Despite coming into last season's matchup 0-11, the Colts played well against the then 8-3 Pats, although their season was seemingly over. The Colts rallied in the 4th quarter to come back, but the Patriots held on due to Tom Brady's near-perfect game (289 yards passing, 2 TDs) for a 31-24 victory.
Most know this rivalry between these squads due to the history between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but the subtraction of #18 and the addition of Andrew Luck have reignited this scenario. While last year's game was settled by a mere touchdown, I expect the Patriots offense to once again come up strong and land a deafening blow on the upstart Colts. The projections show a 33-21 beatdown by the home team, and I think the Pats should better that predicted outcome.
Many analysts thought the young Indy would struggle to win games, much less reach .500. Past the midpoint of the NFL season, however, the Colts are in prime position to make the playoffs as a wild card. Indy has won their last four games, which coincidentally have been the turning point in rookie quarterback Luck's season. Luck has accounted for 7 total touchdowns in those four victories while leading lengthy, time-killing drives.
With the exception of last Thursday's victory at Jacksonville, the Colts have won close games, including Luck's first overtime victory that came against Tennessee. The arrow is definitely pointing up for this Stanford grad, and I predict he'll have a great showing against this exceptionally bad pass defense. During the games which simulated Indy victories, Luck upped his totals in every category, including raising his touchdown passes average to over 2.
There hasn't been one individual player who's benefited more from the arrival of Luck than wide receiver Reggie Wayne. Wayne ranks first in the NFL in receptions (69) and has accumulated over 900 yards already, comparable stats to those when he played with Manning. While he hasn't found the red zone as often as fantasy owners would like (just 3 TDs), It will be interesting to see how new CB Aqib Talib plays and whether he'll cover Wayne.
Although he's new to the system, perhaps his talent makes him their first option. The addition of Aqib Talib now allows CB Devin McCourty to solely play FS, thus letting Belichick put his best defense on the field at all times. Outside of Wayne, the Colts have experience a merry-go-round of options for Luck to pass to. WR Donnie Avery has been a pleasant surprise given his previous washouts on multiple teams, but rookie WR TY Hilton and rookie TEs Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen are still developing but represent solid contributors.
A major challenge for the Colts offense will be containing the Patriots pass rush, which has adopted more 4-3 looks as opposed to their old 3-4 base defense. DEs Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones have been stellar this season, combining for 11 sacks already. While the Colts offense line has been solid despite their overall talent level, I question whether they will be able to contain the Pats pass-rush and keep Luck in the pocket.
Unfortunately for the Colts, they have had one major flaw this season on offense: the run game. Plagued by injuries and inconsistencies, Indianapolis has yet to identify a lead back and sustain a constant running threat. Their two primary backs have combined for less than 800 yards on the season with just one touchdown. Neither possess game changing qualities, and the Patriots have a top-10 run defense (this statistic is biased; they have a horrendous pass defense).
Luckily for the Colts, the weakness of the Patriots team lies in their pass defense. The Pats rank 29 in passing defense, allowing over 285 yards a game and a 97.3 quarterback rating to opposing signal-callers. Minutes before the trading deadline, the head coach and general manager traded for former Buccaneers and first-round pick Aqib Talib, who is expected to play and make his debut for New England. Fantasy owners and Colts fans hope that Luck can improve on Buffalo Bills starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, who recently torched the same New England secondary for 337 yards and 2 TDs.
This has been a rebuilding year for both sides of the ball for Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson, and his defensive unit will have a dangerous test against Brady and company. Behind the mastermind Belichick, the Pats have the league's number one unit in yards (5th in running, 7th in passing). Brady has already passed for more than 2600 yards and has an insane touchdown to interception ratio of 18:3. If in a shootout, expect Brady to put up some monster numbers with little turnovers. However, if the Pats pull away by the third quarter, expect plenty of runs and time-killing drives.
Brady has done a great job of spreading the wealth this season, as WR Wes Welker and TE Rob Gronkowski continue to catch their usual numbers. TE Aaron Hernandez has been hurt for the majority of this season, but the injury report lists him as questionable and likely to play. While many expected huge numbers from WR Brandon Lloyd on the onset of the season, he hasn't produced like many fantasy owners had hoped (given his success in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel's previous teams), but he's still recorded 42 receptions and could end up with 1,000 yards receiving if he improves on his catch rate (75 targets, second on the team).
Given Welker's post Week 1 resurgence (just 14 yards) and also the Colts' liability in pass coverage from their OLBs (former defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis), I imagine him having a strong output, perhaps reaching double-digit receptions and clearing 100 yards receiving.
The Patriots run game has been a pleasant surprise. Stevan Ridley has quietly become one of the best backs in the league. He's currently fifth in the league in rushing with 814 yards and has averaged over 90 a game. This consistency has been lacking in the Patriots offense as they became too reliant on the pass from 2007-2011. Ridley's emergence has forced teams to play less nickel and dime formations, thus allowing bigger throwing lanes for Brady and his receivers to get open. The Colts rank in the bottom third of the league in yards rushing; Ridley should be able to easily reach the 100-yard mark and add a touchdown or two.
While the Colts have shown heart (the loss of their head coach Chuck Pagano) and improvement, I question whether they will be able to stay in this game. Even if they lose, they will still be in playoff contention and perhaps a bad loss on the road to a perennial AFC power would do them good. I like this Colts team for the future, but this game is played now: Patriots 38, Colts 21.