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Saturday, 11 January 2014 16:17

What To Watch For: New England Patriots vs. Indianapolis Colts

Written by 

Robert Mathis Indianapolis Colts

Let's jump right into it:  What to watch for tonight as the Pats host the Colts in the AFC Divisional Round. 

1)  How will Pats handle loss of Brandon Spikes?

Already the league’s 30th ranked run defense, the Pats look even more vulnerable against the rush this week after placing inside linebacker Brandon Spikes on injured reserve. For all his deficiencies in coverage, Spikes has become the league’s best run-stopping inside linebacker – per Pro Football Focus.

If Week 17 against the Bills is any indication, the Pats will use a rotation of Dont’a Hightower, Dane Fletcher and Jamie Collins to fill Spikes’ role in the middle. At 270 pounds, Hightower is probably best suited to stuff the run up the middle, while rookie Collins is the best athlete of the group and has looked good all season in coverage. Fletcher is as solid a backup as you can ask for and has terrific knowledge of the defense after four seasons with the team. 

Fortunately for New England, the Colts are not particularly well suited to exploit the Pats on the ground. Indy had the 21st-ranked running game during the regular season and their feature back, Donald Thomas, had been the backup until Trent Richardson proved ineffective.

2)  Can New England slow down Robert Mathis?

If Tom Brady gets comfortable in the pocket, the Pats will win. Simple as that. But the Colts have the league's leading pass rusher in Robert Mathis, who put up a ridiculous 19.5 sacks in the regular season. In the past, Mathis was virtually guaranteed to line up at defensive end opposite Dwight Freeney but under the Colts new coaching staff, the 11-year vet could come from anywhere, making it more difficult to plan pass protections.

3)  Can Andrew Luck get outside the pocket?

Keep an eye on New England’s defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, who have the difficult task of pressuring Luck while also staying between him and the sideline. Jones, in particular, often starts his pass rush up field and then runs a late stunt to the middle of the field to try to get to the quarterback as he steps up in the pocket. A move like that will make it too easy for Luck, who runs extremely well, to extend the play with his legs, either by scrambling or simply giving his receivers more time to get open. The Pats have had a tough time with mobile quarterbacks this season, and Luck is probably the best they have faced.

4)  Can the Pats continue to run the ball so effectively?

It should be difficult to move the ball in the air consistently as the forecast calls for wet and windy conditions Saturday in Foxboro. That means New England’s stable of running backs will likely be called upon to shoulder the load again. Indy struggled to stop the run all season, allowing 125 yards per game, 26thin the league, and gave up 150 yards to the Chiefs last week, despite KC losing their starting running back after just three carries.

The Pats, meanwhile, ranked 9thoverall in rushing offense and are coming off a 267-yard performance against the Bills. It’s been well -documented, but with 24 fumbles on the season (nine lost) the question for this running game isn’t about talent, it’s about whether they can hold onto the football.