Prior to Saturday’s playoff win over the Ravens, the last team to score a second-half touchdown against the Patriots happens to be the team they’ll face next.
The Colts needed something of a trick play to find the end zone in the fourth quarter of that Nov. 16 game with the visiting Patriots at Lucas Oil Stadium. On third and 1 from the 1, Andrew Luck threw a touchdown pass to left tackle Anthony Castonzo, a former Boston College offensive lineman who reported in as an eligible receiver on the play.
Castonzo’s catch — the only reception of his four-year NFL career — brought the Colts within 28-20 in a game they’d go on to lose, 42-20. The play was overshadowed by Patriots running back Jonas Gray, who rushed for 201 yards and scored four touchdowns, all on the ground.
If the Colts want to win at Gillette Stadium in Sunday’s AFC Championship game, they’ll probably have to do something that has become increasingly difficult for New England opponents as the season has progressed: score touchdowns after halftime.
The Colts scored one touchdown and 10 second-half points in the regular-season meeting. The Ravens scored one touchdown and 10 second-half points in Saturday’s divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium, which was won, 35-31, by the Patriots, who scored 21 second-half points.
In the six games between the first Colts meeting and Saturday’s playoff win, the Patriots didn’t allow a single touchdown in the second half. They held the Lions, Packers, Chargers, Dolphins, Jets, and Bills to four field goals, a total of 12 second-half points.
Great defense in the second half doesn’t always come in victory, of course. The Patriots, despite pitching a second-half shutout in three of those six games, lost two of them.
“We are trying to go out there every single snap and not let them score,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said recently. “We’ve been able to do that a little more in the second half than apparently in the first half.”
It hasn’t always been that way this season. The Patriots were outscored in the second half in four of their first eight games, some by substantial margins: 23-0 at Miami in Week 1, 24-14 at Kansas City in Week 4. The Patriots gave up 13 second-half points in the first game with the Jets, and 16 points after halftime in a 28-point win over the Bears.
For the season (and counting Saturday’s playoff win), the Patriots have allowed 157 second-half points. But only 22 of those have come in the past two months, ever since the Patriots flew home from Indianapolis with a 22-point win and the sixth victory in what would be a seven-game win streak.
“We’re trying to improve every single play and get better,” said Patricia. “I think every play as the game goes becomes more critical. I think our guys understand that and that’s something we put a point of emphasis on.”
Over the past seven games, opponents have had the ball for 36 second-half possessions. Two of those 36 drives started in Patriots territory (coming after turnovers), and neither of them reached the red zone.
Of the other 34, only 13 crossed midfield, and just seven reached the red zone. The Patriots forced 15 second-half punts and six second-half turnovers during the seven-game span.
The best second-half defense might have been in the 23-14 win at San Diego on Dec. 7, in a game the Patriots trailed at halftime, 14-13. In keeping the Chargers scoreless in the second half, the Patriots let the Chargers cross midfield on just one of seven drives (for a total of just three snaps).
San Diego punted five times after halftime, was intercepted once, and turned the ball over on downs to end the game. In 26 second-half offensive plays run by the Chargers, the Patriots allowed 105 net yards and four first downs.
“Defensively, I can’t say enough about that effort,” coach Bill Belichick said after the win at San Diego.
Now it’s Luck and the Colts coming to Gillette Stadium, and they’re quite accustomed to moving the ball and scoring points in the second half. Since that Nov. 16 loss to the Patriots, the Colts have gone 7-1, losing only at Dallas. In those eight games, they’ve scored 12 touchdowns and 106 points after halftime.
They’ve also won three of those eight post-Patriots games away from home, and are 6-3 this season on the road. Included in that was Sunday’s 24-13 win at Denver. The Colts extended a 14-10 halftime lead with 10 second-half points, punctuated by a 14-yard touchdown pass from Luck to Hakeem Nicks.
That came a day after the Patriots completed their comeback win against the Ravens, who had the ball six times after halftime. Baltimore marched 70 yards on its first third-quarter drive and scored a touchdown, taking another 14-point lead.
But the Patriots tightened up defensively from there: one punt, one field goal, two interceptions, and a ball that was batted away in the end zone on the game’s final play.
It showed how stingy the Patriots have become on defense in the second half. To reach the Super Bowl, they’ll likely need to do it again.