Playoff Primer: Colts @ Patriots

luck run2

Everything the New England Patriots accomplished this season needs to be viewed through the prism of crippling injuries. I suppose this is the place where I should put the generic disclaimer that varying degrees of destructive injuries are a reality of NFL life for all teams. But before the season even began, the Patriots took it to a different level.

They won 12 games to take the AFC East (their fifth straight division title, and fourth straight year with 12 or more wins), and they did it with Tom Brady’s top five receivers from last season either gone, or they missed significant time. Rob Gronkowski appeared in only seven games before tearing his ACL, and a year ago he caught 11 of Brady’s 34 touchdown passes despite also missing time. When Gronk’s missed time is combined with absences from Shane Vereen, Danny Amendola, and even rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, the number we arrive at is 26 man games lost from just those primary offensive contributors.

And that’s only the offensive side of the ball. With Brady’s targets now reasonably healthy — Gronk is the glaring exception — defensive breaking is far more concerning. Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork are long gone due to season-ending injuries, and to the surprise of no one that’s given the Pats one of the league’s worst run defenses (see below for the sorry tale). Any effort to stop guys who run with footballs was further damaged when Brandon Spikes was placed on the injured reserve last week, and although Aqib Talib was a shutdown corner for a time earlier this year and he’s one of the very few to conquer Jimmy Graham, he hasn’t been at all the same since suffering a hip injury.

Yet despite all of that, the great Belichick/Brady march of 2013 (now 2014) has soldiered on, as it always does. Of those 12 regular-season wins, seven of them came by a field goal or less, and five of those required game-winning drives from Brady. Show ponies, something something.

It’s a damn shame that if they can’t find a solution for T.Y. Hilton tonight, and if they allow Donald Brown or even Trent Richardson to do some trucking, there’s a very real chance the Colts could pull off the upset following Andrew Luck’s 28-point comeback masterpiece a week ago. But the best defense for Hilton may be provided by our football overseers from high above. Assuming the forecast holds up, about a quarter inch of rain is expected to fall in Foxborough tonight, with wind gusts topping out at 22 MPH

Yet if Luck can still work is wizard powers on the road, that will be a painful outcome. Then the lowest forms of thought on the Internet will claim Brady isn’t clutch, which hurts my brain. To the numerical breakdown…

Patriots offense Colts offense
Total yards P/Game 384.5 (7th) 341.8 (15th)
Passing yards P/Game 255.4 (10th) 232.8 (17th)
Rushing yards P/Game 129.1 (9th) 108.9 (20th)
Patriots defense Colts defense
Total yards P/Game 373.1 (26th) 357.1 (20th)
Passing yards P/Game 239.0 (18th) 231.9 (13th)
Rushing yards P/Game 134.1 (30th) 125.1 (26th)

So we have a great Patriots offense considering the aforementioned bone breaking and muscle ripping, and a still pretty alright Colts offense that’s just now starting to adjust to life without Reggie Wayne. Then there’s two defenses with varying degrees of overall horribleness or at least averageness, but one that’s much less so due to the presence of Robert Mathis and his 19.5 sacks.

The other number(s) that matter: Anchored by Logan Mankins, the Patriots’ offensive line generally kept Brady upright this year, allowing a mid-pack-ish 40 sacks (12th). But now Mathis looms, and he had only four games when he didn’t register a sack, while he also forced eight fumbles. Brady was sacked four or more times in four games, and in two of those games his completion percentage dropped below 50.0, to 47.4 and 47.8, and his passer rating fell to 52.2 and 53.5.

But if Mathis’ destruction can be reasonably contained and Brady is given the time he needs and deserves, there will be blood. Despite the overall OK-ness of the Colts’ secondary, it’s a unit that gave up 378 passing yards to Alex Smith at a pace of 8.2 per attempt with four touchdowns. Smith’s season averages? Only 220.9 yards per game with 6.5 per attempt, and he had six games when he didn’t throw a single touchdown pass.

That’s why the Colts’ main chance to slow down Brady lies with Mathis, and doing it before he releases the ball. Even then Brady could still find time for significant chunks, as he did against the Browns in the exception to the games described above. Even while being pressured constantly and sacked four times, that Week 14 comeback win still featured three +30 yard passes, and that was against a defense which pays Joe Haden. The Colts have the far inferior Vontae Davis, and a hobbled LaRon Landry.

Godspeed on that.

The injuries that matter: Aside from the obviously still awful absence of Gronkowski, and all the defensive combusting, Dobson has been declared out. I’d say that further reduces the depth among the Patriots’ receiving options, and if I said that I wouldn’t be lying. But with Julian Edelman easily ready to slide in and continue to get targeted a whole bunch after 151 looks during the regular season (topping out at 19 in Week 15), Dobson won’t be missed much. Thompkins will slide in at the X receiver spot, and Vereen is used creatively and often split out wide.

For the Colts, Greg Toler’s season ended the moment his body couldn’t keep up with Donnie Avery last week, leaving an already weak Colts secondary to start Darius Butler opposite Davis. His highest start total in a season is only seven, though he recorded 15 passes defensed this year.

The difference maker: Last week I gave Donald Brown this prestigious honor, and he then went ahead to account for 102 total yards and two of the Colts’ six touchdowns. With Wilfork and Mayo spectators for some time and Spikes now joining them, Brown has an opportunity to be the same yard churner again this week as both a runner and an option in the flats for Luck, especially when he’s scrambling to escape pressure.

However, there’s another way to view at the Patriots’ overall crappy run defense. You can look at the very real collective average weekly thrashing shown by their 30th-ranked front seven, or we can note that the Pats allowed only three individual +100 yard rushers all season.

The matchup to watch: I took a more in-depth look at T.Y. Hilton vs. Aqib Talib earlier this week (if that is indeed how Talib lines up for most of the night), and I still think that if this game is won in shootout form by the Colts and their offense that’s scored 75 points over the last two weeks, it’ll be an effort which centers around Hilton. Of Luck’s 725 passing yards during that time, 379 of them (52.3 percent) have gone to Hilton. That includes two touchdowns last week, and a 64-yard completion.

The Patriots will win if… Mathis can’t get consistent pressure on Brady, and a running game that’s recorded 425 yards over just the last two weeks of the regular season (189 of which came from LeGarette Blount in Week 17) wins its battle with Jerrell Freeman, the Colts’ inside linebacker who has 271 tackles in only two seasons.

The Colts will win if… Hilton continues to get fed repeatedly and he’s not overly restricted by the weather. He can easily win the speed battle with Talib, or whoever attempts to stay with him on his deep middle routes that usually begin from a variety of slot formations. Hilton was targeted 18 times last week.

Fearless prediction you can maybe laugh at later (or now?): Patriots 30, Colts 24