Standing Room Only's five thoughts on Pats-Colts

Standing Room Only's five thoughts on Pats-Colts
January 6, 2014, 12:00 pm
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Two games down, and three games left before we crown a champion in the AFC. Really. That’s it. Three games. The Broncos, Patriots, Colts and Chargers are all two wins from the Super Bowl. They’re all one win from being one win from the Super Bowl. And at this point, it’s anyone’s game.
The Broncos might still be the favorites in Vegas, but you’ll understand if they’re not entirely comfortable with what lies ahead. Denver lost three games this season — each came at the hands of one of the other three remaining teams. On Sunday, they’ll host the Chargers; a squad that beat them at Mile High less than a month ago, that’s coached by their former offensive coordinator and led by quarterback who has a 2-0 career playoff record against Peyton Manning.
The other AFC semifinal takes place on Saturday night in Foxboro: Indianapolis at New England. The Pats will be well-rested after their first round bye, but as great as that must feel, it’s hard to imagine it tops the vibe currently flowing through the Colts locker room. Indy’s fresh off the second biggest comeback in NFL playoff history. After a tumultuous first six quarters (the equivalent of six years on the Internet overreaction scale) Andrew Luck finally got the playoff monkey off his back. The Colts arrive at Gillette having won five of their last six games. They’ve got nothing left to lose. This year may not even be a week old, but it’s already a success.
Meanwhile, if the Pats season ends against Indy it will be a disaster.
Anyway, let’s start the playoff hype machine with five quick notes on Saturday’s match-up:
1. The Pats opened as seven-point favorites, and that kind of spread has been good to them this season -- they were 6-0 when favored by seven or more points. Then again, New England was an eight-point favorite against Baltimore in last year’s AFC Championship. They were a 9.5-point favorite three years ago against the Jets. Crazier things have happened.
 2. OK, pop quiz: Which of these names does NOT belong to a current wide receiver on the Colts?
a) Griff Whalen
b) Da'Rick Rogers
c) Tang Davis
d) LaVon Brazill
The answer is c), but two months ago, I’d never heard of any of them. That’s because Andrew Luck had no need for them. Back then, he was so obsessed with Reggie Wayne, that TY Hilton was the only other Colts receiver with any kind of identity. But on October 20, Wayne went down for the season, and the football world expected Luck to struggle.
As a rookie, Luck threw 30 percent of his passes to Wayne; the highest of any QB/WR pair in the NFL. That was down to 25 percent this season, but it was still significant enough to raise major questions after Wayne’s injury. It didn’t appear the Colts had the depth to overcome the void. But in the long run, Wayne’s torn ACL may turn out to be a good thing for Luck. He was always far too talented to lean so heavily on one receiver. Wayne’s injury forced him out of his comfort zone and it’s no surprise that it didn’t take long for him to right the ship.
These days, Hilton has emerged as Luck’s favorite target — he caught 13 balls for 224 yards and two touchdowns against the Bengals and will be priority one, two and three in New England’s defensive meetings this week. But now, the QB is comfortable throwing to every receiver. Rodgers, Brazil and Walen are all apart of the offense, and Luck’s barely missed a beat.
He was 136-of-224 (60.7 percent) for 1,574 yards, 10 touchdowns and three picks over seven games with Wayne. He was 207-of-346 (59.8 percent) for 2,248 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions in the nine games after the injury. Plus, now he’s free from the chains of his binky and far less predictable.
Just imagine what it will be like once they finally work Tang into the offense.
3. Turnovers often tell the story in the postseason. As Bill Barnwell noted last week on Grantland: Since 1990, teams that have won the turnover battle in the playoffs won 84.2 percent of the time.
Of course, that was before this past weekend, when the Colts, 49ers and Saints each turned the ball over more times than their opponent and still ended up winning, but that’s an aberration. The turnover battle remains paramount, and on that note, the Pats find themselves in a slightly unusual position this week.
Saturday will be the mark the first time since 2010 that they’ve face a playoff opponent that finished the season with a better turnover differential.
New England was plus-3 this year, which was third in the AFC, but a healthy distance behind the second-place Colts. Indy was plus-13. They only lost four fumbles, compared to the Pats nine. Luck only threw 10 interceptions, one fewer than Brady. Obviously, if you watched that Chiefs game, you know the Colts aren’t perfect. They had four turnovers in the first half alone. But in general, they take care of the ball.
4. Saturday will mark the third straight season that the Patriots have gone up against the AFC sack leader in the playoffs.
In 2011, it was Terrell Suggs, who led the AFC with 14 sacks, and was held sackless in the AFC Championship. (Note: That’s not the first time someone’s described Suggs as sackless). Last year, it was JJ Watt, who had led the entire NFL with 20.5 sacks. He picked up half a sack on the third drive of the game and was a non-factor after that.
This time around, it’s Robert Mathis.
Mathis has been a monster this year. Not only did he lead the league with 19.5 sacks but he was also first in forced fumbles. And he did both last week against the Chiefs. His third quarter strip sack of Alex Smith (with the Colts down 38-17) was one of the turning points in the game.
Mathis has been doing this for a while. He’s one of only 30 players in NFL history with 100 or more career sacks. Only John Abraham, Jared Allen, Julius Peppers and DeMarcus Ware are ahead of him on the active list. That means Mathis actually has more career sacks (111) than his former teammate Dwight Freeney (108), and in fewer games.
Many wondered if Mathis might struggle this season after Freeney left town for the Chargers. Now that he was the man. On the right end. Up against the best offensive tackles in the league, facing the level of attention and double teams previously focused on Freeney.
Not so much. The Pats patchwork o-line will have its hands full.
5. This will be the first time that Bill Belichick and Chuck Pagano “head” coach against each other in the playoffs, but they still have history. Pagano was the secondary coach in Baltimore when the Ravens upset the Patriots in 2010. He was the defensive coordinator in Baltimore when the Pats beat the Ravens in the AFC Championship two years later.
That doesn’t matter quite as much on the New England side, but Pagano’s experience against Brady and the Pats will obviously help in the preparation. He knows what works. He knows what doesn’t. But fortunately for New England, Pagano doesn’t have anywhere near the talent he did in Baltimore.
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