Patriots vs. Colts AFC Championship Preview: Can the Colts Keep Rolling?
The Indianapolis Colts ride into Foxboro this week looking to knock off the top-seeded New England Patriots, who are appearing in their fourth straight AFC Championship Game.
Indianapolis, who last played in an AFC Championship Game in 2010 when they beat the Jets to earn a trip to Superbowl XLIV, comes in as 6.5-point underdogs, a spread only half a point smaller than last week when they pulled off the upset as 7-point underdogs in Denver.
New England has shown that they aren't invincible this postseason, twice finding themselves down by 14 points to the Ravens. Of course, the Pats rallied back both times and pulled out the win in the fourth quarter, showing that they are as good as anyone in the league when things click.
Still, the Colts appear to be peaking at the right time. They handled the Bengals easily in the first round, and after falling behind early, took the lead in the second quarter against Denver and never looked back.
What does that mean for the game this weekend?
Can the Colts Stop Another High-Powered Offense?
Far and away the biggest story the last time these two matched up was the emergence of Jonas Gray, who crushed the colts for 201 yards and 4 touchdowns before fading back into obscurity the next week.
It wouldn't be a surprise if the Patriots came out with a more balanced attack on Sunday, despite the success on the ground last time. New England ranks number six in the league running the ball -- largely impacted by Gray's metric-friendly game against the Colts -- and number five passing according to our metrics, making them the most well-rounded unit in the league. It's rare for them to commit to the run like they did in Week 11, and last week, New England running backs saw only seven carries.
As has been the case for over a decade, the Patriots offense will be led by Tom Brady, who is playing in his ninth AFC Championship game and was the fourth best passer in the league this year according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. Brady is no stranger to playing in Foxboro in January, and he has played significantly better at home than on the road this season.
The Colts defense hasn't been anything to write home about this year, ranking 16th against the run and 11th against the pass, numbers that raise some concern when taking on such a formidable offense.
One thing that should bring hope to Indianapolis faithful, however, is how they were able to keep Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense in check last week. Manning was held to 211 yards and 1 touchdown on only 57% passing, while C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman managed to combine for only 88 yards on the ground.
Stopping the Patriots offense won't be an easy task. The front-seven will need to play a solid game to avoid the fate they had in Week 11, and while Vontae Davis has been one of the best corners in the game this year, the rest of the secondary will need to be on top of their game to keep Brady and company in check.
Can New England Slow Down the Colts' Offense Again?
On the other side of the ball, the Colts boast a strong passing offense -- number-six in the league and led by Andrew Luck -- but struggle to move the ball on the ground where they rank 27th in our metrics. Indianapolis' offensive success is likely to hinge on whether it can throw the ball successfully against the Patriots secondary that ranks fourth against the pass.
In their Week 11 meeting, the Colts' wideouts struggled to get anything going. Top playmaker T.Y. Hilton recorded only 3 catches for 24 yards, and Donte Moncrief was completely shut out while being targeted only once. Only Reggie Wayne managed to find any success with 5 receptions for 91 yards.
Where they did find success was throwing to tight end Coby Fleener, who reeled in 7 passes for 144 yards. With Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner (who appears ready to play after missing part of last week's game with a knee injury) across the field, the Colts will need to get the ball to their tight ends again, a gameplan that will be bolstered by a healthy Dwayne Allen, who didn’t play in Week 11 due to injury.
Another weapon the Colts will need to utilize is running back Boom Herron, who has evolved into a crucial piece of their aerial attack. Herron had 8 receptions last week against Denver and 10 the week before against the Bengals. With the Patriots' locking down receivers on the outside, Herron may find some success against a defense that gave up more than five receptions per game to running backs in the regular season.
Linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower, two of the Patriots best defenders, will need big games both getting after Andrew Luck as pass rushers and covering the Colts' backs and tight ends if the Patriots hope to slow down the Indianapolis offense.
One of my favorite features on our game projection pages is the Strongest Predictors section. These are historical games that most closely mirror both the teams' makeups and the point spread as well as over/under.
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