AFC Championship Game Preview
This weekend, an old rivalry will be renewed in the AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts. Over the last decade, the battle between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning was an event, it always had a huge playoff atmosphere when these two QBs and their teams matched up against each other with Brady going 11-5 (including the playoffs) against Manning. But, the Colts have had their shares of unforgettable games against the Patriots such as the comeback from a 21-6 deficit in the 2nd half to win 38-34 in the 2006 AFC Championship Game to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in the Manning era, which the Colts would go on to win the Super Bowl against the Chicago Bears. Also, the unforgettable, now-infamous Sunday night game in 2009, where Belichick elected to go for it on 4th-and-2 at the 28-yard line with a four-point lead instead of punting that resulted in Kevin Faulk not securing the ball and being short of the first down maker, which the Patroits lost 35-34 on Manning's game-winning drive in the final seconds. This is also the rematch of the Sunday night game that the Patriots won in dominating fashion, 42-20 in Week 11.
Now, this renewed rivalry will have a new face in the mix. The Colts' young superstar quarterback Andrew Luck will be going up against the ageless future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Tom Brady as the both try to lead their teams and punch their ticket to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl with resumes on the line. Brady is trying to cement his resume by winning his 4th title, and he and Belichick would surpass Joe Montana and the late, great coach Bill Walsh to win 4 Super Bowls as head coach and quarterback. Meanwhile, Luck is trying to win his 1st title to add on to an already-impressive resume in his young career.
The Patriots started off the season winning only two of their first four games. The two losses were embarrassing with a 33-20 Opening Day loss to the Miami Dolphins, and a 41-14 drubbing by the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night, where Brady was benched in the 4th quarter. But, the Patriots regained their winning form, and won their last 10 of 12 games to clinch the #1 overall seed in the AFC.
The Colts were in a similar predicament, losing their first two games of the season. Colts lost the Opening Day to the Denver Broncos, (who they beat in the AFC Divisional Playoff Game last weekend), 31-24, and lost the next week to the Philadelphia Eagles, 30-27. But, the Colts would go on a roll, and win their next six of seven to head into their bye week. After their bye, the Colts would go on to win their final five of six games to clinch the #3 seed in the AFC.
Here's my breakdown of the game:
Tom Brady is coming off another great season in his stellar career. He finished 10th in the NFL with a QB rating of 97.4, and had 4,109 yds. with 33 TDs and 9 INTs. Brady is making his 28th playoff start, where he is 19-8 in postseason play. He just eclipsed Hall of Famer Joe Montana in playoff wins and touchdown passes (46) last week with the Patriots' 35-31 victory over the Ravens. Brady won't make too many mistakes with the football. In order for to beat Brady, opposing defenses have to apply heavy pressure to him and force him into making turnovers.
Andrew Luck is coming off another great season as well. He finished 3rd in the NFL with a QB rating of 96.5, and had 4,761 yds., 40 TDs and 16 INTs. He is 5-3 in his early postseason career, and now he's added onto his impressive resume by getting an opportunity to lead his team to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2010. Unlike Brady, Luck can make plays with not his arm, but he can make plays with his legs and extend drives. He averaged 273 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry and 3 rushing TDs during the regular season. Also, as well as Luck throws, he can also turn the ball over and that's the key to beating him as well as containing his running ability.
This is going to be a huge quarterback game, and the quarterback who turns the ball over the least or doesn't turn the ball over at all will have best chance to win.
With both teams wanting to air it out, the running game tends to suffer. They both don't utilize the running game as much in their offenses. But, both teams have solid running backs that can get hot and play a huge factor in the game.
Colts running back Dan "Boom" Heron didn't have a stellar regular season. He only had 351 rushing yds. with just 1 TD, but averaged 4.5 yds. per carry. But, he's starting to make a case for himself as the featured back in these NFL Playoffs. He has been the Colts' go-to back and for good reason. He has averaged 119 rushing yds., averaging 3.4 yds. per carry, 117 receiving yds. and 2 TDs in the 2014 Playoffs.
Patriots have a solid running back core in Shane Vereen. Vereen has been solid throughout the regular season. He has been the featured back for the Patriots since the benching and eventual injury to Jonas Gray. He averaged 4.1 yds. per carry, 391 yds. and 2 TDs. But, he hasn't been used much in the playoffs so far.
The running game isn't going to be a huge factor in this game, but whichever team establishes a solid running game is going to make a difference.
This game is featuring a couple of the best receivers in the game. These guys can make big plays for their quarterback and also extend drives as well.
Brady's go-to receiver Julian Edelman had a solid 2014 regular season. He finished 25th in the league in receiving yards just averaging 972 yds., 92 rec. and 4 TDs. A step backward from the stats he had in the 2013 season. But, you can't underestimate him because of his stats. He can get hot, have a huge game and any cornerback or defensive end's life miserable. Plus, he has also shown that he can make a play with his arm as he did with the 51-yard TD pass to Brady in the Patriots' Divisional Playoff victory over the Ravens.
The Colts have a dynamic, versatile receiving core in superstar T.Y. Hilton and solid championship veterans Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks. Hilton is coming off another excellent 2014 season in his young career. He finished the regular season with 1,345 yds., 82 rec. and 7 TDs. Hilton is a hard match-up for even the best corners in the league with his speed and leaping ability. Wayne seems to be ageless as he's looking for another opportunity to get back to the Super Bowl with two different QBs. He had a solid year with 779 yds., 64 rec. and 2 TDs, and Nicks had a solid year, where he averaged 405 yds., 38 rec. and 4 TDs.
The receivers will be a play huge role, and determine the outcome of the game. The receivers who step and make big plays for their quarterback will have the best chance to win the game.
This match-up is featuring some very good tight ends. Brady and Luck heavily rely on their tights ends to make big plays down the field and score touchdowns. This game won't be any different.
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (aka Gronk) is one of the top tight ends in the league. He finished 15th in the league in receiving yards with 1,124 yds,. 82 rec. and 12 TDs. He is a tough cover even the best defenses because of his size and physical prowess. He can make big plays down field and add some yards after the catch. Brady is going to throw to him early and often.
Now, the Colts tight end duo of Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen are establishing themselves as very good tight ends in the NFL in only their third seasons. They may not have the huge stats that Gronk has, but the have both put good numbers during the regular season. Fleener averaged 774 yds. and 51 rec., Allen averaged 395 yds. and 29 rec. and they both had 8 TDs between them.
Just like the receivers, the tight ends will play a big role determining the outcome in this game as they will be counted on for big plays for their quarterbacks.
Believe it or not, the special teams will be a deciding factor in the game. The special teams will be trying to give their team the best field position possible to drive down the field and score, and both teams have good special teams. The Patriots have a solid kick/punt return game in returners Danny Amendola and wideout Julian Eldman, and a very good punter in Ryan Allen that can kick the ball for touchbacks to prevent any kick or punt returns. Also, they have a kicker in Stephen Gostkowski, who can kick the ball from many as 60-plus yards. The Colts have pretty good return game in veteran returner Josh Cribbs that can shift field position for the Colts, but they also have punter Pat McAfee that can pin teams deep as far as their own end zone. Plus, the Colts have seemingly ageless veteran and former Patriots kicker Adam Vinetari, who has kicked many game-tying and game-winning field goals in the postseason.
Field position will be a crucial part of the game. The team with the best starting field position will be the best position to score and ultimately win the game.
Edge: Colts by a slight margin
Both teams were similarly in the middle of pact defensively during the regular season. The Colts were ranked 11th overall in total defense allowing 342.7 total yards. On the other the Patriots were ranked 13th overall in total defense allowing 344.1 total yards. The Colts were ranked 21st against the pass giving up 229.3 yds per game, and ranked 15th against the run giving up 113 yds. per game. The Patriots were ranked 16th against the pass giving up 239.8 yards per game, and ranked 24th against the run allowing 104.3 yards per game. But, both these teams have talent on defense that can apply enough pressure to can force either Brady or Luck to turn the ball over.
The Patriots have defensive end Vince Wilfork and cornerbacks Brandon Browner and ageless vet Darrelle Revis that can cause trouble for the quarterback, and make it hard on receivers by staying with them making sure they don't get a catch. The Colts have playmakers on defense as well with defensive end Cory Redding and cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler.
The defense that can pressure or get to the quarterback, and create turnovers that will turn into points will be the deciding factor in the game.
This marks Belichick's fourth straight consecutive appearance in the AFC Championship Game, where he has gone 1-2 in the last three years. He has coached in 7 AFC Championship games since 2002, and he is one of the few head coaches to accomplish this feat. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano is marking his first appearance as a head coach in this conference title game. He has put together an excellent resume in his young coaching career, and surviving his greatest feat: beating cancer over a year ago. Both of these coaches are great coaches that lead their teams very well, and leadership is going to play a huge factor in this game. Not just with Xs and Os, but how will they lead their teams when they are hit with adversity, and what will they say or do to make their players respond.
This will be a close, and maybe, high-scoring game. Both quarterbacks throw touchdowns and put their teams in the best position to win. I feel that with the game being in Gillette Stadiumwith that raucous crowd, it will be too much for Luck and the Colts. Plus, the experience factor heavily favors Brady and Belichick, and they will use that postseason experience to take the AFC Championship crown to lead their team to another trip to the Super Bowl. My prediction: Patriots 27, Colts 20.
Enjoy Championship Sunday.
The Pats might be able to repeat, but it's not going to be easy. There are other teams in the AFC (Colts, Ravens, Steelers) who will have something to say about Brady trying to tie Joe Montana for five Super Bowl rings.