FOXBORO -- The Colts No. 1 receiving option TY Hilton finished Saturday night's 43-22 Divisional Round loss to the Patriots with 4 catches for 103 yards. Good numbers by most standards.
But by employing different coverages and allowing cornerback Aqib Talib to use his size advantage over Hilton, New England limited the burner's effectiveness and accomplished its goal: Hilton didn't beat them like he beat the Chiefs in the Wild Card round.
A week before arriving at Gillette Stadium, Hilton exploded for 13 catches, 224 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 45-44 come-from-behind win over Kansas City. He had 18 targets in that game and was by far quarterback Andrew Luck's top target -- as he had been since veteran receiver Reggie Wayne suffered a season-ending injury in Week 7.
The Patriots spoke of Hilton's elite play-making ability all week leading up to Saturday, and they followed through on their praise by paying him special attention.
Talib got the bulk of the duties, following Hilton all over the field. The two matched up on both sides of the formation, on the outside and most often in the slot, where Hilton played 40 of 65 Colts offensive snaps.
Though it had not been revealed during the week how the Patriots would handle Hilton -- would Talib check him, or might they double with other defensive backs? -- coach Bill Belichick declared his intentions early. On five of Indy's first six snaps, Talib lined up on Hilton. On four of those snaps, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Talib played the 5-9, 178-pound Hilton tight on the line and jammed him.
It would be a long, physical night for the diminutive wideout.
Hilton's first catch of the game went for just one yard after Talib chased him across the field on a shallow crossing route, proof that New England's best corner was as healthy as he had ever been since injuring his hip in Week 6 against the Saints.
From the slot, Talib gave the much more compact Hilton a shot off the line on 13 of 24 plays in which he had the opportunity. That likely disrupted the timing between Hilton and Luck, especially on longer routes. It also probably helped limit Hilton's targets to just six, cutting the number of balls he saw against the Chiefs by a whopping two-thirds.
Forced to try other options, Luck threw four picks.
"They throw balls down the field," Talib said after the game, "so we knew if we could jam the receivers and get a good pass rush then we knew we would have a chance to put some pressure on [Luck]. We knew once we get that pressure on him he forces a lot of balls. We just tried to match the rush with the coverage, and I think we did a good job of that today."
Talib had help in dissuading Luck from looking Hilton's way. Steve Gregory often gave Talib help over the top, allowing Talib to be more aggressive and attempt his jams at the line (a few of which he whiffed on).
On Indy's first drive of the second quarter, Talib was picked while trying to run with Hilton. Gregory quickly shot over to help and was able to breakup Luck's pass for Hilton at the Patriots 5-yard line.
On one unique look during the Colts' first drive of the fourth quarter, linebacker Dont'a Hightower lined up over Hilton in the slot and passed him off to Talib and Gregory in coverage.
“I saw the whole book," Hilton said after the game. "I saw double, triple [teams] and no single, and that was the game plan to take me out of the game. We have to step up and unfortunately we didn’t come up with a 'W.' I knew coming in they were going to throw the book at me, and I knew the coverages they were going to throw at me.”
It wasn't all double and triple teams from the Patriots, however. In fact, Hilton's two biggest catches came in scenarios where the Patriots maybe didn't devote enough attention to him.
On Indy's first possession in the second half, Hilton got behind Talib for a ridiculous diving grab and a 40-yard gain. Talib appeared to be in single coverage on the play, and got burned when Luck eluded the Patriots pass rush, stepped up and threw deep to Hilton, who may have adjusted his route upon seeing Luck avoid pressure.
On the next drive, Hilton ran across a Patriots zone and pulled in a 46-yard gain.
"We let him get behind us two times," Talib said, shaking his head. "One of our main points of emphasis this week was to not let him run through the defense and we let him do it two times, one in man and one in zone. So we did alright. We contained him, we didn't completely stop him. We contained him, though."
No matter what Hilton's numbers say, the Patriots will take it. He didn't beat them, and now they're moving on to the AFC title game.