In just his second year in the league, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck already has his signature playoff moment. By leading a 28-point comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card Round, Luck has a moment (especially with the fumble recovery and touchdown dive) that will go down in history as one of the best Colts' playoff games ever.
But now Luck has another Colt demon to vanquish: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots in Foxborough. While this version of the Patriots isn't the same giant that dominated the early 2000s, winning a playoff game in Foxborough is no easy task, and the Colts themselves have plenty of flaws as well.
With the Indianapolis defense giving up 44 points to Kansas City and Alex Smith last Saturday, you can expect the Patriots to put up points this weekend. The question is can Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts keep up?
While the Colts have been inconsistent this season, the offense has caught fire over the last few weeks by opening up and relying on the shotgun and spread formations rather than power running.
Even against Kansas City, as they fell down big, the Colts only punted the ball once, but saw four drives end prematurely due to turnovers. Can they put together similar success against New England? There definitely will be opportunities, as New England ranks 21st in Football Outsider's DVOA.
So where are the chinks in New England's armor that will allow the Colts and Andrew Luck to prosper?
Power Run, Or Something Like That
As much as fans have been clamoring for a pass-happy approach all season (and as well as it worked against Kansas City), the right move against New England may be to go back to a run-heavy game plan.
The New England defense has suffered some key injuries this season, injuries that have left a gaping hole in the middle of the field. From linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes to interior defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, the Patriots have been relegated to depth players filling starting roles in the middle of the field.
Spikes, who was just placed on the injured reserve list earlier this week, was rated as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) best inside linebacker against the run this year and has been a force all season attacking the line of scrimmage.
But even with Spikes in the lineup, the Patriots have been awful at defending the run, no matter what metric you want to use.
|New England Run Defense|
|Run DVOA||YPC Allowed||Avg. Yards Allowed||Adj. Line Yards||Stuffed|
|Football Outsiders and ESPN.com|
New England is particularly bad at stopping the run up the middle, as the Patriots allow 4.63 yards per carry on such runs, 31st in the league. The Colts' worst linemen all reside in the middle, but Pep Hamilton's blocking schemes involve movement that still allows seams to open that running back Donald Brown has taken advantage of all season.
Brown has become a feature in the Colts offense and has had most of his success on the ground on runs up the middle. Brown averaged over six yards per carry on runs up the middle this season, the second-best mark in the league. With gaps in the middle, Brown should have a shot at getting to the second level, where he's been very good at making people miss this season.
The other area where Brown can have an impact is through the air. The Patriots allow a DVOA of 5.5 percent to running backs in the passing game, 20th in the league. Brown, along with his second-highest DVOA in the league on the ground, has a 6.3 percent receiving DVOA as well. He was a force as a dual threat on Sunday, totaling 102 all-purpose yards and a touchdown both through the air and on the ground, the first time any Colt has done that in the playoffs.
As long as the Colts continue to stretch the field with their route combinations, there should be room for Brown to take advantage of underneath.
Creating Time in the Pocket
While Andrew Luck isn't as lauded as some other young quarterbacks for the use of his legs, don't be surprised if they play a key role against the Patriots.
But when we talk about the danger of Luck's legs, it's not the risk of him running that is the most dangerous, but how he moves in the pocket and extends plays while keeping his eyes down the field. While some young, mobile quarterbacks look to run too quickly, Luck always keeps his eyes down the field on his receivers, and would always rather make a throw than take off and run.
To illustrate the difference, let's take a look at a play from the Carolina Panthers' victory over the Patriots earlier this season.
In this particular play, the Panthers have three deep patterns with one shallow crossing pattern, a common concept in the Colts' spread attack.
But when the linebackers and defensive backs clear out and get their backs turned, Cam Newton finds a lane and takes off through it, taking advantage of the limited awareness by the Patriots secondary.
Now, it's not that the decision to run by Newton was a bad thing here; the play gained 24 yards and is something that the Colts would certainly take on Saturday. But look at the two Panthers with big separation down the field. Had Newton kept his eyes down the field and made the throw, especially to the outside receiver, a 24-yard gain could have been a touchdown.
On the flip side, you have Andrew Luck, who has mastered the technique of keeping his eyes down the field while using crafty athleticism to avoid sacks. He had several key plays against the Chiefs that resulted in first downs, three of which can be seen from this video of the All-22 coaches' tape from the playoff game.
It's something that Luck has done all season, like in this gem of a play against the Seattle Seahawks in the Colts' Week 5 upset.
Bill Belichick will put as many resources as possible into stopping T.Y. Hilton, who led the Colts with 224 yards on 13 catches against the Chiefs. While Hilton should still make an impact against the Patriots, Luck needs to be patient and spread the ball to other targets.
The Patriots are about average against No. 1 receivers, but drop way down to 28th in the league against No. 2 receivers. Luck will need to go to players like Coby Fleener, Griff Whalen and Da'Rick Rogers if the Patriots give Hilton extra attention, and he can buy them time to get open with his legs.
While Luck shouldn't be afraid to scramble (his scrambling has been one of their most efficient plays all season), his ability to keep his eyes downfield and make accurate throws on the run will be key if the Colts are to upset the Patriots and return to the AFC Championship Game.