FOXBORO (CBS) – Shortly after 8 p.m. tonight, the two teams responsible for the NFL’s most remarkable comebacks this season will intersect in Foxborough, each seeking a complete performance to propel it into the AFC Championship game.
Arriving out of the AFC South are the Indianapolis Colts, who rendered a 28-point, second-half deficit anything but insurmountable in last week’s 45-44 Wild Card win over Kansas City. It marked the seventh time in two years that quarterback Andrew Luck led them to victory despite trailing by double-digits.
Awaiting here in the East are the New England Patriots, whose season of living dangerously included an overtime triumph in which they trailed the conference’s top seed Denver by a 24-0 score at halftime. That 34-31 win over the Broncos was the third of five victories earned after Tom Brady helped lift the Pats out of a fourth-quarter hole.
If nothing else — and there is so much else to consider in this encounter — one shouldn’t be surprised if Gillette Stadium becomes a stage to the kind of compelling football theatre witnessed last weekend.
As already noted, neither New England nor Indianapolis can be discounted if it falls behind — however wide the margin. Of course, that said, either rarely finds itself trailing by much. Eleven of the Patriots‘ 16 regular-season games, including their four losses, were decided by a touchdown or less. Meanwhile, the Colts have won five consecutive one-possession contests and are an astounding 15-2 in such games with Luck on their side.
Success for both emanates from the top and radiates from their biggest stars.
If the Pats win their fourth Super Bowl title, Bill Belichick (18) will pass Don Shula (19) and Tom Landry (20) to become the winningest coach in NFL postseason history. Considering the numerous injuries afflicting them, if the Patriots do so, they’ll settle the question — if they haven’t already: is this the best coaching job of Belichick’s brilliant career?
Meanwhile, Chuck Pagano has only been a head coach for two seasons. But in that brief period, he’s waged a personal battle against Leukemia, while helping to manage more than 140 players on Indy’s active roster well enough to win 23 games.
Reflective of the coaching counterparts, no one committed fewer penalties in 2013 than the Colts (66) and Patriots (69), who also had a combined plus-22 turnover differential.
Belichick and Pagano also enjoy the luxury of coaching one of the game’s all-time great quarterbacks and another seemingly well on his way to such lofty heights in Brady and Luck, respectively. As much as anything, both QB’s appear to elevate their teammates’ level of performance.
With so much of what’s so important in common, little seems to separate them heading into Saturday’s showdown. That doesn’t mean, however, there aren’t difference makers. An obvious example of one for Indianapolis is receiver T.Y. Hilton. His 13 catches for 224 yards included the game-winning 64-yard reception last week vs. Kansas City.
Another Colt who immediately comes to mind on defense is Robert Mathis. After leading the NFL with a league-record 19.5 sacks, Mathis blindsided Alex Smith to force a third-quarter fumble on Saturday. In fact, since Mathis entered the league, no player has caused more fumbles.
Shutting off Hilton from Luck and protecting Brady from Mathis are clear objectives for the Patriots in a game expected to be played on a windy, rainy night. But the outcome will hinge on many other factors.
Following are a few to consider from a Patriots’ perspective:
Watching Indy’s comeback against Kansas City, we got a great look at Luck’s varied attributes and talents. At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, he’s big, strong and mobile. And, as evidenced by his game-winning strike to Hilton — one of three passes covering 30 yards or more vs. the Chiefs — he delivers the ball deep downfield.
Luck finished with 443 yards passing and 45 yards rushing. In addition to throwing for four touchdowns, he instinctively collected a fumble by teammate Donald Brown that careened off a lineman’s face mask and dived into the end zone. True, Luck got a fortunate bounce. But his reactions and actions demonstrated a lot of athleticism.
New England defenders are well aware of Luck’s maneuverability in the pocket, as well as his ability to escape it altogether. He often makes accurate throws after stepping up and pulling up, even going to his left. In some respects, Luck is a cross between two quarterbacks the Patriots faced this season, Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton.
“I think each guy kind of has his own strengths,” Belichick prefaced, before comparing and contrasting. “Roethlisberger is not really that dangerous to run for a lot of yardage, but he’s very hard to bring down and he extends plays in the pocket. Whereas a guy like Newton can gain a lot of yards if he gets some space. Luck is maybe somewhere in between.
“He’s certainly capable of making plays with his feet and gaining yardage, but he’s also very good at extending plays and sliding in the pocket or even getting out of the pocket and giving his receivers a chance to scramble and get open, uncovered. He does all those things. He uses all those tools.”
“Every time we play a quarterback that’s mobile, especially a quarterback like him that’s mobile (and) has a big arm, it’s key to myself and other guys in the deep part of the field (to) stay deep because the receivers, when he starts scrambling, they either go deep or they come back to him,” safety Devin McCourty explained. “We don’t want everyone up there worried about the short routes or worried about them running and one of their guys gets behind us and that’s just an easy play. He can just chuck the ball deep and that’s a touchdown. That will be key.
“Our (defensive) line really understands about trying to keep him in the pocket, but it’s hard. When you’ve got a guy that’s good like that, he might escape the pocket a couple times, and when he does we’re going to have to get our receivers [and] match their routes and plaster to them. Just stay on them and let whoever is free go get (Luck) and try to get him on the ground.”
When Pagano was hired by Indianapolis after serving as defensive coordinator for Baltimore in 2011, he chose Greg Manusky to oversee the Colts’ defense. Interestingly, Pagano’s brother, John, had replaced Manusky in that same role for San Diego in 2012.
Long a 4-3 defense, Indianapolis altered its scheme by becoming what Pagano calls a “hybrid” 3-4. The shift was made, among other reasons according to Pagano, to allow more flexibility with the Colts’ front seven and limit both an opponent’s passing and rushing attacks.
“It’s difficult offensively if you’ve got to sit there and try to block up your run game against three or four different looks,” Pagano told Indianapolis reporters last year. “I think you start whittling things down and paring down because you just don’t have the time to prepare for it.”
“They have a good balance of attacking the offense with their multiple coverages, multiple type blitzers – linebacker blitzes, secondary blitzes, zone coverages, man coverages,” Belichick said earlier this week. “They mix it up and do a good job keeping the offense off balance. They don’t just sit in one thing.”
“I think what they do defensively (is) they spin the wheel, so to speak,” added New England running back Shane Vereen. “They do a lot of different things. You’re never really too sure about what you’re going to get. They do it well, and they play fast up front.”
Still, the Colts allowed 513 yards to Kansas City last Saturday, including 150 on the ground. This, despite an opening-series injury to the Chiefs’ primary offensive weapon Jamaal Charles, who totaled nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 2013.
Granted, a third of Kansas City’s 150 rushing yards were gained by quarterback Alex Smith — he averaged 7.1 yards per carry while his teammates netted 3.8 yards an attempt. Nonetheless, it’s widely presumed that the Patriots will lean heavily on the running tandem of LeGarrette Blount and Steven Ridley, who served them so well late in the regular season. Especially in a Week 17 downpour vs. Buffalo.
It’s also been well documented this week that half of Smith’s 30 completions were to Chiefs out of the backfield, underscoring — on the surface, at least — the importance of the Pats’ Vereen. His 47 receptions in the regular season included three touchdowns. And lest one forget — certainly Pagano has not — even Brandon Bolden (21 receptions) is a threat in this regard.
“It’s a heck of a challenge; what LeGarrette is doing and Ridley, and certainly with Shane coming in, and Bolden is no slouch,” Pagano said on Wednesday. “I mean, they’ve got a stable of guys that are all more than capable
“LeGarrette is a big, strong, physical, downhill runner. If you don’t tackle this guy and you don’t get a number of hats on him, he’s always getting positive yards, he’s always falling forward. He breaks a ton of tackles, he’s got a lot of yards after contact, and Ridley is the same way. He’s strong and can make the jump cut, (has) good vision, all those things. Then a guy like Shane Vereen comes in and he’s so dynamic. It’s almost (like) Marshall Faulk and Kevin Faulk…splitting them out in empty (formations) and throwing them deep balls and throwing them the screen game, it’s going to be a huge challenge for us.”
With five regular-season road wins, including an early-season visit to San Francisco and more recent trip to Kansas City, these Colts have prospered outside of their uncovered Lucas Oil Stadium.
New England receiver Austin Collie, who made 42 of his 49 career appearances with Indianapolis, didn’t just downplay any notion that the Colts might struggle in the elements; he dismissed it.
“They’re a great football team. They’re professionals,” Collie said. “This isn’t Pop Warner, where you’re going to have something like that throw the wrench into your whole season because you’re playing outside. These guys have played in the cold before. We all know how to play in the cold.
“That’s what we expect of them coming in, playing their best football whether it’s rain or shine, indoors or outdoors.”
By January standards in these parts, it won’t even be that cold as night falls on Gillette. However, it’s expected to be rainy and windy. And while Indy features the Hall-of-Fame-caliber-clutch place kicker Adam Vinatieri, one wonders about two other areas of its special teams.
This year five different Colts returned punts. Meanwhile, LaVon Brazill was employed for the first time as a kick returner in last week’s Wild Card game. Indy’s most frequently-used kick returners in 2013 were David Reed (released) and Chris Rainey (injured reserve).
Considering that the reliable Julian Edelman mishandled a water-logged punt vs. Buffalo, one wonders how Brazill (11 career returns) et al will be affected, if at all, trying to field a slippery football.
Finally, Indianapolis punter Pat McAfee started the week in the eye of a storm after Tweeting out a locker-room photo from last Saturday, almost fully exposing Luck. Thankfully, not all of the naked quarterback, who was dressing in the background, was visible in the picture.
Neither McAfee’s Tweet nor the fine it incurred from the Colts will have any bearing — or baring, as it were — on this game. But here’s something that might: though McAfee is a strong-legged punter with a penchant for pinning opponents deep in their own end, he’s also had a kick blocked each of the last three years.
In a game like this, between teams so seemingly evenly matched, any bobble or false step could make all the difference.
Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.