By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
Another Patriots-Colts game Sunday night on NBC (in Indy again!) in what might be one of the better rivalries, if not the best, in the NFL right now. The good news, Patriots fans, is if the Pats win the AFC East and the Colts win the AFC South, next year they’ll visit Foxboro. But for this year, its Indy again.
Despite reputation, the Colts, while still very good, are not the offensive juggernaut they used to be. They have had games of 14 points scored against Jacksonville, 18 versus San Francisco and 20 versus Houston in their 8 games. They nearly lost all 3. They are 8-0 but have wins of 2, 4, 4 and 3. Give up thinking this is luck, however, the Colts know for sure how to win the close ones, just as the Patriots do. Statistically these teams match up closely. The Colts rank 6th in the NFL in points scored, the Patriots are 3rd. The Colts are 4th offensively in overall yards, including 1st in passing. The Patriots are 2nd in offensive yards, 2nd in passing yards. The Colts weakness on offense is running the ball, where they are 4th worst in the NFL with only 85 per game, while the Patriots are middle of the pack at 16. The Colts are 3rd in the NFL in converting 3rd downs with a 51% success rate. The Patriots are 6th at 45%. The Patriots are holding the ball the 2nd most time in the NFL at 34 minutes per game. The Colts allow opponents to hold it longer with 29 minutes of average offensive possession.
On defense, the Colts give up the least average points in the NFL at 13.5 points per game which is evidence of how their defense is underrated and offense slightly overrated. The Patriots are currently 2nd in that stat at 14.4 points per game. The Colts allow 108 yards per game rushing and 4.3 per carry, the Patriots 115 per game and 4.5. Despite their injuries in the secondary, the Colts have still done a decent job in the secondary giving up less than 200 yards per game passing and a stellar 4/9 TD/INT ratio. The Patriots have allowed the 4th best opponent QB completion percentage, so something has to give with Peyton Manning’s 70%+ completion percentage.
Look for a hard fought game, but the Patriots have a really good shot to win this throwing the ball and even mixing in some power runs given the Colts injuries on defense if they can get Tom Brady some time.
What can be said about Peyton Manning that everyone doesn’t already know? Obviously he is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time and a sure fire Hall of Famer. But it says here Manning still occasionally has the ability to crack under pressure and has yet to really distinguish himself in post-season play, often times choking up a fur ball in those situations. While Manning did finally get a Super Bowl win during the 2006 NFL season, he still did not play particularly well for the vast majority of that post-season. It was largely the remarkable play and turnaround of the Colts defense that year that got them the win. For his career, Manning still has a losing playoff record at 7-8. His TD-INT ratio is a pedestrian 22-17 in the postseason. Against the Patriots, he has more career losses, with a 5-9 record, than against any other opponent despite not being division foes. In games against the Patriots that Tom Brady has started, Manning’s record is 3-7. So, fear not, Patriots fans. Manning will make his plays. He’ll have some great throws that will make you sit back down on your couch and be quiet. But there is also a good chance he might make a critical mistake or two. And if history is any guide, there is a pretty good chance he’ll walk out of Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday night with another loss against the Patriots and Tom Brady.
As mentioned above, the Colts are struggling to run the ball this year. They are 4th worst in the NFL at doing so this season. Former LSU Tiger Addai is their best runner with nearly 400 yards halfway through the year, but he is only averaging 3.4 per carry a pretty remarkably bad figure considering the spread type offense the Colts have always run and opponents focus on stopping Manning and the passing game. Addai has been a pretty reliable guy in terms of not turning it over, fumbling about once every 200 touches during his career. But its been over 130 touches since he last did so, so expect one soon. Addai might find running a bit easier this Sunday as the Patriots likely heavily concentrate on the Colts passing game, so look for a healthy dose of Addai carries as the Colts counter that.
Clark is having a remarkable season at tight end with 60 catches thru 8 games, on pace to smash his previous season high of 77 with 120 catches. How do the Patriots deal with Mr. Clark? Its not going to be easy. It’ll likely include some combination of Brandon McGowan and someone else. But the truth is, despite impressions, Clark has not done that well against the Patriots for his whole career as compared with the rest of the NFL. In 8 career games against New England he has a mere 20 catches for 368 yards and zero touchdowns. That is right, no touchdowns. And only two and a half catches per game. Of course his yards per catch is very high, but that largely comes on the strength of a single 64 yard catch he had against the Patriots. And perceptions are probably influenced by the fact the one big game he had versus New England came in the 2006 AFC Championship Game when he had 6 catches for 137 yards. But here is the thing, the Colts are relying on Clark more on offense than ever have before. If the Patriots can take Clark away to some degree, even a bit, it’ll go a long way towards slowing down the not-as-explosive-as-they-used-to-be Colts.
Freeney appears more than recovered from his 2007 foot injury and it will be a real challenge for the Patriots to stop the player Tom Brady calls the most intimidating of any opponent he faces. Freeney remarkably has at least one sack in every game he has played this season. Ending that streak will go a long way towards the Patriots moving the ball effectively as they undoubtedly will be throwing a lot. Last year the Patriots held Freeney to one assist and no sacks in a very effective job stopping him. In fact, the Patriots have always done a good job on him as he has a mere 3 sacks in 8 career games against them and has not collected one since 2004 in this matchup. But Freeney is playing at perhaps his highest level ever, so it becomes even more important to do a good job on him this season.
These two cornerbacks, both rookies, will be starting Sunday night due to injuries to both Colts regular starters. And here is where the Patriots have a decided advantage. First, reportedly Lucas Oil Stadium is not nearly as loud as the Colts old stadium, the RCA Dome. This will help slow down the pass rush. Secondly, the Patriots have done a good job protecting the passer most of the year and seemingly improving. If Tom Brady has time, they should be able to shred this secondary. Lacey was an undrafted rookie from Oklahoma State who will be starting his third NFL game this Sunday, suddenly finding himself on national TV in perhaps the biggest game of the NFL season and perhaps matched up at times on Randy Moss. Should be interesting. Powers is a 2009 3rd round choice from Auburn who actually hasn’t played as well as Lacey but now also finds himself in the starting lineup.
Kicker Matt Stover(#3):
Many years ago Stover was drafted in the 12th round of the 1990 NFL Draft. The fact there were 12 rounds then shows how long Stover has been with the league. Stover spent that first season on injured reserve and one assistant coach on that team was Bill Belichick. When Belichick moved to Cleveland the next year as head coach, he acquired Stover and gave him his first full-time kicking job in the NFL. Nearly 20 years after entering the league, here is Stover still in it, filling in for the injured Adam Vinatieri as the Colts kicker. Stover is now 41 years old and a perfect 6-6 on field goals since being signed by the Colts. But Stover doesn’t have the leg he used to and only one of those has come from longer than 40 yards. Stover was only 5-10 from beyond 40 yards last year with Baltimore. He hasn’t kicked a field goal longer than 50 since 2006 and only one since 2004. His field goal percentage last year was his lowest since 1993. And thus, he found himself out of the league until the Colts came calling. Stover is an old veteran and a favorite of Belichick and he’ll hit the pressure kick from 40 or in if it comes down to it. But in key situations, if the Patriots can keep the Colts beyond the 24 yard line, the field goals do not become as definite at Stover’s age and that is something to consider on third downs in terms of how tight to play Colt receivers, particularly late in a close game.