The last time the Patriots and Colts met, in November, the Patriots rushed for a season-high 246 yards, with running back Jonas Gray shooting into the national NFL consciousness with a 201-yard, four-touchdown performance.
When the teams met in the playoffs in the 2013 season, New England rushed for well over 200 yards, led by LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns.
Despite that recent history, the Patriots don’t expect such a relatively easy go of things against the Colts this Sunday in the AFC Championship game.
“Those games were what they were,” coach Bill Belichick said on a Monday conference call. “There were a lot of things that happened in other games that we played. This is a new matchup, it’s a new situation, and we’ll just see what happens this week. I don’t know.
“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. We’ll just have to see.”
The 246 yards surrendered to the Patriots in Week 11 were by far the most the Colts gave up in a game this season; in the two games following the loss to New England, Indianapolis allowed a total of 164 rushing yards to Jacksonville and Washington, though those teams are not exactly offensive juggernauts.
After allowing 142 yards, their second-highest total this season, in their regular-season finale in Tennessee, the Colts gave up 110 rushing yards to the Bengals in the wild-card round, and just 88 to the Broncos in the divisional round Sunday night.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels pointed to the return of defensive tackle Arthur Jones, who missed the game with New England and six others because of an ankle injury, safety LaRon Landry, who served a midseason four-game NFL suspension, and the increased role of rookie outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome as among the reasons he sees an improved Indianapolis defense.
“I think, like most good teams do as the season progresses, they just continue to get better,” McDaniels said. “They’ve maintained consistency in terms of the things that they try to do. They’ve created negative plays and put people in some third-and-long situations, created some turnovers.
“They’re very aggressive with, not only pressuring, but also man-to-man coverage. They’ll get up there and play tight and jam and disrupt the passing game that way. And it’s a physical group.
“Not surprising that we would be playing them again. I know we had some success in the first game, but this is a totally different week, a totally different game, and I’m sure it’ll be different on Sunday.”
The Patriots haven’t come close to the rushing effort they had against Indianapolis in the seven games they’ve played since that November night, topping 100 yards just twice, against Miami in Week 15 and against Buffalo in the regular-season finale.
In their divisional-round game against Baltimore Saturday night, they gained just 14 yards on 13 carries; it is the lowest rushing total a team ever has posted in a playoff victory.
So tough was the Ravens’ run defense that quarterback Tom Brady never handed the ball off after halftime; the Patriots’ only rushes in the second half were on a Brady sneak and when he took a knee three times in the closing moments.
In his weekly appearance on WEEI Monday morning, Brady said the offense is going to need better balance this week against Indianapolis.
That’s all well and good, but Belichick said the Patriots will do whatever they need to do to move on to Super Bowl XLIX.
“I think you go into every game with an idea planned, but in the end, during your game, you do what you feel like you need to do to win,” said Belichick. “So, we’ll do whatever we feel like we need to do to win.”
The Patriots have a lot of work ahead of them to get ready for the Colts.
“As far as the first game goes, both teams have changed, both teams have grown and improved,” McDaniels said. “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. Whatever we had success with in the first game or didn’t have success with — which there were plenty of those things, too — I’m sure we’re both going to look at things.
“They’ve got a great coaching staff that has done a great job of putting their players in the right position. 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, like I said, play our best game on Sunday, and that’s what we’re going to try to prepare for.”