The 42-20 score on Nov. 16 suggested a canyon-sized chasm between the Patriots and Colts. Less than two months later, is there any evidence to suggest the gap has narrowed, let alone been erased, in a fashion that indicates Indianapolis has a legitimate shot of advancing to the Super Bowl?
The Colts’ 7-1 record (5-1 regular season, 2-0 playoffs) since facing the Patriots has come against worse competition than they faced prior in the season. The Colts do have new personnel, and they’ve reinvented themselves as a team that scores less but allows fewer points.
Still, there’s reason to expect the result will be the same as November.
The Colts are scoring less — 32.2 points per game before the loss to the Patriots, 24.8 after — and despite their 7-1 record, they’ve done a worse job of avoiding turnovers in the last eight games than they did en route to a 6-3 record to open the year. Indianapolis has averaged 2.3 turnovers a game since the Patriots loss, up 35 percent from 1.7 in the first nine games, and quarterback Andrew Luck usually throws an interception a game.
While the backfield has changed, with Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson replaced by Daniel Herron, and the offensive line has undergone alterations, there’s been virtually no statistical impact on the Colts’ ground game.
Though the Colts have maintained their efficiency once inside an opponent’s 20, they’ve been getting to the red zone with far less frequency than they did early in the season.
Bottom line: The Colts offense has seen its average points total drop by 27 percent even though the team has been playing defenses that have been just as generous in the eight post-Patriots games (average points allowed: 22.8) as they were in the nine games leading up to the contest against New England (22.5).
Opponents had roughly scored to their season averages against the Colts prior to the meeting with the Patriots, but the Colts have held teams well below their season scoring averages since. They’re giving up about 30 percent fewer points over their last eight games as they did in their first nine.
That improvement just offsets the decreased scoring by the Colts. Before facing the Patriots, they averaged 8.8 more points per game than they allowed. Since facing them, they’ve averaged 7.4 more points than they’ve allowed. So while its record in that time suggests a team playing at an elite level, there’s little to suggest Indianapolis is any closer to such stature now than it was entering the game against New England.
Teams paid attention when Jonas Gray and the Patriots’ offensive line navigated through the Colts defense with the subtlety of a battleship.
Indianapolis permitted 4.5 yards a carry through its first nine games, while tightening its defense to permit just 4.0 yards in eight post-Patriots games. They’re giving up more total yardage, but that’s largely a reflection of an increased number of attempts. Meanwhile, the Colts’ goal line run defense has stiffened, as Indianapolis is permitting less than half as many rushing touchdowns since Nov. 16 (0.4 per game) as it did before (0.9).
Usually, such improvements come at the expense of pass defense. Interestingly, the single biggest area of improvement by the Colts in this eight-game stretch has been its ability to shut down opposing quarterbacks. Indianapolis isn’t producing turnovers in its secondary, but it’s also stopped yielding big plays, with a corresponding plummet of about 90 yards per game (from 263.6 to 173.0) through the air.
While Indianapolis has improved its red zone defense, limiting opponents’ opportunities to get there in the first place has been a key. Opponents have taken 1.9 trips to the red zone over the last eight games, down by nearly 50 percent from 3.7 before the Patriots game.
Necessary disclaimer: The Colts have enjoyed a steady diet of less-than-illustrious quarterbacks, doing their most dramatic damage against the likes of Jordan Palmer and Charlie Whitehurst and the Titans, Blake Bortles and the Jaguars, and Tom Savage and Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Texans. The Colts’ lone loss during their season-ending run came when they got torched, 44-7, by Tony Romo and the Cowboys, in a game where Romo had a 151.7 passer rating, the fifth highest by a quarterback in any game in the NFL this season.
Is there anything, then, to indicate the Colts will prove they belong on the same field as the Patriots? Perhaps there is one element.
The adjustment game
The Colts have played five teams twice. They’ve won the second game against all five, and their defense has been outrageously effective in the rematches.
Against the Broncos, Bengals, Titans, Texans, and Jaguars (two playoff teams, one almost-playoff team and two terrible teams), the Colts’ defense tightened from permitting an average of 18.6 points in the first game to 9.2 in the second. The Colts are 12-0 in in-season rematches during three seasons under coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky (a run that includes Bruce Arians’ interim tenure while Pagano was being treated for leukemia in 2012).
Still, most of those successful rematches came against the dismal competition of the AFC South. Until last Sunday in Denver, it was a stretch to suggest that the Colts had accomplished something that might compare with the task of shedding November’s all-encompassing defeat to beat the Patriots.
Moreover, the fact the Patriots dominated the Colts with the same style of physical ground game both in a playoff victory last January and in the November matchup offers something of an asterisk to the notion of Indianapolis’ excellence when facing a familiar opponent.
Ultimately, there is scant solace in numbers or history for the Colts. There’s little in the profile of the Colts to suggest that they have greater cause for optimism now than the last time they played at Gillette.
In order to beat the Patriots, it will not be enough for the Colts to perform at the level they have over the past eight weeks.
Instead, their best hope is to perform at a level well beyond what they’ve done while hoping that the Patriots sputter.