BOSTON (CBS) — There were at least a couple of empty seats on the Indianapolis Colts charter east Saturday. According to numerous reports, neither highly-paid and greatly-disappointing running back Trent Richardson nor near-anonymous backup tackle Xavier Nixon made the trip for tonight’s AFC Championship game in Foxborough.
Both were inactive for last week’s Divisional playoff win at Denver and, therefore, weren’t expected to play much of a role, if any, with a Super Bowl berth on the line under Gillette Stadium’s lights.
Still, these latest in the chain of potentially-distracting personnel issues, including the arrest of reserve linebacker Josh McNary early last week, don’t exactly contribute to the healthiest of mindsets for teammates trying to reverse recent ill fortunes opposite the Patriots.
Engaging for the fourth time since 2012, New England has outscored Indianapolis, 144-66, in their last three encounters.
In doing so, the Pats rushed for nearly 600 yards, including 367, as well as eight touchdowns, from LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray since last January. And though the exceptionally-talented and extremely-bright young quarterback Andrew Luck has thrown for 300-plus yards in all three series starts, he’s also been intercepted eight times.
Yet, all week long New England head coach Bill Belichick cautioned that the Pats-Colts past — even as recent as Week 11’s 42-20 outcome in Indy — are irrelevant. His voice has also reverberated through the words of Patriots players, who, undoubtedly, were subjected to Belichick’s blunt, in-no-uncertain-terms message the past six days.
Thus, to a man, the Pats noted the improvement of and additions to the Colts since seeing them in late November and professed the need to play their “best game of the year” to prevail.
What isn’t unnoticed here since Week 11 are the return of defensive tackle Arthur Jones, increased role for safety LaRon Landry or postseason emergence of linebacker Jonathan Newsome on defense. Or the presence of a healthier Dwayne Allen to complement fellow tight end Coby Fleener (144 yards receiving vs. New England in the regular season), recent reliability of running back Dan Herron (18 playoff catches) and new-found continuity along Indy’s offensive line (10 different combinations in the regular season).
Or, while we’re at it, the fact that the Colts were as close as 28-20 early in the fourth quarter of their last loss to the Patriots and enter tonight with confidence gained by beating the Broncos as they did — allowing just one touchdown — regardless of Denver’s state of being.
Factor in a sense, perhaps, that they’ll be looking to defeat the Patriots and oddsmakers with ‘house money’ and considering the right of arm of Luck, the Colts gotta’ believe they have a ‘puncher’s chance’ to upend the powerful Pats.
All that said, or written as it were, New England can’t ask for a better opportunity. The Patriots are a win away from their eighth Super Bowl and sixth led by Tom Brady under Belichick. They are home, where last Saturday’s thrilling 35-31 win over the Ravens was the team’s 100th victory overall at Gillette. And they are paired with an opponent they’ve dominated.
Yet, the Pats must think like they talk: they have to be prepared to be at their best to avoid the worst. That includes being be mindful of variables both obvious and otherwise.
Among them is the same element of surprise New England sprung on Baltimore in the Divisional round, with its double pass (Julian Edelman to Danny Amendola) and use of an ineligible Shane Vereen.
To kick things off, the Colts are 3-for-3 this season in on-sides attempts and haven’t been afraid to execute them early. For example, they pulled one off after their first possession resulted in a field goal during an October win over Houston.
One Patriot who likely stands guard against such a tactic is special teamer Jonathan Casillas. He was instrumental in helping the Saints ‘ambush’ the same Colts franchise with an on-sides recovery to open the second half of Super Bowl XLIV. Casillas dived into the scrum to keep Indy receiver Hank Baskett from controlling a kick eventually recovered by New Orleans’ Chris Reis.
As bad memory serves, before playing in their first Super Bowl (XLI) representing Indianapolis, the Colts beat the Pats in part with a touchdown pass to Dan Klecko, a defensive tackle lined up on offense. Earlier this season vs. New England, it was offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo who caught a TD throw from Luck.
And lest we forget, Indianapolis also scored in that 2006 AFC Championship when center Jeff Saturday recovered a fumble in the end zone, or that Luck collected a loose ball and dived across the goal line in the Colts’ come-from-behind 2013 Wild Card triumph over Kansas City.
In 2014 only Philadelphia recovered more fumbles (16) than Indianapolis (14). While the Patriots lost only four fumbles in the regular season, they were fortunate to retain two (Amendola and Edelman) and had another (Vereen) overturned by replay in last weekend’s win.
Maybe we will, perhaps we won’t see any trick plays, unorthodox formations or fortuitous bounces in this next engagement of the Pats and Colts.
But as the more complete team all season — as in each of the previous two — by guarding against all of the above, the Patriots stand an even better chance of lifting the Lamar Hunt Trophy as AFC Champions by night’s end.
And sending their visitors back to Indianapolis, empty-seated and empty-handed.
Bob Socci is the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.