath his hoodie, ready to cap off perhaps his greatest coaching performance with a deep playoff run. And the Chiefs defense, who gave up 150 rushing yards to a Charles-less Chiefs team, will now have to deal with the three headed monster of LeGarrette Rejuvenation Blount, Van Riddles, and Shane Golden Bear Vereen.

But enough rambling, let’s get to it.

Key Matchup: LeGarrette Blount vs. Jerrell Freeman

(I’m cheating a bit, not the biggest matchup, but still huge. I’ll explain in a bit.)

I don’t understand LeGarrette Blount. I really don’t.

One minute he’s barely making it to the 20 on kick returns, fumbling in key spots, and perpetually falling at the line of scrimmage like a chopped tree at the first hint of contact, despite the fact that he’s bigger than some linebackers.

davis_nebuf24_sptsBut the LeGarrette Blount of old is gone, replaced by the man who ran for 189 yards on 24 carries against an elite Buffalo front seven, returned two kickoffs for 145 yards, and scored two huge touchdowns. The Blount of December has been especially insane. From September, Blount ran for 374 yards on 82 attempts (4.56 yds/carry) and two touchdowns. In December alone? 398 yards on 71 attempts (5.6 yards/carry) and a whopping 5 touchdowns.

Saturday’s forecast at Foxborough looks like rain. Which, in all likelihood, means a big day from Blount, Ridley, and Vereen. This time, they go up against a much-maligned Colts rush defense, that gave up 125.1 yds/game over the course of the regular season.

While he hasn’t received much attention next to Robert Mathis, the man Blount should be wary of is Colts linebacker, Jerrell Freeman. The former Canadian Leaguer is super quick for a linebacker, and has been a tackling machine for the Colts all season (126 combined tackles, 6 forced fumbles). While LeGarrette Blount shouldn’t have much trouble with the Colts front three, it will be whether he can move past that second level that could determine the game. If Pagano and the Colts come into the game daring Brady to throw in wet conditions, stuffing the run game at the line, this could be a close game. Belichick and McDaniels will want to run, and it will be on Blount’s back if they can.


3 Questions for This Week’s Game

1. Who will the Patriots throw at T.Y. Hilton?

This would be the aforementioned key matchup in this Saturday’s game, but it’s hard to talk about since there’s no easy answer to what to do with Hilton. All season, All-Pro cornerback Aqib Talib has been a one-man wrecking crew against star wide receivers, with true shutdown performances against Vincent Jackson, Jimmy Graham, Torrey Smith, A.J. Green, and Demaryius Thomas. Belichick could just throw Talib at Hilton and hope that Talib’s past success will win out. But Talib has struggled more against smaller, shiftier receivers that operate out of the slot.

Arrington_Kyle-Patriots 9-2-13The other (and, somehow, safer) option may be to put Kyle Arrington on Hilton. While Arrington has struggled mightily as an outside corner, his physicality does help as a nickel/slot defensive back. If Arrington plays watchdog on Hilton, banging him at the line of scrimmage, and limiting Hilton’s short catch-and-runs, Belichick could also have safeties Devin McCourty or Steve Gregory covering over the top. This would leave Aqib Talib to man up with Luck’s college teammate Coby Fleener, who mostly operates as a wide receiver like Graham anyway.

Either way, be sure that Belichick will come into the game planning to take Hilton out of the equation, after watching Luck and his receiver almost singlehandedly knock out the Chiefs in the second half.


2. Where will Robert Mathis line up?

Marcus-Cannon-PatriotsThis one’s interesting. The Patriots’ offensive line, after Sebastian Vollmer was lost to season-ending injury, has been a bit unbalanced. The left side of the line has had a great year, with Nate Solder and Logan Mankins both fighting off injury to be consistent pass-protectors and upfield blockers for the Pats’ running backs. The right side is a bit more uncertain. Marcus Cannon has been a godsend of a replacement for Vollmer, but he does struggle at times against blitz packages at the tackle position. And Dan Connolly hasn’t exactly been the model of consistency for two years now.

Mathis has traditionally been used as a blind-side pass-rusher this season, and has been really good at it. But Pagano may look at how the Patriots nullified famed-Patriots-torturer Terrell Suggs in their regular season matchup (due mostly to Logan Mankins), and put Mathis up against the more inexperienced Cannon. I trust in Dante Scarnecchia and Cannon enough to prepare for this switch, but it could be a difference maker in this QB battle.


3. Was one week enough for the Pats to heal up?

A decidedly underrated storyline heading into this game, diminished by Brady vs. Luck and the possibility of Indy playing Cinderella in a very weird AFC playoffs. Obviously, losing Brandon Spikes was a devastating blow to the Patriots defense, and joins Gronkowski, Mayo, Wilfork, and Vollmer on the IR (which is crazy all in itself). In January 8th’s injury report, Shane Vereen, Kenbrell Thompkins, Logan Mankins, Steve Gregory, Dane Fletcher, Kyle Arrington, Devin McCourty, and Aaron Dobson were all listed as questionable. Dobson seems to be the only player to be missing on Saturday, but this is still a positively banged-up Patriots team.

It’s the playoffs, which means that 1) the games will be more physical, 2) the refs will be less inclined to call penalties (the 49ers/Packers game was a great example of this and 3) it’s going to be brutally cold. To beat a feisty (though likewise bruised) Colts team, the Pats will need to have at least the majority of those questionable players play.

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Prediction: Patriots 38, Colts 30

I’ll save you the whole spiel I usually give in every prediction I’ve written this season in which I say I don’t like this matchup and I’m wildly unsure, and that my predicting a Pats win will only make things worse.

On paper, the Patriots are the better team than the Colts, even after losing so many of their top players to injury. The Colts’ run defense is just as bad as the Patriots’, and I believe the Pats O-Line can keep Mathis off of Brady. Add in the rainy conditions, and I’ll take Blount/Ridley over Brown/Richardson in a running battle.

It’ll be an ugly, high-scoring game. Both QBs, neither of whom are turnover prone, should have good games. As is usually the case in such games, it may come down to coaching. And I’ll take Belichick any day. Pats in a close one.