By Gregory Hunt
For the fourth consecutive year and the ninth time in quarterback Tom Brady's career, the New England Patriots will play in the AFC Championship Game when they face the Indianapolis Colts Sunday at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots are coming off a 35-31 comeback win in Foxboro over the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional round, while the Indianapolis Colts advanced by going to Colorado and upsetting the Denver Broncos 24-13.
New England came into the AFC playoffs as the #1 seed after winning the AFC East with a 12-4 record, three games over the second-place Buffalo Bills. Indianapolis earned the #4 seed after winning the AFC South with an 11-5 record, one-half game over the second-place Cincinnati Bengals.
The teams met in Week 11 of the regular season at Lucas Oil Stadium, with the Patriots coming away with a 42-20 victory. Their most-recent postseason meeting was at Gillette Stadium for an AFC Divisional Playoff game on January 11, 2014, won by the Patriots 43-22. The Colts trail the all-time series 28-46 in the regular season and 1-3 in the playoffs. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has led Indianapolis to the playoffs in each of his three seasons in the league, but he is 0-3 all-time against Brady and the Patriots.
The rivalry goes back to 1970, when the AFL Boston Patriots and the NFL Baltimore Colts were placed in the AFC East as a part of the AFL/NFL merger. The Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984 and they joined the AFC South in 2002.
Colts On Offense
Luck, a Stanford product taken #1 overall by the Colts in the 2012 NFL Draft, established himself as an elite quarterback in the league from the moment he first stepped on an NFL field. In his first season as a pro, he engineered five game-winning drives and passed for a rookie-record 4,183 yards. This season, he established career highs by throwing for 40 touchdown passes and earning a 96.5 passer rating. Although he didn't look very impressive in November's meeting with the Patriots, Luck believes he's improved as a quarterback since that loss.
"I'd like to think I'm a better quarterback and we're a better team and more well-equipped to handle the unknown and the unforeseen," said Luck after Sunday's win over Denver. "I think we've got a bunch of good football players, and a chance to go up to New England and play them and get another crack at it is awesome."
Luck's most dangerous receiver is T.Y. Hilton, who caught 82 passes for 1,345 yards in the regular season, but in Indy's two playoff games he has caught fewer than half his targets. He caught only four passes against Denver, but he did average an impressive 18 yards per catch on those plays. Indy's running game is questionable, as leading running back Trent Richardson was a healthy scratch against Denver and his replacement Dan Herron averaged only 2.7 yards on 23 carries in that game.
Colts On Defense
The Indianapolis defense made only 12 interceptions during the regular season (including two by former Patriots cornerback Darius Butler), but it was third in the league in forced fumbles with 21. The team doesn't have a standout pass rusher — rookie linebacker Jonathan Newsome led the team in sacks with only 6.5 — but thanks to an effective package of blitzes installed by Indianapolis defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, the team tied for 9th in the league in sacks with 41. The Colts also sacked Denver's Peyton Manning twice, and they sacked Cincinnati's Andy Dalton three times in a 26-10 win over the Bengals in the Wild Card round.
In the Week 11 loss to New England, Indianapolis gave up 503 yards of offense to the Patriots, including 201 yards rushing by New England running back Jonas Gray.
It's difficult to see how the Colts will manage to beat the Patriots in this game, but few people gave Indianapolis a chance against Denver last week. Assuming the Patriots can keep Luck from connecting with Hilton too often, the game may come down to the play of New England's offensive line, which struggled against Baltimore after center Bryan Stork left the game with a knee injury. New England overcame that problem by running some unique four-lineman formations against the Ravens, but the Patriots won't have that element of surprise against the Colts. The status of Stork for the AFC Championship Game remains unclear.
For more Patriots news and updates, visit Patriots Central.
Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He's also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women's college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.
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