The game of football is not played on paper or in a slideshow, but matchups often dictate the outcome of a game.
Of course, the better team oftentimes possess the advantage in several matchups, but a team doesn't have to be better in every area; it just has to be better in the right areas. Exposing the right matchups can lead to an inferior team pulling off an upset.
When the New England Patriots take on the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs, the matchups will mostly favor the Patriots. If the Colts can touch the right buttons, though, they could be the latest team to pull off a playoff upset in New England.
Here's a look at how the whole thing breaks down.
Tom Brady was sacked 40 times in 2013, the second most of his career. That said, he was only pressured on 32.6 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The Patriots did a much better job in pass protection toward the end of the season, though, allowing Brady to be sacked just four times in the final three games and pressured on 32.1 percent of his dropbacks in that time.
When it comes to rushing the passer, the Colts are a one-man show led by outside linebacker Robert Mathis. The former Pro Bowl 4-3 defensive end has transitioned almost seamlessly to the 3-4 outside linebacker spot and has logged 19.5 sacks this year, 14 more than anyone else on the team. Patriots left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Marcus Cannon will have their hands full, and their jobs will undeniably be the most important in pass protection, especially when lined up across from Mathis.
Neutralizing Mathis is a key, but it's easier said than done. He was held without a sack in just four games this year and was held without a pressure in just one game. If the Patriots can pull it off, though, they greatly improve their chances. Cory Redding, Ricardo Matthews and Fili Moala are the three anchors of the 3-4 defensive line, and none of them are overwhelming with their talent.
Specifically in the running game, the Patriots should have a sizable advantage. The Colts allow 4.5 yards per carry on the ground this year, ranked 25th in the NFL, whereas the Patriots' 4.4 YPA is the league's ninth-best average. The Patriots have run the ball even better down the stretch, averaging over 137 yards per game in the final eight games of the season. Much of that is thanks to a road-grading offensive line that has opened big holes for its running backs.
On paper, Tom Brady is having one of the worst seasons of his career. His 60.5 completion percentage is the lowest since 2003, and his 25 touchdowns are the fewest since 2006. He's also had to make do with with a cast of rookie receivers and injuries that have kept Shane Vereen and Rob Gronkowski out for much of the season.
The Colts defense sits right around the middle of the pack; it ranks seventh in fewest touchdown passes allowed, yielding 21 on the season, but with 7.4 yards per pass attempt and an 84.6 passer rating against, quarterbacks have found ways to be efficient. That being said, only four teams picked up over 300 passing yards against the Colts, and none of those teams earned a victory.
Cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Darius Butler have been up and down this year but have flashed the ability to play at a high level, specifically in shutting down the Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning in the Colts' biggest win of the season. Not to mention, former defensive coordinator of the Ravens current Colts head coach Chuck Pagano has picked up a lot of experience on how to slow down Brady over the years.
So why advantage: Patriots? If there's one area Brady excels, it's in finding favorable matchups. Whether it's Vereen on a linebacker, Danny Amendola on a team's third cornerback or any number of other possibilities, Brady's veteran savvy should be enough to get it done.
Led by LeGarrette Blount, the Patriots running game has really picked up steam in recent weeks. The Patriots averaged 137.5 rushing yards per game as a team over the final eight games of the season. The Patriots' 4.6 YPA average during that stretch was the sixth-best in the league.
Lately, Blount has been earning the majority of the workload (71 carries in the final five games of the season) while Stevan Ridley (43 carries in that stretch) has slowly recovered from fumblitis. The Colts have forced 18 fumbles as a team, but nine of those come from Mathis on sack fumbles. In theory, Ridley shouldn't have too much difficulty holding onto the ball.
Meanwhile, the Colts have been nearly as inept at stopping the run as the Patriots have been effective with the run. Mathis is known as a pass-rushing beast, but at 6'2" and 246 pounds, he's hardly an imposing presence when it comes to setting the edge in run defense.
The Colts' biggest problem in run defense has been their linebackers. Inside linebacker Pat Angerer struggled, but he's done for the year. Now, the burden falls on the likes of Kelvin Sheppard, Jerrell Freeman and undrafted rookie Josh McNary to pick up the slack. Given the relatively light defensive front, and their struggles to get off blocks, the Patriots offensive line should be able to get out to the second level to open up big holes for the Patriots backs.
Much has been made of the Colts' one-dimensional offensive attack centered around wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. The Patriots have their own one-man show on offense with receiver Julian Edelman, who has been the target on 24 percent of Brady's pass attempts this year and 39 percent in the final two games of the season.
Wide receiver Danny Amendola had an up-and-down first season with the Patriots, catching 10 passes in two games, six against the Panthers and no more than five in any other game this season. Between Edelman and Amendola, the Patriots have enough firepower in the slot and over the middle of the field to make life difficult for the Colts.
It's on the outside where they have some trouble; the health of rookie receivers Aaron Dobson (foot) and Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) will play a big role in how this matchup shapes up. Dobson, in particular, was just starting to catch stride (13 catches, 228 yards, three touchdowns in three games) before his injury.
Vontae Davis and Darius Butler were the two cornerbacks receiving the most playing time in the regular season and will likely be the top two corners on the field for the Colts with Greg Toler suffering a groin injury against the Chiefs.
The weak link, however, may be the safeties.
Alex Smith had success using shoulders to cause #Colts SAFs Landry & Bethea to jump low part of high-low route combos. TB12 does that too— Matt Chatham (@chatham58) January 6, 2014
LaRon Landry and Antoine Bethea are aggressive safeties that like to come downhill when they have the opportunity. If they have an opportunity to jump routes, they might take it, so Brady should look to exploit that weakness when possible.
Edelman can help keep the Patriots offense chugging along, but Brady is going to have to throw to someone else at some point.
The Patriots defensive line can't actually have an advantage over anyone, can it? After all the injuries it's suffered?
Believe it or not, if there's a team the unit has the edge over, it's the Colts. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), three of the five starters on the Colts offensive line graded out negatively for the season. Luck hasn't been sacked all that much, just 32 times this season and on just 5.3 percent of his dropbacks (eight-lowest percentage in the league). He has, however, been under pressure on 37.5 percent of his dropbacks (10th-highest percentage in the league).
The Colts offensive line hasn't been good as a unit, but offensive tackles Gosder Cherilus and Anthony Castonzo have played well, specifically in pass protection. Defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will need to have a strong game. The Patriots defensive line hasn't consistently created pressure this year, but they have pressured quarterbacks on 35.9 percent of their dropbacks over the past three weeks.
In the running game, the Colts have earned a modest 4.3 YPA rushing this season, but they had the 10th-fewest rush attempts of any team in the NFL. The Colts could try their hand running the ball against the Patriots front seven, which gave up 4.5 YPA this season, the ninth-worst average in the league. The Patriots have been searching for the right mix up front with the loss of defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and although they struggled all year, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga emerged at the end of the season.
The Colts are talented where the Patriots are talented, on the edge. They lack talent where the Patriots lack talent, up the middle. This one is as close as it gets.
Luck doesn't have the otherworldly numbers of the NFL's elite quarterbacks, but he is more than capable of putting the team on his back. He has matured a good deal in his second season and looks much more poised overall. His decision-making has improved and has led to his interceptions being cut in half from last year, down from 18 to nine.
The Colts have made a concerted effort to not put the entire burden of the offense on the shoulders of their quarterback, and that has especially been the case this year. Luck went deep on 16.1 percent of his throws in 2012, the third-most in the league, but that number is down to just 10.5 percent in 2013.
Beating Luck, though, isn't all about shutting down the pass. The Patriots front seven must also be cognizant of his ability to run and throw on the run.
"(Luck) is someone that can extend plays, not only to run, but also just in the passing game," New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. "I think it's something that kind of has a dual-threat about him, where he has the ability to tuck the ball down, run and gain substantial yardage."
That means the Patriots will have to maintain gap integrity and not get out of their rush lanes, but Luck doesn't just use his legs to run, according to Nick Underhill of MassLive.com:
When on the run, the Colts quarterback has shown great ability going to his right, where he completed 20-of-28 attempts for 197 yards. He is 7-of-17 for 67 yards going to his left, and 4-of-5 for 57 yards stepping up through the middle of the pocket. The majority of these plays were designed bootlegs, though some, such as a 30-yard completion to LaVon Brazill, during which Luck scrambled to his right and danced around defensive end Allen Bailey before delivering the pass, have been created in the moment.
The Patriots corners must be mindful when in man coverage that Luck could be on the move and that they could be vulnerable with their backs turned to the mobile quarterback.
Also keep in mind the Patriots' health headed into this game. Aqib Talib (hip), Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and Kyle Arrington (groin) have been battling injuries of late, and although the bye week may have helped them recover, it remains to be seen whether they're at 100 percent.
Quite simply, Luck's versatility makes him one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and the Patriots secondary will have its hands full on Saturday night.
When the Patriots lost linebacker Brandon Spikes for the season with a knee injury, as announced by the team on Monday, they also lost a central piece of their run defense in the front seven. The Patriots have struggled to stop running backs this year, giving up an average of 4.5 yards per carry and 134.1 yards per game, the third most in the NFL.
As mentioned previously, defensive newcomer Sealver Siliga could help the defensive line against the run, but he's not going to seal up all the gaps. He hasn't been his normal self this season, battling the knee injury that eventually landed him on injured reserve, but a linebacker like Spikes would be a significant contributor in these situations.
That being said, the Colts don't run the ball enough to really take advantage of those situations. They've run the ball for over 80 yards in just five of their last nine games. Three of their losses came when rushing for 18, 80 and 63 yards. Colts running backs combined for 12 carries against the Chiefs. The Colts should not allow themselves to become one-dimensional against the Patriots.
The midseason trade of a first-round pick for running back Trent Richardson has been an abject failure thus far, but fortunately for Indianapolis, fifth-year running back Donald Brown has finally emerged into a versatile and talented back. Not only did he rush for 537 yards and 5.3 yards per carry, but he caught 27 passes for 214 yards.
The advantage is there, if the Colts are willing to seize it.
It starts and ends with T.Y. Hilton for the Colts receiving corps. This season, Hilton has accounted for over 27 percent of the team's production in the passing game and had 224 of the team's 436 receiving yards against the Chiefs. With top-notch straight-line speed (4.34-second 40-yard dash at the 2012 scouting combine), Hilton has the ability to take the top off of a defense; the Chiefs learned that the hard way on Hilton's go-ahead 64-yard touchdown catch.
The Patriots will most certainly double Hilton with a cornerback and a deep safety, but the question is, who will be the cornerback that draws him in coverage? There are options, but as mentioned earlier, each of them is nursing an injury. It may come down to who is healthier, but Aqib Talib has struggled in the past with receivers like Hilton—diminutive receivers that have speed and quickness. Hilton had a 43-yard touchdown catch against Talib (shown above) when the two teams met last year.
The Colts receivers are all similar to Hilton in that they're not big and physical, but they're very fast. LaVon Brazill, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Griff Whalen all fit the mold. The Colts have a 6'2", 216-pound receiving in Da'Rick Rogers who has come on in recent weeks, but the Colts are relatively small other than that. As is their strength, the Patriots may be able to play a more physical game with the Colts receivers; the referees have been keeping the yellow tissue in their pockets in the playoffs, as Pat Kirwan of CBS Sports points out:
During the regular season, there were an average of 14 penalties called each game. But in the four wild-card games there were only 31 penalties called -- or a little more than half or what we saw during the regular season.
The Colts have a physical receiver of their own.
At 6'6" and 251 pounds, tight end Coby Fleener could be a tough matchup, as tight ends have been throughout the season. With Brandon Spikes going on injured reserve, the Patriots will likely be using a lot more of linebacker Jamie Collins, who is better in coverage and could draw Fleener in the passing game. The Patriots could also consider putting cornerback Logan Ryan on him, if they are sold on him as a pass-catcher over a run-blocker (515 routes run of 834 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus).
The Patriots have enough options to handle the Colts receivers; whether or not they are at full health is another story.
By my count, the Patriots hold an advantage of 4-2-2.
On paper, the Patriots have the decided advantage. They match up very well with the Colts for their ability to run the ball on offense and their history of taking away a team's best weapon when they're on defense.
Fortunately for us (and for the Colts), these games aren't played on paper.
That being said, with Luck on their side, the Colts have an important edge that gives them a puncher's chance to beat the Patriots. The bye week was a welcomed resting period for the Patriots secondary, which is dealing with injuries to its top three cornerbacks.
The Patriots would like for all three to be 100 percent, but only one of them needs to be healthy enough to cover Hilton, and the Colts don't pose much of a threat outside of that. The Colts are similarly one-dimensional on defense, with a pass rush that revolves around Mathis' ability to get after the quarterback.
For that reason, perhaps one matchup will stand head and shoulders above them all: Bill Belichick vs. Chuck Pagano. I'm probably not in the minority when I give the advantage to the Patriots in that category, and that could be the difference on Saturday.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.