When: Sunday, 6:40 p.m.
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough
TV, radio: CBS, WBZ-FM (98.5), WEEI-FM (93.7)
Tom Brady and Andrew Luck have all the physical skills required of an NFL quarterback, but what separates them from most is intelligence, preparation, and the uncanny ability to stay calm at all times no matter the situation. Brady has brilliant mechanics and exceptional recognition skills; you’re not fooling him at this point. He processes information quickly and he almost always throws to the guy with the most favorable matchup. Brady has improved his mobility (he can extend plays with his feet) and he has an above-average arm (though the deep ball is not a strength). Luck is in just his third year but he carries himself like a seasoned veteran and plays like one, too. An exceptional athlete, Luck has great pocket presence but also is adept at rolling out and buying time (his accuracy doesn’t dip much on the run) or taking off and racing for the chains. Luck is a superb leader and has a perfect demeanor for the game: His shoulders don’t slump and he doesn’t carry one series over to the next.
Shane Vereen has proven versatile and valuable both out of the New England backfield and flanked out. A slashing-type runner with excellent vision, Vereen doesn’t have the muscle to carry an offense but shines when used as part of a rotation. LeGarrette Blount has the bulk to wear defenses down. An exceptionally sized north-south runner with surprising athleticism, Blount attacks the line with power, explosion, and force. If he’s getting fourth-quarter carries, that’s a good thing for the Patriots. Jonas Gray is another tough, inside runner, and Brandon Bolden can provide a spark when he’s charging straight ahead and not dancing. Dan “Boom” Herron has seized control of the Colts rushing attack after they tired of Trent Richardson’s underachieving. Herron is also an excellent receiver out of the backfield and is as good in space as he is thumping between the tackles. Ball security is a bugaboo, though. Zurlon Tipton is a big, choppy runner who will surprise.
New England’s top pass catchers are healthy and clicking. Pound for pound, Julian Edelman may be the toughest (and most versatile) player in the NFL. He slips off the line effortlessly, runs precise routes, and absorbs some big hits. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is the original nightmare matchup. Brandon LaFell has a nifty blend of size, strength, and speed and does a great job of shielding the defender from the ball. Danny Amendola has quick feet and will find open areas. Effort is not an issue with him but inconsistency is. T.Y. Hilton is Indy’s best receiver. He is exceptionally quick and smooth. Rookie Donte Moncrief is a future star. He gains separation quickly and is threat from anywhere on the field. Reggie Wayne isn’t as quick and powerful as he once was but his hands are still reliable. Hakeem Nicks is wily. Tight end Coby Fleener disappears for stretches but will come up big at big times. Fellow TE Dwayne Allen is a huge, reliable target.
Bryan Stork’s absence weakens the guard spot more than the center spot for the Patriots. It forces Ryan Wendell to center and shifts Josh Kline into Wendell’s right guard spot. Wendell, who may be the crankiest of this bunch, has the versatility and experience to handle the center chores. Left guard Dan Connolly is a quiet, tough hombre who holds up well at the point of attack. Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are coming off perhaps their best games of the season. The Colts have had a lot of moving parts on the line, but the one constant has been left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Right tackle Joe Reitz is a little stiff and slow. Guards Jack Mewhort (the versatile, aggressive rookie is a real brawler — not a shock considering he’s an Ohio State guy) and Lance Louis are solid. Khaled Holmes has brought stability at center. He will lock on to his man until the whistle.
Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Colts S LaRon Landry
Gronk is a specimen. Blessed with an awesome skill set (he’s large, fast, athletic, and full of energy), the big bundle of fun gets into his routes quickly (just try chip-blocking him) and makes all the grabs. There’s no greater threat down the seam and he is the best red area weapon in the universe. If you want to run the ball all day, he is more than happy to block his opponent into submission. Landry is a big-hitting safety who has lost a step over the years but hasn’t lost his aggression. He’s big enough and physical enough to act as an extra linebacker and delivers some bone-crunching hits.
1. Big plans: With crappy weather in the forecast, it’s time to enlist the ground forces. Feed the ball to ginormous tailback LeGarrette Blount so he can move the chains, run the clock, and protect the ball.
2. Big problems: Andrew Luck is smarter than your average bear, but he doesn’t have it all figured out — yet. Mix up the looks, disguise the coverages, and send some blitzers (they may even get a compliment from Luck).
3. Big game: Don’t get caught looking ahead; the Colts play hard. There’s a bigger game on the horizon, but if you don’t play super on this Sunday, you’ll be watching that contest on the couch.
Vince Wilfork’s quickness and explosiveness would be impressive for a man half his size. He uses his massive frame, super strength, and surprisingly nimble feet to set up roadblocks, shed blockers, and cave in ball carriers. Wilfork gets help from the rotation of Chris Jones (he’s undersized but determined), Alan Branch (he’s huge and enthusiastic), and Sealver Siliga (he’s a bull). Ends Chandler Jones (he looked overmatched vs. the Ravens) and Rob Ninkovich (he will find the ball) bring pressure off the edge. Arthur Jones (Chandler’s brother) and Josh Chapman man the middle for Indianapolis. Jones has the size and strength to anchor against the run and can be disruptive in the backfield. He plays with great balance and burst (he was a state champion wrestler in high school) and can stack and shed blockers. Chapman is a widebody with excellent strength who can occupy multiple blockers and create space for the linebackers to hunt down the ball. Cory Redding is a versatile player off the edge. A converted linebacker, Redding has a decent first step and can catch blockers off guard. He has long, strong arms and big hands that he uses to swim past opponents and get into the backfield. He will wear down late.
If Jamie Collins isn’t the most versatile and athletic linebacker in the league, he’s in the conversation. A converted defensive end, Collins is a three-down player who can get to the quarterback, step up in run support, or drop into coverage. Collins has the strength to take on — and shed — bigger blockers when pressuring the pocket. He is excellent in pursuit, can stick with tight ends and pass-catching backs, and shows impressive closing burst when he locates the ball. He’s rarely caught out of position. Dont’a Hightower is a smart, instinctive player who has embraced his role as the leader of this unit. He has good recognition skills, uses his long, powerful arms to sift through traffic, and explodes into opponents. He’s not great in coverage but he has improved dramatically. Rob Ninkovich is linebackerish. He’s smart, rugged, and has a knack for the big play. Indianapolis has a bunch of physical, productive linebackers. D’Qwell Jackson (he’s a read-and-react player who explodes into ballcarriers) and Jerrell Freeman (he’s very smart and very athletic) man the inside, and they’re always around the ball (a combined 234 tackles). Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner are on the outside. Walden is strong but will get lost in the crowd. Werner is explosive, ferocious, and tenacious. He has Ninkovich-like qualities. Veteran Shaun Phillips can still sift his way to the quarterback on occasion.
New England’s talented secondary has covered up for a pass rush that has been nonexistent for stretches. Corners Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner can match up with any team’s top receivers. Revis is a smooth backpedaler with long arms and excellent mirror skills. Like every cornerback, he will clutch and grab, but he’s so smooth, it’s hardly noticeable. Where Revis relies on finesse, Browner relies on raw power. Browner has great size and physicality. He gets a good jam and continues to mug his guy down the field. He takes more than his share of penalties, but he makes more than his share of plays, too. Kyle Arrington flies under the radar, and that’s just fine for a slot corner. He has good speed and instincts. Logan Ryan is just a step slow in coverage. Devin McCourty is an elite safety. He can cover and he can run support; more importantly, he’s rarely out of position. Patrick Chung is a big hitter but can’t be expected to cover bigger, quicker receivers consistently. Duron Harmon is rangy and playing his best football now. The Colts’ starting corners are strong. Vontae Davis (he’s smart and instinctive) has a penchant for big plays and Greg Toler (he’s quick and athletic) is very steady. Ex-Patriot Darius Butler is a fighter. He battles receivers and inconsistency. Safeties Mike Adams (he has a nose for the ball) and LaRon Landry (he is a thunderous hitter) make big plays at big moments.
The Patriots have big-play ability in the kicking game with quick, shifty returners Danny Amendola on kickoffs and Julian Edelman on punts. With rain and wind in the forecast, touchbacks will be hard to come by, so Amendola will get his chances. He’s more quick than fast and doesn’t have breakaway speed, but Amendola has good vision and sees the lanes develop. Edelman isn’t a big fan of fair catches. He’s much happier snagging the ball and taking off. He has quick feet, excellent vision, and an innate ability to duck out of hits and slide past overpursuers. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski hit 35 of 37 field goals (a long of 53) and knows how to kick in bad weather. And speaking of kicking in bad weather, Adam Vinatieri wrote the book on that. The ice-cold, deadly accurate Indianapolis veteran is the all-time leader in postseason scoring and won’t be rattled by the swirling winds at Gillette. Also, he missed a field goal last week. It’s not happening in back-to-back weeks. The Colts’ Josh Cribbs is one of the all-time great returners. Cribbs no longer has elite quickness and speed but he’s still better than most. Both clubs have excellent gunners in Matthew Slater and Sergio Brown.
Colts TB Dan “Boom” Herron vs. Patriots LB Jamie Collins
Herron has emerged as a vital cog for the Colts, helping the offense achieve some semblance of balance and preventing teams from teeing off on Andrew Luck. Herron pops out of his stance quickly and runs decisively — there’s no tiptoeing with this guy. He has the vision and muscle to be a productive inside runner but he also has the quicks to bounce outside. He’s an excellent receiving threat out of the backfield, too. He has had fumbling issues, so that bears watching in foul weather. Collins has the size, speed, and skill to play multiple positions. He can step up and fill lanes and he can track players out of the backfield and blow up bubble screens. Collins is supremely athletic and shows up on every play. You’ll never have to ask, “Where’s 91?”
Colts’ keys to victory
1. Lucky charms: Andrew Luck has to get everybody involved. If he gets too locked on to T.Y. Hilton or “Boom” Herron, the Patriots will adjust and take those options away.
2. Lucky for life: Coby Fleener has been Luck’s running mate for years. The tight end has to stay focused and visible (it’s an issue) so his QB can rely on him.
3. Lucky breaks: Forcing turnovers is always huge, but it becomes magnified in the playoffs. This team has to be at its ballhawking best to keep this one close.
Prediction: Patriots 34, Colts 17.
Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.