BOSTON (CBS) — It’s just not an NFL season unless the New England Patriots play against the Indianapolis Colts.
No, they aren’t in the same division and haven’t been since 2001, yet they somehow end up playing each other every year.
“It kind of feels like we’re back in the division here,” Bill Belichick said this week when talking about his preparation for the Colts.
Indeed, these two teams meet often, as they’ve played 13 times in the regular season and playoffs since 2003. The Patriots are 7-6 in those games, but of course, those Colts teams were all different than this year’s version. With a No. 1 overall pick at quarterback and a team that’s rallying around its coach as he battles cancer, these Colts hardly resemble the Peyton Manning-led squads that used to visit Foxboro.
Still, when the white helmets with the horseshoes hit the field at Gillette, there will be plenty to watch, so here are four keys for Sunday afternoon’s game.
This just in: The Patriots’ secondary is atrocious. But might Aqib Talib ride in on his white horse make his debut to save the day?
Of course, the image of a man with a rap sheet like Talib’s being considered a savior or a knight in shining armor is humorous, but there’s no doubt that the Patriots need help in the defensive backfield. And if Talib does indeed prove this week that he’s ready to play on Sunday, he could be an instant difference-maker on defense.
Instantly the most talented cornerback on the roster, Talib could draw Reggie Wayne duty. Wayne is having a career year, despite being 33 years old and working with a rookie quarterback. He’s caught 69 passes for 931 yards, leading the league in receptions and sitting in second in yards. By comparison for Patriots fans, Wes Welker has three fewer catches but 121 fewer yards.
That’s the bad news for New England, but the good news is that behind Wayne, Andrew Luck lacks reliable options. Donnie Avery has the second-most receptions on the team, but he has roughly half the catches and yards of Wayne. And with tight end Coby Fleener out for Sunday, Luck is without another receiving option.
So if Talib can play on Sunday, and if he can limit the damage of Wayne, the Colts offense could flatline in Foxboro.
Of course, those are two rather large ifs.
After a dreadful 2-14 season in 2011, the Colts have surprised plenty of folks with their 6-3 record thus far in 2012. It’s even more surprising when you consider that they’ve been so careless with the football.
The Colts’ minus-9 turnover ratio is third-worst in the AFC and tied for fourth-worst in the entire NFL. It was even worse before last week’s scrimmage against Jacksonville, the NFL’s JV team, when the Colts forced a fumble and picked off Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne.
But this week, they won’t be facing Blaine or Chad; they’ll be facing Tom. And one thing Tom doesn’t do is throw interceptions. Brady’s three picks this season give him a 0.8 interception percentage, the best in the NFL. Brady’s lack of throwing picks, along with the team fumbling just four times and the defense’s knack for forcing fumbles, has helped the Patriots build a plus-16 turnover margin, the best such-mark in the league.
Don’t expect it to change this week either, as the Colts have just six takeaways all season, the fewest in the league (and as was already mentioned, three came against Jacksonville). Luck is going to have to be near perfect passing, and he’s going to have to protect the football when pressured, or else the Patriots could simply ride turnovers to an easy victory.
The Talented Mr. Ridley
Stevan Ridley ranks sixth in the NFL with 814 rushing yards and six touchdowns, and the Patriots as a team rank fifth in rushing yards per game and lead the entire NFL with 14 rushing touchdowns. For some historical perspective, the last time the Patriots finished a season even in the top six in rushing yards was 1985.
And while it’s unknown if that running attack will eventually be slowed down this season, it’s safe to believe it will keep rolling on this weekend against Indy. The Colts allow 120.3 yards per game (22nd in NFL) and 4.7 yards per attempt (29th). Considering Ridley averages 5.1 yards per carry, this weekend should present the perfect opportunity for him to crack the 100-yard mark for the fifth time this season.
In fact, the Colts have given up three such games this season, with Maurice Jones-Drew racking up a ridiculous 177 yards in Week 3, Shonn Greene rushing for 161 yards and three touchdowns in Week 6 and Chris Johnson picking up 99 yards in Week 8.
Luck Vs. Brady
Ah, I just had to.
For years, this game was always hyped as BRADY VS. MANNING or BRADY-MANNING BOWL or some other over-the-top hype language that made little sense, considering the two men involved played quarterback, thereby putting them in position to never be on the field at the same time. But hey, you have to sell everything, and Brady vs. Manning sold.
Now of course it’s a very different matchup, with 35-year-old Tom Brady being matched with 23-year-old Andrew Luck. Where Brady and Manning facing off meant two of the best quarterbacks of all time, still in their primes and at the top of their profession, this matchup will likely be billed as the old guard vs. the future.
Such wording would definitely be laying it on thick, especially considering 99 percent of quarterbacks don’t ever accomplish what Brady’s doing at age 35. He’s completing 64.8 percent of his passes, better than any mark from the beginning of his career until 2007. His 6-to-1- touchdown-to-interception ratio would be the third-best mark of his career, just a tick lower than his ’07 TD-to-INT ratio of 6.25-to-1. Essentially, Brady is as dangerous as ever.
Now, just because Luck is a rookie on the road in a potentially intimidating environment doesn’t mean he’ll struggle. Quite the opposite, really, as the Patriots’ defensive game plan all season has been to allow quarterbacks to pick them apart on any short or intermediate routes they want. So Luck should be able to rack up the yards and complete a high number of passes, but the pressure will be on to limit mistakes and keep the ball out of the Patriots’ hands. The Patriots have allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw for 337 and 350 yards, Peyton Manning to throw for 337 and Mark Sanchez to throw for 328. In those four games, Brady averaged 265 yards, but the Patriots went 4-0.
The Patriots had six interceptions in those games too, so the Colts’ fate will rest squarely in Luck’s hands. He may rack up those statistics, but if he throws a pick or two, it could be game over.