It’s going to be tough for Chuck Pagano to sleep well this week. After receiving all the back slaps and ’attaboys for knocking out Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the divisional playoffs, he has to take his team to New England for what will likely be a fruitless attempt to win the AFC title and advance to the Super Bowl.
Here’s the big problem for the Colts. Pagano and Andrew Luck have played the Patriots twice in the past calendar year, and both of those games were disastrous. The Colts rolled into New England in the divisional playoffs last year and were pummeled by a 43-22 score, ending their season in brutal fashion.
The Pats visited Indianapolis in what appeared to be a classic matchup between the veteran gunslinger Tom Brady and Luck on a Sunday night in Week 11, but New England unleashed a punishing ground attack with Jonas Gray – Jonas Gray! — and rolled to a 42-20 win that wasn’t as close as it sounds.
That would be reason enough for Pagano to worry, but there are two bigger problems. The Patriots are a better team now than they were earlier this year, as their passing game has improved by leaps and bounds. Brandon LaFell has emerged as a legitimate deep threat, Julian Edelman has continued to play stellar football, and Danny Amendola has stepped up after a very indifferent start.
Brady is sharper than he was during the early part of the season, and Rob Gronkowski has been healthy all season and everyone on the field knows that he is unstoppable.
Those are all the known factors that Pagano and his coaching staff will have to contend with. But it’s the unknown factors that are going to make this week Hell for him.
He has to coach against Bill Belichick, and he’s likely to feel the same sense of helplessness that Mark Helfrich of Oregon felt last night going up against Urban Meyer of Ohio State. Pagano is a fairly good strategist himself, and he has the kind of personality that will allow him to inspire his players all week and then make a rousing speech to his players the night before the game.
But when it comes to strategy and play-calling, he doesn’t have a prayer of getting the best of Belichick. Pagano saw what Belichick did last week against a very game Baltimore Ravens team that nearly knocked New England out of the postseason.
Belichick called the key play at the right moment when he had Brady throw a backward pass to Edelman, who then sucked the Ravens defensive backs towards him as he launched a deep pass to Amendola that went for the tying touchdown.
That was sharp, but his four-man offensive line was simply genius. By making Shane Vereen an ineligible receiver and letting Gronkowski and fellow tight end Michael Hoomanawanui run pass patterns from what looked like the left tackle spot, he left Ravens head coach John Harbaugh sputtering and crying foul.
It’s been a long time since Belichick and Brady won a Super Bowl, and they want it badly. There’s bound to be a new trick play or formation that they can throw at the Colts, should they need it.
They probably won’t have to. In the win at Indianapolis earlier this season, the Patriots beat the Colts by basically beating the stuffing out of them with a physical ground game and a physical Gronk game. The Colts may try to adjust by bringing a safety up to the line of scrimmage, but all that will do is open things up for Brady and the passing game.
If that’s how the Colts want to play it, the Patriots could have four touchdowns on the board by halftime.
But Belichick will leave nothing to chance for the opportunity to get back to the Super Bowl. The Colts are not as tough or physical as the Ravens, and the Patriots match up well with them, but Belichick will find new weaknesses to exploit and he will try to cover up his own team’s problem areas.
No coach has ever been better from a strategic point of view. He may not have the oratorical skills of a Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Bill Parcells, or Jimmy Johnson, but he makes up for that by winning the chess match.
Pagano knows he is going up against the master, and he knows that Belichick also has the better team going into the game.
It’s going to be a very long evening in Foxboro for the visitors. If Pagano looks like his eyes are being kept open by toothpicks at the end of the week, you’ll know why.
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