BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots come out of their bye week to enter what is, on paper, the toughest part of their schedule this season.
The Patriots will face a quartet of playoff teams over the next month, beginning Sunday night in Indianapolis against the 6-3 Colts. The stretch will feature a few of the best quarterbacks in the game, starting with Andrew Luck on Sunday, and will be the biggest test the new-look New England defense will face.
Here’s what to watch for Sunday night when the Patriots square off against the Colts:
Gronk Is Going To Have A Big Night
On most Sundays it’s a pretty safe bet that Rob Gronkowski is going to have a big game. When he’s healthy, we know he’s not really a man but more of some kind of superhuman whose only weaknesses are the occasional low hit, blocking on special teams and dance music. So there is little doubt that Indianapolis’ defense, with all their deficiencies over the middle, doesn’t stand a chance against Gronk come Sunday evening.
A matchup with Gronkowski and Indy’s poor passing defense is a perfect storm for the Patriots, as even some of the more human tight ends have been tearing the Colts apart this year. Tight ends have been targeted 68 times against the Colts this season, and have 45 receptions for 552 yards and six touchdowns.
In Week 1 it was Denver’s Julius Thomas, the closest there is to matching Gronk’s super human-ness on the stat sheet. He racked up 104 yards and three touchdowns on seven catches. More recently, Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller caught seven Ben Roethlisberger passes for 112 yards and a touchdown.
Great quarterbacks with great tight ends have been having a field day against the Colts, and Tom Brady and Gronk should keep that trend going Sunday night. The Colts can gameplan for Gronk all they want, but really all that has kept him from delivering a vicious spike or two on a Sunday over the last month has been New England’s bye week (and a Thursday night game).
Let’s just hope he’s on the sidelines when the Patriots kick their extra points.
Luck Will Work His Magic, But Expect A Turnover Or Two
There is no denying that Andrew Luck is one of the great quarterbacks in the game today, and at some point, he will likely take over that top spot that’s now held by Tom Brady and/or Peyton Manning.
He’s putting up some ridiculous numbers every week, tossing for 300+ yards in all but one of his nine games so far this season, and has thrown three or more touchdowns in six of those games. Luck is the Colts’ offense, and they’re a very good offense because of that.
But he’s also still a young quarterback, and with nearly all young quarterbacks, turnovers are an issue. He’s thrown nine interceptions this season and has a pair of fumbles as well. In Indy’s last loss, a 51-34 drubbing by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Luck was picked off for a touchdown early in the game, and was flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone leading to a safety. That penalty came early in the fourth quarter after the Colts had cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 42-34, and not only did it lead to two points for the Steelers, but Roethlisberger threw his sixth touchdown of the game on the very next possession to put the game out of reach.
So Luck will certainly pick up his yards and will likely throw a touchdown or two, maybe even taking one in with his legs. But with the Patriots defense playing at such a high level right now (at least we hope, coming out of their week off), expect Luck to make a mistake or two as well that could cost his team in the end.
Bradshaw Poses A Threat In Passing Game
It’s incredible to see what Bradshaw is doing out of the backfield for the Colts, especially when you remember that they traded a first round pick for Trent Richardson just 14 months ago. While Richardson has been a big bust since being drafted third overall by Cleveland in 2012, Ahmad Bradshaw has been making an impact in his first few months in Indianapolis.
The Colts are not a great rushing team, but Bradshaw gives Luck a solid pass-catcher out of the backfield. Luck buys himself some extra time with his mobility, and Bradshaw has been reaping the benefits. He has six receiving touchdowns this season, and is always a threat to break a 20-yard catch-and-run. The Colts are a big play team to begin with, and Bradshaw gives them another weapon that the Patriots could easily lose sight of given Indy’s threats downfield in TY Hilton and Reggie Wayne.
The Patriots run defense is vulnerable, but don’t expect the Colts to take advantage of that. They want Luck to control the game, and having Bradshaw catching passes out of the backfield has been a big part of the QB’s success.
Kicker vs. Kicker
Forget Brady vs. Luck. Yep, we’re talking about kickers.
But we’re talking about one who may go down as the greatest kicker of all time, and one who could challenge that man for the title at some point, so there is some significance on Sunday.
Adam Vinatieri may be a soon-to-be 42-year-old, but he’s still making every kick the Colts have asked him to, going a perfect 20-for-20 this season on his attempts. Bill Belichick, the man who let him walk away after the 2005 season, talked about Vinatieri and his success at great length earlier this week, and doesn’t see an end in sight for No. 4.
The guy the Patriots chose to replace Vinatieri is pretty good too. Stephen Gostkowski is 24-for-25 this season, his lone miss coming a month ago in Buffalo.
Believe it or not, in a game that features two very talented offenses, it could be their kickers who decide this one in the end.
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