BOSTON (CBS) — In what has become an almost absurdly common occurrence, the New England Patriots will host a home playoff game on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium when Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts come to town.
For the Patriots, it’ll be their 15th home playoff game in the Bill Belichick era and their seventh since 2009. Their overall record in those games is 11-3, but they’re 3-3 since ’09, twice losing their only playoff game (Ravens in ’09, Jets in ’10).
For the Colts, it’ll be a return to the place where they were walloped last season to the tune of a 59-24 score. But those were very different teams from the ones that will play Saturday night, and that whooping has already been long forgotten by the Colts.
What should take place this time around is a hard-fought battle between two solid teams. Here’s what to watch for when the ball is finally kicked Saturday night.
Turnovers are a major reason why the Patriots lost those three home playoff games in recent years. They turned the ball over four times against Baltimore in ’09, Tom Brady broke a stretch of 300-plus passes without an interception in ’10 against the Jets, and they lost the turnover battle 3-0 last year against Baltimore.
It’s obvious that ill-timed turnovers can completely turn the momentum in a game, and for New England, the challenge is doubly difficult this weekend. For one, there’s a 100 percent chance of rain on the forecast for Saturday night. The Patriots played in heavy rain in Week 17, and they fumbled the ball four times. Amazingly, none were recovered by the opposition, which is more a result of good fortune than anything else. They may not be so lucky should they put the ball on the ground this time.
Second, the Colts own an excellent turnover ratio of plus-13, which was good enough for the third-best such mark in the NFL. However, that excellent ratio didn’t matter much last weekend, when the Colts had four turnovers compared to the Chiefs’ one. Also, the Patriots’ plus-9 ratio was solid as well, good enough for ninth-best in the league, so both teams will have to pay extra attention to holding on for dear life every time that football is in their hands. It could very well decide the game.
Carving Time For Brady?
Tom Brady, despite some fools’ opinions, is an outstanding quarterback. In fact, he’s one of the best ever.
Alex Smith, on the other hand, is neither of those things. He’s averaged 6.6 yards per attempt over his career and his biggest trait is that he doesn’t make a lot of stupid mistakes. Yet last week against the Colts, he looked like a Hall of Famer, throwing for 378 yards, four touchdowns and no picks. He averaged 8.22 yards per attempt, which shows just how much better he performed vs. Indy than he has for nearly the entirety of his eight-year career.
Now, Brady gets to go up against that same pass defense … and he has to be licking his chops.
The Colts’ pass defense ranked in the middle of the pack in the regular season, but if last weekend was any indication (here’s one play that really stood out), Brady could have himself a field day, so long as his offensive line can contain Robert Mathis, who recorded 19.5 sacks in the regular season and had one against the Chiefs last week.
Though Brady won’t have an outside threat in Aaron Dobson, who’s out with a foot injury, but Brady hasn’t needed the rookie to have some of his better passing games this season.
How Will Colts Attack?
While the Pats may have their opportunities with the ball, an intriguing unknown heading into the game is how the Colts will choose to attack the Patriots’ defense. It stands to reason that they’ll want to lean heavily on Luck and receiver T.Y. Hilton, who hooked up 13 times last weekend for 224 yards and two touchdowns. The Pats’ 23rd-ranked passing defense may struggle to limit Hilton, or it may leave itself vulnerable if it focuses all of its attention on Hilton.
Then there is the opportunity to run the ball. Brandon Spikes’ being placed on injured reserve on Monday took away the Patriots’ best run stopper, and with Vince Wilfork long gone, the Colts will have some chances to run the ball if they so choose. Doing so could dictate the pace of the game, as it’s never a pleasant sight in New England when the TV cameras show Tom Brady sitting on the sidelines while the opponent holds the ball on long, sustained drives.
Blount The Bowling Ball
The Colts may have T.Y. Hilton, but the Patriots have an unstoppable force of their own. His name is LeGarrette Blount, and he’s peaking at the perfect time.
The fourth-year running back was having a pretty quiet season, rushing for 507 yards and three touchdowns on 113 carries through Week 15, an average of 4.5 yards per carry and 36 yards per game. But he awoke in Week 16 with 76 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries, and he exploded for 189 rushing yards and another pair of touchdowns on 24 carries in Week 17 against the Bills.
Blount was, quite simply, a force in his last two games, and he occasionally looks like a man who cannot be tackled by fewer than four defenders. When you take into account the Colts’ 26th-ranked rushing defense, you might start to think this game could turn into The LeGarrette Blount Show.
For any members of the Colts defense who aren’t big fans of being in a great deal of pain, that would be very bad news.