FOXBORO (CBS) — The Patriots and the Colts had a nice little rivalry going there for a while. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning would go tit for tat, and there was a mutual respect between the two.
But that is sort of where the rivalry ended. Because the Patriots always beat the Colts, and for it to be a rivalry, the Colts would have had to win their share of games. Indianapolis did get a big win over New England in the 2006 AFC Championship Game, but it has been mostly New England on the victorious end. Especially over the last decade-plus.
The Colts have not won a game over the Patriots since 2009, when Bill Belichick famously went for it on fourth-and-2 at their own 28-yard line. We don’t need to revisit that play, because we’re trying to keep things upbeat and positive this holiday season.
At least from a New England standpoint that is. Because there really isn’t anything upbeat and positive for the Colts when it comes to facing the Patriots. New England has usually throttled them, no matter the inflation level of the footballs involved.
This year though, the playing field is a little more even. At least it seems that way heading into Saturday night’s primetime matchup.
The Patriots have won seven straight and are still an imposing opponent for Indy, but the Colts have been pretty good too. After starting the season 1-4, they’ve won six of their last eight games and four of their last five. They tout an elite run game with Jonathan Taylor picking up ridiculous amounts of yards behind a stellar offensive line. Carson Wentz seems to be comfortable in a new setting with 22 touchdowns and just five interceptions. And Indy has a capable coach on the sideline in Frank Reich.
Will that be enough to get the best of Bill Belichick, Mac Jones and New England’s elite defense? We shall find out on Saturday night. Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the two teams kick off at Lucas Oil Stadium.
First Quarter Points
Since turning their season around, the Colts have been really good at jumping out to early leads. Of their last five opponents, the only team to score a touchdown against Indy in the first quarter has been — somehow, miraculously — the New York Jets with Mike White at quarterback. Indy has outscored their opposition 48-13 in the first quarter over that stretch.
The Patriots used to have issues to start games, but that has gone out the window during their win streak. The Pats have scored 46 first-quarter points during the winning streak, scoring at least one touchdown in five of those contests. The only opponent to shut them out in the first quarter during the streak was the Carolina Panthers. New England also settled for just a field goal on Thursday Night Football against the Atlanta Falcons. Weird.
Both teams are coming off their bye week, so they may be a tad bit rusty when this one kicks off. But the Colts will try to get Taylor going early, and the Pats will try to do the same with Rhamondre Stevenson. New England is now shorthanded in the backfield with Damien Harris ruled out on Friday, but they’re going to try to establish the run as much as they can.
The defensive game plan on both sides will be to stop the run, which will greatly improve their chances of taking the ball from each other.
Winning The Turnover Battle
The Colts want to make Mac beat them, which they advertised earlier this week. The Patriots are probably thinking along those same lines, hoping to shut down Taylor and make Wentz beat them. Doing so greatly increases both team’s odds at adding to their turnover totals this season.
The Colts are the No. 1 team in the NFL when it comes to generating turnovers, with 29 takeaways this season. The Patriots sit at No. 3 with 26.
The Patriots are mostly doing it by picking passes out of the air, with JC Jackson leading the way with seven. The Colts are doing a little bit of everything. They have recovered all 14 fumbles that they’ve forced, and those 14 recoveries lead the NFL. Some simple arithmetic tells us they have 15 interceptions on the season, which is fifth in the NFL.
As is usually the case, this game will likely go to whomever wins the turnover battle. We may seen a handful of them on Saturday night.
So the Colts want Mac Jones to beat them. Chances are he will be throwing more than three passes this weekend when the Patriots get to live the dome life in Indy. Especially without the services of his leading running back.
And while Mac hasn’t really lit up the scoreboard consistently this season, he threw for a career-best 310 yards three weeks ago against the Titans. He can throw the ball, and when he does, he usually hits his targets.
Mac has completed over 70 percent of his passes in eight of his first 13 games, and can tie Dak Prescott’s rookie record of nine such games this week if he does it again. The NFL record for a non-rookie is held by Drew Brees, who completed over 70 percent of his passes in 13 games in 2017.
The Pats and their rookie QB have also been pretty good on the road, sporting a perfect 6-0 record away from Gillete Stadium. (Just throwing in that the Colts are 3-4 at home this season.) With a win on Saturday. Mac will become the first rookie quarterback to win his first seven road games.
So the Colts should be careful what they wish for.
Getting Jonnu And Hunter Involved
The Colts have struggled mightily against tight ends this season. They can’t seem to stop the big guys when they get going over the middle of the field. Tight ends have caught 83 passes for 874 yards (good for 10.53 yards per catch) and six touchdowns against the Colts. Of those 83 catches, 13 have gone for 20 or more yards.
Ravens tight ends torched the Colts for 160 yards and two touchdowns off 13 receptions in Week 5 (both scores and 147 of those yards were from Mark Anderson) while Rob Gronkowski (seven receptions, 123 yards) and Cameron Brate (three for 23 yards) had their way with them in a Week 12 loss. The Colts lost both of those games.
It would be in New England’s best interest to have their big guys get involved on Saturday. Hunter Henry has been touchdown or bust this season, while Jonnu Smith has just been a bust. This weekend is a good time for both of them to break out in a big way in the passing game.
And if Henry does find the end zone, he’ll probably be hanging on to that football. It would make a nice souvenir for his new baby.
Tune in to Saturday’s Patriots-Colts game on WBZ-TV! Coverage begins at 7:30pm with Patriots GameDay on TV38, kickoff is set for just after 8pm on WBZ-TV, and after the game stick around for full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!