When: Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough
Tom Brady reads defenses and processes information as quickly as any quarterback in league history. He is an amazingly effective audible caller and consistently finds his secondary options. Brady can still zip the ball and has a great touch on shorter throws. This season, he has shown a lot of frustration (which is rare) and a lot of fire (which is normal) as he worked with a revamped receiving corps. He plays with superb confidence (no deficit is insurmountable) and his teammates feed off that. Andrew Luck looked downright Brady-like last week. A confident, smart quarterback, Luck has an excellent arm and does a tremendous job getting everyone involved. If you’re open, he’ll find you. His teammates believe in him. The Colts are in good hands for the foreseeable future.
EDGE: New England
LeGarrette Blount has had a meteoric rise this season, from fourth on the depth chart to starting beast. The 6-foot, 241-pounder is a physically imposing figure who has good vision and runs hard. He leads with his shoulder and will deliver a blow. He is deceptively quick and undeniably powerful. He can break tackles and carry defenders downfield. Stevan Ridley runs with great energy. He has the quickness to hit holes and slide into the secondary, but ball security is an issue. Shane Vereen (slippery) and Brandon Bolden (unfocused) can be effective at times. Donald Brown gives the Colts a viable option at tailback. He’s quick and athletic. He shows great patience and stutter-step moves. Trent Richardson looks slow and uninterested.
EDGE: New England
Julian Edelman is the Patriots MVP (non-Brady division). The undersized receiver (5 feet 10 inches, 198 pounds) is versatile (he’ll line up everywhere) and productive (105 catches, 1,056 yards). He has quick feet, runs precise routes, and has strong hands. Most important, he has Brady’s trust. Danny Amendola is a good route runner who can play inside or outside. Rookie Kenbrell Thompkins has size and speed but inconsistent hands. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui will chip in with some catches. Indy’s T.Y. Hilton is extraordinarily quick and slippery. He changes speeds with ease and can explode out of his cuts. LaVon Brazill specializes in tough catches. Griff Whalen will surprise. Tight end Coby Fleener has the size and athleticism to make plays. His hands are suspect, though.
Logan Mankins is the leader of New England’s big uglies. The 6-foot-4-inch, 310-pound left guard plays with great strength and leverage. He fires off the ball, generally overpowers his initial block, and then goes hunting for linebackers. Mankins plays with an edge and keeps hitting until the whistle (and maybe a little after it). Right guard Dan Connolly and center Ryan Wendell are rugged and steady. Tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon will struggle at times. Colts center Samson Satele is quick, tough, and strong. Guards Hugh Thornton and Jeff Linkenbach work hard to finish their blocks. Tackles Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus (both former Boston College standouts) are top-notch. Castonzo (6-7, 307) is big, physical, and durable. Cherilus is strong and powerful.
Ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones have made big plays all season. Ninkovich is intelligent, versatile, and relentless. He has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Jones has an enviable combination of size, quickness, and power. He has impressive closing speed and his hits rattle bones. Tackles Joe Vellano, Chris Jones, and Sealver Siliga are bulky hard workers. They show flashes but are inconsistent and will wear down. Rotating them is a must. Indianapolis nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin is a solid run-stuffer. Tackle Ricky Jean Francois can be an explosive hitter when he’s focused. End Cory Redding has great size and power. He takes on blockers with enthusiasm and has the strength to toss them aside quickly and pursue the ball.
Dont’a Hightower needs to play his best game as a pro to give this defense a chance. A 6-foot-2-inch, 262-pounder who is both versatile and inconsistent, he has the size and strength to defend the run and the straightaway speed to shoot gaps. He has been a liability in pass coverage. Rookie Jamie Collins is swift and athletic and can rush or drop back, but he can be overpowered. Dane Fletcher and Chris White are good hitters but lack athleticism. Outside linebacker Robert Mathis is a pass-rushing specialist. He bursts off the edge like a man possessed and is relentless in his pursuit of the QB. On the inside, Jerrell Freeman (6-0, 220) doesn’t let his lack of size (comparatively speaking) stop him from piling up tackles. Kavell Conner is quick and aggressive.
This is the strength of the New England defense. Rangy safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory are smart and aggressive. McCourty has the skills to pick up coverage after the corners pass the receivers off and the toughness to provide solid run support. Don’t let his slight frame fool you. Rugged rookie Duron Harmon provides safety depth. Corners Aqib Talib (he’s big and quick), Alfonzo Dennard (he’s physical), and Kyle Arrington (he’ll work the slot) are solid. Capable rookie Logan Ryan will see plenty of snaps. Vocal and physical safety Antoine Bethea is a leader for the Colts. He can fly all over the field and is always near the ball. Starting corners Vontae Davis (he’s an in-your-face defender) and Darius Butler (he closes quickly) make more plays than mistakes.
EDGE: New England
Any number of guys, including LeGarrette Blount, Devin McCourty, Shane Vereen, and Matthew Slater, will return kickoffs for the Patriots. Blount, who isn’t built like the typical return man, has averaged 29.1 yards on 17 returns, including an 83-yarder. Julian Edelman is a terrific punt returner, combining excellent open-field vision with moves. Slater is an elite coverage man. Stephen Gostkowski hit on 38 of 41 field goal attempts (long of 54 yards) and consistently booms his kickoffs into the end zone. Cassius Vaughn has assumed kickoff-return duty for the Colts, and the speedy and shifty T.Y. Hilton will field punts. Adam Vinatieri needs no introduction in these parts or anywhere else football is played. The most clutch kicker in NFL history was 35 of 40 on field goal attempts with a long of 52.
Colts RB Donald Brown vs. Patriots LBs Dane Fletcher and Jamie Collins
Brown, the former UConn star, has effectively taken over the starter’s role from Trent Richardson, who has done close to nothing since the Colts sent a No. 1 pick to Cleveland to acquire the former No. 1 pick early in the season. Brown has excellent instincts and vision. He is a fluid runner who accelerates and decelerates smoothly. The 5-foot-10-inch, 210-pounder has some nice moves, can absorb hits, and will glide off tacklers. He’s a good receiver, as well. Fletcher and Collins are being asked to pick up the run-stuffing slack for the injured Jerod Mayo. Fletcher is a solid, hard-hitting, 6-2, 244-pounder who isn’t afraid to stick his nose in everywhere. He may lack speed and athleticism, but he’s smart and finds the ball quickly. Collins (6-3, 250) has the power to play the run and the speed and athleticism to drop into coverage. He has made great strides this season.
Colts OLB Robert Mathis vs. Patriots LT Nate Solder
The 6-foot-2-inch, 245-pound Mathis is a pass-rushing menace. Mathis (19½ sacks) has a lightning-quick first step and bursts in off the edge as if shot out of a cannon. He will lower his shoulder and use deceptive strength and power to drive blockers back and collapse the pocket. His patented move is a nifty spin number that he consistently employs to beat opponents. Mathis has impressive closing speed and is relentless. Solder (6-8, 319) is a gigantic man with good athletic skills. He’s quick, strong, and moves well laterally. There are times when he is flat-out dominant and will swallow up pass rushers. There are other times when he will get caught flat-footed and will be beaten badly. He’s had concussion issues this season and it’s a safe bet he’ll get some help neutralizing Mathis in the form of tag-team blocking from the tight ends.
Colts’ keys to victory
1. No false starts: That was one impressive comeback last week. No way it’s happening two weeks in a row, so come out firing, because if you fall behind big in Foxborough, you’re cooked.
2. Ground control: New England’s run defense has struggled. The Colts need to test the young pups in the middle and take some of the pressure off Andrew Luck.
3. Blanket coverage: Julian Edelman has become Tom Brady’s safety blanket. It’s important to disrupt Edelman’s timing at the snap before he gets into his pattern. This will annoy Edelman and frustrate Brady.
Patriots’ keys to victory
1. Rain main: It’s pretty clear that LeGarrette Blount enjoys running in the rain. Precipitation is in the forecast again, and every amateur meteorologist in New England is calling for heavy doses of the big man.
2. Guessing game: Andrew Luck is very smart and makes great presnap reads. So it’s a must to disguise your coverages until the last possible moment so he can’t get on a roll.
3. Max protect: The Colts can bring pressure to the pocket. The Patriots have taken their fair share of hits and kept on ticking. Win or lose Saturday, the season is over if Tom Brady gets hit and hurt.
Prediction: Patriots 34, Colts 20
Jim McBride can be reached at email@example.com