There was no way to twist the loss of Reggie Wayne into a good thing.
The six-time Pro Bowler was the No. 7 receiver in the NFL last season, catching 106 passes for 1,355 yards and five touchdowns for the Colts. He had nearly 500 more yards than Indianapolis' next-best, T.Y. Hilton, who finished the year with 50 catches for 861 yards.
The situation looked grim when Wayne suffered a season-ending knee injury this October. That is, until Hilton came through.
"[Offensive coordinator] Pep Hamilton and his staff have certainly done a good job of really trying to change all of their skill players and really give you different looks every single week as far as what they’re doing, even from personnel to formations," Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia noted Monday. "[Hilton] is certainly someone that they will move around and put in different spots and really make you have to try to prepare and be alert and aware for him in all different positions, so they do a great job as far as that’s concerned with the game plan of trying to strategically place all of their guys."
The 24-year old caught 82 passes his sophomore season for 1,083 yards and five touchdowns.
He had 13 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns in his first playoff game, Indy's Wild Card win over the Chiefs, to reset the franchise bar. The record Hilton broke for catches and yards in a postseason game? It belonged to Wayne.
"He's a very explosive, very quick, very fast player; a guy who looks like he’s really taken some strides from year one to year two in regards to his overall knowledge of the game, especially offensively as far as what they’re doing," Patricia said. "He does a great job of being able to be the guy that can catch a shorter route and turn it into a big play; certainly go vertical, get downfield very quickly, and get a big play, that aspect also.
Hilton is now New England's problem. The two teams meet Saturday at Gillette Stadium for an AFC divisional playoff, and the Patriots are preparing for the worst.
"He draws, I would say, a lot of defensive penalties too because of his quickness and his ability to separate," Bill Belichick added. "I’m not saying they all get called, but he has some defensive penalties as well as all the yards he’s got catching the ball. He’s good after the catch. He was their returner up [until] halfway through the season, whatever it was so he’s obviously very good with the ball in his hands as well."
In the last meeting with New England, a 59-24 loss in November of 2012, Wayne shared his workload with the rookie, and Hilton did the most damage (six passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns).
Going back to that film may not help much as the equation has changed since Wayne was subtracted. Belichick noted different teams have tried defending Hilton in different ways this season, depending on their personnel and scheme.
He, Patricia, and their staff will break it down. All of it.
"I think each team has kind of had their own way of doing things, depending on what their personnel was and their scheme. It looks like some teams paid more attention to him; other teams did what they would normally do, like Kansas City.
"You just have to decide based on your personnel and your scheme and how you feel the matchups are, how you’re going to play it."
No Wayne, no problem? Hardly.