The Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots are set for another postseason meeting. While the matchup no longer features Peyton Manning against Tom Brady, Andrew Luck has quickly climbed the quarterback ranks to ensure the rivalry won't lose its luster.
Indianapolis should feel like it's got a second lease on life after overcoming a huge second-half deficit to stun the Kansas City Chiefs last week. Taking down a well-rested Patriots squad on the road is going to take a far more complete 60-minute performance.
With that in mind, let's examine the biggest keys for each team heading into the high-profile clash in the divisional round. The winner will move one step closer to the Super Bowl and could set up a meeting with Manning's Denver Broncos, which would be very intriguing either way.
Colts: Defense Must Get Constant Pressure on Tom Brady
As you'd expect, everything the Colts did poorly in last week's win over the Chiefs was immediately overshadowed by their monumental comeback. The terrible defensive play, especially in the first half, and Luck's three interceptions took a back seat once T.Y. Hilton got free behind the Kansas City defense to give them a 45-44 lead.
But you can bet the Colts knew they had a lot of work to do once they got back on the practice field.
Luck must protect the ball better going up against a battle-tested playoff quarterback like Brady. The bigger concern for the Colts, however, is figuring out a way to slow down one of the best quarterbacks in history one week after getting torn apart by Alex Smith.
Brian Webber of NBC Sports Radio doesn't think it's going to happen:
Early thought for next wknd: Colts defense got destroyed by Alex Smith. Tom Brady will carve them up— Brian Webber (@bwwebber) January 6, 2014
The Chiefs lost Jamaal Charles, their best playmaker by a very, very wide margin, early in the game. Smith proceeded to throw for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns after a regular season in which he never topped 294 yards.
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If Indianapolis' defense plays like that against the Patriots, there's no way Brady leaves the Colts a chance to come back. Slowing him down starts with a better pass rush, led by Robert Mathis, with help from Jerrell Freeman, among others.
Should the Colts make their presence felt in the backfield, forcing Brady off his spot, they should at least be able to keep pace. But if they allow him to stand tall in the pocket, as was the case for Smith most of last week, he's going to make easy work of the Indianapolis secondary.
Patriots: Do Whatever It Takes to Slow Down T.Y. Hilton
The biggest mistake the Chiefs made was letting Hilton get heavily involved in the offense. He was the only player capable of getting the Colts back in to that game by himself, and Kansas City still didn't change its coverage schemes enough to eliminate that possibility.
How the Chiefs defensive backs could allow him to get beat deep while up six with less than five minutes to go is mind-boggling. That said, you can bet the Patriots have spent a large amount of time this week making sure they don't repeat the same mistakes.
New England ranked in the middle of the pack against the pass during the regular season. What the Pats have working for them is a No. 1 corner in Aqib Talib, who will probably spend a vast majority (if not all) of the time following Hilton around.
He's capable of making life difficult on Hilton by himself. But the Patriots should always be shading coverages to his side of the field. Even if they are not directly using double-teams, they should have a deep safety to make sure he's not catching any of those game-changing long touchdowns.
Mike Wells of ESPN passes along some comments from Hilton, who's fully expecting a lot of attention from the Pats secondary:
The main thing for me is just to stay focused and don't get frustrated. They're going to roll some coverages my way. Sometimes they might single me. Sometimes they may double me, or even have help over the top. But the main thing for me is just not to get frustrated. Just continue playing my game and don't worry about what they're doing. Just do what your team asks you to do and just don't try to do too much.
New England knows that focusing on Hilton will open up chances for other players, whether it be Donald Brown, Da'Rick Rogers, Coby Fleener or another Colts skill-position player. But it's certainly a risk the Patriots should be willing to take to make sure Hilton doesn't go off again.