The general fan consensus up in New England is that Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts won’t be as nerve-wracking as it should be.
The talk around town has been quite positive, circling around the belief that New England has already fought off the toughest competitor the AFC had to offer after last week’s thrilling victory against Baltimore.
Call the chowda-heads arrogant for looking past their opponent, but do they have a point?
For the first time in three years, the Patriots are expected to win this specific game–and win it handily.
Vegas has New England as a seven-point home favorite.
Its hard to believe that Bill Belichick’s crew would fall face-flat for a third-consecutive year on the door-step to the Superbowl.
Let’s just take a quick little trip down recent memory lane.
In 2013’s rematch of the 2012 AFC Championship game, the Ravens were out for revenge at Gillette Stadium. Joe Flacco took advantage of a mediocre Patriots defense, while Tom Brady submitted arguably his worst-ever playoff game, to the result of a 28-13 throttling.
In 2014, The Broncos were favored at home for good reason. Manning and company were fresh off a record-setting regular season, Brady’s arsenal of weapons was minus Rob Gronkowski, and the Patriots’ secondary was suspect at best; even before cornerback Aqib Talib was knocked out of the game early in the first quarter. Denver advanced 26-16.
But this year?
The script is flipped.
It’s New England’s game to lose. Why?
Put simply, this team is just better than the previous ones that faltered.
Hell, its arguably New England’s best team since its historic 2007 season.
Brady’s offense can’t possibly be held in the teens for a third consecutive year, can it?. In nine games at Gillette Stadium this year, New England has averaged 33 points (this includes their 16-9 regular season finale ‘rest’ loss to Buffalo). The Patriots are fresh off a 35-point outing against a very respectable Raven’s D. Gronkowski is healthy. Danny Amendola has emerged as a trustworthy option, and Brandon LaFell can almost always be penciled in for a five-catch, 80-yard effort. I haven’t even mentioned Julian Edelman.
Lets not forget about the Patriots dominance on the ground against Indianapolis in their past two meetings. In last year’s AFC Divisional round match, LeGarette Blount rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns. In this year’s Week 11 meeting, Jonas Gray pounded the Colts for 201 yards and four touchdowns. Both guys are still on New England’s roster. While that doesn’t necessarily mean either of the two backs will have repeat performances, there’s a good chance the Patriots will plan run-heavy against a defense they’ve exploited recently.
Then again, nobody knows what Belichick has up his sleeve. If the Colts manage to relatively detain a rushing attack, there’s still the daunting task of dealing with No. 12 in the shotgun. Pick your poison?
Recent history is on New England’s side, too.
In their three meetings since Andrew Luck’s arrival in 2012, the Patriots are 3-0, outscoring the Colts 144-66 (including this year’s 42-20 stomping in Indianapolis).
Now, this game won’t be a lay-up for New England.
The Colts are playing in the NFL’s final-four for a reason.
Luck has shown strong progression in terms of physical performance and playoff success in his first three years. So far, he’s proved the Colts right in their decision three years ago to part ways with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning–he’s filled his shoes quite nicely. Ironically, he might have even knocked Manning into retirement after last week’s 24-13 upset win over Denver.
T.Y Hilton has proved to be one the league’s most productive up-and-coming wide receivers, submitting 92 catches and 1,520 catches in 18 games. Derron Herron has come on nicely as the Colt’s lead running back. Vontae Davis can closely mimic Revis-Island on any given Sunday.
Chuck Pagano coaches a disciplined style of play that has to be respected.
The Colts have a good thing going present and future. They’ve developed a system that’s good enough to win more times than not, just like their 13-5 record shows.
But not this Sunday against this Patriots team.
In order for Indianapolis to escape New England with a W, they’ll need more than just Luck to play the best game of his career against the Patriots’ best defense since 2004; they’ll need luck to go their way.
The Colt’s defensive line will need to bully the Patriots offensive front, while the secondary figures out a way to slow down Gronkowski. And Edelman. And LaFell.
They’ll need to get into Brady’s head and force him to make uncharacteristic decisions in key moments of crunch-time–a task less than a handful of teams have accomplished in the postseason (Ravens, Giants,…?).
In order for the Patriots to escape home with a W, they won’t have to play their best game of the season (although fans wouldn’t mind it).
That’s the major difference in this week’s meeting.
It’s the reason most of New England is already talking about the probable scenario in which Brady and Belichick clinch their sixth Superbowl appearance.