Patriots coach Bill Belichick will warn his players all week that history doesn’t matter for Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the Colts.
Yes, the Patriots are 3-0 against Andrew Luck and Chuck Pagano over the past three seasons, winning by an average score of 48-22. Yes, they handed the Colts their lunch just two months ago, 42-20 in Indianapolis, when Jonas Gray ran wild with 201 yards and four touchdowns.
“This is a new matchup, it’s a new situation and we’ll just see what happens this week,” Belichick said. “That’s why we’ll all be watching the game on Sunday to see how it unfolds. I don’t think any of us really have any idea.”
Now, that’s mostly coachspeak. The Colts still have a one-dimensional offense that struggles to run the football. They still have an excellent young quarterback who can make any throw on the field and escapes pressure as well as any QB in the league. And they still have a versatile defense that disguises its pressure well, similar to what the Patriots just faced with the Ravens.
But Belichick does have a point. Both teams have evolved over the last two months, and the Colts will have several players making impacts Sunday who either weren’t available during the last matchup or have come on in recent weeks.
The most glaring change with the Colts is on the offensive line, where they will have three new starters. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus and right guard Hugh Thornton were placed on injured reserve, and replaced by Joe Reitz at tackle and Lance Louis at guard. Second-year player Khaled Holmes has also replaced rookie Jonotthan Harrison at center.
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Despite losing a few starters, Indianapolis’s offensive line has shown improvement. The Colts should have the same combination Sunday for the third straight game, the only time they’ve had that luxury since the first three weeks of the season. The Broncos weren’t able to sack Luck, who has been only sacked twice in the last four games. The offensive line also helped the Colts churn out an eight-minute drive in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
“That’s on the O-line to grind some meat, and what a great drive that was,” Luck said after the game.
Elsewhere on offense, Daniel “Boom” Herron is now the primary running back after Ahmad Bradshaw was placed on IR and Trent Richardson was benched because of ineffectiveness.
The Colts rushed just 16 times for 19 yards against the Patriots in November, with Herron not getting a carry. But he rushed 23 times for 63 yards and a touchdown against Denver, playing 68 of 75 snaps. While no one will mistake Herron for Walter Payton, he’s a physical running back at 212 pounds and gives the Colts some semblance of a run game.
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The Colts also have a different rotation at receiver and tight end, with a liberal use of a seven-man rotation. The Colts went heavy with three receiver sets with T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, and Hakeem Nicks in the first matchup, but Wayne and Nicks have shared the load more with rookie receiver Donte Moncrief and tight ends Dwayne Allen and Jack Doyle, each of whom barely played against New England in November. Coby Fleener is another weapon at tight end.
The Patriots used Darrelle Revis to shut down Wayne in that game, but he only has one catch for 12 yards in the playoffs, and the Patriots might be better off using Revis on Hilton or Moncrief this time around.
Defensively, the Colts plugged up a leaky run defense after getting gashed for 246 yards by the Patriots, but still allowed 100-plus yards rushing in the final four games of the regular season, plus the first playoff game against the Bengals.
But the Colts should benefit from having defensive tackle Arthur Jones back in the lineup this time after he missed the November game. Jones, the brother of Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones, didn’t have the impact expected when he signed a five-year contract worth more than $30 million in the offseason, but he should give the Patriots problems on the interior, especially if center Bryan Stork misses the game with a knee injury.
The Colts’ defense is similar to the Ravens’ — Pagano coached in Baltimore for four years before getting the Colts job in 2012 — playing mostly out of a 3-4 base alignment with a lot of zone blitzing and overloaded formations up front.
They don’t have one standout pass rusher — edge rusher Jonathan Newsome led the team with 6½ sacks this year — but they had 10 players with multiple sacks this year, including six for Erik Walden and four for Bjoern Werner.
The Colts have an excellent cornerback in Vontae Davis, rated one of the tops at the position in the league this season, who had a whopping five passes defended Sunday against Peyton Manning. But otherwise they are vulnerable in the secondary with cornerback Greg Toler and free safety LaRon Landry, who is one of the worst cover safeties in the league and was beaten several times by Manning. Former Patriot Sergio Brown, who famously got into a fight with Rob Gronkowski in the last matchup, hasn’t played a snap in the postseason.
The Patriots went heavy on offense in November, going with Gray (57 snaps) over Shane Vereen (20) while using Cameron Fleming as a sixth offensive lineman on 38 snaps, fullback James Develin on 34, and blocking tight end Michael Hoomanawanui on 29. The Patriots have literally run all over the Colts in the last two matchups — 480 yards in the last two games — but the Patriots should expect the Colts to sell out to stop the run this time around.
The Colts know that beating the Patriots on their turf Sunday won’t be easy, but Pagano did it with the Ravens in 2009, and almost again in 2011.
“It wasn’t long ago that I was with a different club and played up there for an AFC Championship,” Pagano said. “We all know how hard it is to win up there, so we’re going to worry about us. We know what a tall order it’s going to be to try to go on the road up there and try to win.”