Patriots coaches have begun the process of breaking down the Colts’ win over the Broncos on Sunday and preparing to face Indianapolis in the AFC Championship game this weekend.
As they’ve been watching the Colts, what they see is a team vastly improved from the one they faced in November, when the Patriots beat the Colts handily, 42-20, in Indianapolis.
“I think they’ve improved in every area,” coach Bill Belichick said Monday during a conference call. “They’ve gotten more production in their running game and with the backs, [Donte] Moncrief has become more of the passing game, gotten a lot of production out of the tight ends, the offensive line, even though they’ve had a couple of moving parts in there, they’re playing well.
“Defensively, I think getting [defensive tackle Arthur] Jones back has definitely helped them. They’re playing just good team defense. [Josh] Cribbs in the return game, he gives them an explosive player there. So I think they’re good in all three phases of the game, obviously they’ve got a great kicker [Adam Vinatieri], an excellent punter/kickoff guy [Pat McAfee]. They do a good job on field position in those areas, overall balance offensively and they’re playing well on defense.”
When the teams played in November, the Colts were without Jones, who missed a chunk of the season to an ankle injury. Safety LaRon Landry was also serving a four-game NFL suspension.
The Patriots rushed for more than 200 yards that game, with Jonas Gray becoming an overnight star.
But both Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were quick to point out that Indianapolis is different now.
“As far as the first game goes, both teams have changed, both teams have grown and improved,” McDaniels said. “They’ve gotten some players back, we’ve gotten some players back. I think we’ve tried to evolve as an offense, they’ve done it as a defense. I think this will be a totally different game.
“They’re a great example of a team getting better over the course of a year. They’ve got a great coaching staff that’s done a great job of getting their players in the best positions. They’re aggressive, they’re playing with confidence, they’re physical, they’re fast, they blitz, they play man, they mix up their calls. You don’t always know what you’re going to get from them.
“They’re playing the way they want to play, I’m sure, at the end of the year, at the right time, and we’re going to have to play our best game on Sunday and that’s what we’re going to prepare for.”
There was some talk about last Saturday’s divisional-round win over Baltimore, and some of the plays and calls the Patriots made.
In terms of the end of the game, where Tom Brady took three knees to kill clock, but not all of the clock, and the Patriots punted the ball away with 14 seconds to play, giving the Ravens one chance at a Hail Mary, Belichick said that was by design.
“It played out pretty much exactly the way we thought it would. We knew they had one timeout, we expected to be punting the ball with about 15 seconds [left], which is pretty much what it was, and didn’t want to go through any handoffs or take any chance on any exchanges, penetration like the play that happened on the goal line, anything like that,” Belichick said. “We felt we’d be able to secure the ball and punt it back to them with in the neighborhood of 15 seconds and then that would leave them at the most two, possibly one play depending on what happened on the punt, whether the ball was returned or went out of bounds or whatever.
“We have to defend one play and in the end we felt like defending the Hail Mary was better than taking any chances at all handing the ball off, which I’m not sure how much more time that would have taken off the clock anyway, maybe a couple of seconds, I don’t know. Get the first down, throwing the ball and all that, that wasn’t part of our thinking at that point.”
As far as Baltimore coach John Harbaugh’s gripe with the Patriots running three plays with just four offensive linemen and one ineligible skill player, Belichick would only say that he’d seen it done before (his friend Nick Saban’s Alabama team ran something similar this fall), and that he had no response to Harbaugh’s charge of trickery or the Patriots trying to play with substitution.
Follow Shalise Manza Young on Twitter @shalisemyoung.