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NFL Divisional Round Predictions: Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots

NFL Divisional Round Predictions and Preview of this week’s playoff battle between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots.

Tom Brady, NFL Divisional Round Predictions
Tom Brady, NFL Divisional Round Predictions

Dec 29, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) signals his teammates at the line of scrimmage during the second quarter against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium. Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

#4 Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at #2 New England Patriots (12-4)

Saturday, 8:15 p.m. CBS

About two-thirds of the way through last weekend’s Wild Card game between the Chiefs and Colts, the only thing that seemed certain was that the one team that wouldn’t be playing the Patriots in the Divisional Round was Indianapolis. Down 38-10 nearly midway through the third quarter, Indy was all but eliminated from the playoffs. But a remarkable 35-6 run over the final 27 minutes of the game propelled the Colts to an unlikely 45-44 win.

The following day, when the Chargers upset the Bengals, Indy’s trip was booked to New England. The two teams did not face off this season, but did play once last year during Andrew Luck’s rookie season. That game also took place in Foxboro, and the Pats took it to the Colts, winning 59-24.

This year, though, the AFC South champions have earned their way to Gillette Stadium in an effort to knock off the Patriots, who are seven-point favorites. Here are some things to watch for on Saturday as Indianapolis attempts to upset the perennial Super Bowl contenders on their home turf.

PROTECTING THE QB – Andrew Luck has been playing some of his best football of the season over the last month, and that has a lot to do with his offensive line. Through the Colts’ first 12 games, Luck was sacked 29 times. In the five games since, including last week’s Wild Card game against Kansas City, he has been sacked a total of four times. And that’s been with a patchwork O-line.

The improvements in Luck’s results were noticeable. His TD:INT ratio went from 15:8 in his first 12 games to 12:4 in the last five. The Colts scored at least 25 points in each of those five, and he had a quarterback rating of at least 96.8 in four of those. But now, his line will face a tough test. The Patriots recorded 48 sacks this season, which was good for fifth in the NFL and is the most recorded by a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team.

On the other side of the ball, the Patriots’ offensive line will be faced with the task of containing Robert Mathis. The linebacker led the league with 19.5 sacks this season. Tom Brady has not been immune to pressure this year, either. He was sacked 40 times throughout the year and was taken down at least three times in nine different games. With the Patriots boasting an offense that is effective both through the air and on the ground, and with the Colts porous run defense, limiting the New England passing game will be key for Indy in keeping the game close.

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GROUND AND POUND – Typically, a January night game in Foxboro would mean conditions closer to what was in Green Bay last weekend than the controlled climate of Lucas Oil Stadium, but that may not be the case. Forecasters are predicting a mild night in Massachusetts, with temperatures staying above 40. The Colts, who play in a dome, will be much more comfortable playing a game in above-freezing temperatures. The Patriots, meanwhile, would have been just fine in the cold.

The elements could very well come into play in other forms, though. It is a near certainty that rain will fall during the game. If there is enough of it, that could force both teams to primarily take to the ground game.

For New England, that shouldn’t be a problem. The Pats were one of just three teams that ranked in the top 10 in both rushing and passing offense this season. And they’ve been doing it with different players all year. As of late, it’s been LeGarrette Blount carrying the load, and he’s coming off New England’s best rushing performance of the season in Week 17, going for 189 yards.

The Colts seemed to hit it big earlier in the season when they traded for Browns running back Trent Richardson. But he hasn’t rushed for more than 64 yards in any one game this season, and has averaged just 3.0 yards per carry. Instead, Donald Brown has been the featured back more often than not, and has averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Even still, Indy has not had a 100-yard rusher all year.

If the game does become a ground attack, that doesn’t mean it won’t be a high-scoring affair. Neither team could stop the rush this year. The Colts were seventh-worst in football, giving up 125.1 yards a game, while the Patriots were even worse, allowing 134.1 yards per contest. Whichever team will be better at limiting the opponent’s ground game will have a decided advantage on Saturday.

HEALTH – To say these teams are battling injuries would be a gross understatement. Both the Colts and Patriots have been dealing with major health problems all year long. So far, they have been able to adjust, but will their losses prove too much to bear now that they are deeper into January?

New England’s IR list reads like the team’s Pro Bowl roster. The Patriots have lost Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer, Tommy Kelly, Rob Gronkowski, and now Brandon Spikes for the year. Yet they still managed to secure a first round bye.

The Colts haven’t had it easy themselves, in particular on the offensive line. They used a different starting combination eight times this season and have been getting by with a patchwork line. Being without star wideout Reggie Wayne for most of the year hasn’t helped matters, either.

Indy’s secondary is also dinged up. The team has lost cornerback Greg Toler to a groin injury, and cornerback Vontae Davis has been fighting through a groin injury of his own. There is some good news, though, as safety LaRon Landry has been cleared to return to practice after suffering a concussion against the Chiefs.

NOTES – This is the 11th consecutive year the Patriots and Colts have met… The Patriots lead the all-time series with the Colts 45-28… The two teams have met in the playoffs three times, with New England winning two of those… The winner of each of those previous three meetings went on to win the Super Bowl… New England is 8-0 at home this year, the Colts are 5-3 on the road… The Patriots are 8-2 all-time in the playoffs at Gillette Stadium… The Colts are just 2-6 all-time at Gillette Stadium… The Patriots are 7-1 in the Divisional Round following a bye… New England can become the first team to advance to three consecutive conference championship games since the Eagles made four straight from 2001-2004, and can be the first AFC team to accomplish the feat since the Bills from 1990-1993… With a victory, Bill Belichick will tie Don Shula for second all-time with 19 postseason wins, trailing Tom Landry with 20… Indianapolis kicker Adam Vinatieri is only 4-7 on field goals in Gillette Stadium as a member of the Colts.

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