The Colts return to Lucas Oil to face an old foe with a few new faces.
The Colts vs. Pats history needs no introduction. As the most epic rivalry of the 2000s in the NFL, these teams and their fanbases had a stretch of back and forth wins with two of the most legendary QBs to ever play the game. However, the rivalry in recent years has not had the same vitriol or balance.
The end of the Peyton Manning era marked the true end of the back and forth of this rivalry. From 2000-2010, the Colts went 6-8 vs. the Patriots, with 5 of those eight losses being only one-score games. However, Colts could hold their own back in those days, making competitive games vs. some of the best rosters assembled in NFL History.
Since the end of the Peyton Manning Era, the rivalry became completely one-sided, going 0-7 for the Colts from 2011-2018. With an eight-game losing streak stretching back a decade & only 3 of those being one-score games, the rivalry for years has become stale for neutral observers. However, with this year comes the opportunity to renew it once more.
Just as the end of the Peyton Manning era marked the end of a competitive rivalry, the end of the Tom Brady Patriots era might swing the rivalry back towards the favor of the Colts. Rookie QB Mac Jones helms the Patriots now, and while the Patriots have reclaimed the one seed with him under center. Mac has been very impressive for a rookie, being efficient, accurate and even playing turnover-free football for the last two weeks. However, Mac is far from the world-beater that Brady became and still has some limitations, but he is a really solid NFL QB.
The focus of the Colts Defensive game plan this week take away the run & make the Patriots one-dimensional. Easier said than done, of course, as the Patriots boast a top 10 rushing attack in total yards and scoring. Still, a more modest 4.2 yards per carry team average does signify their production is a bit more volume-driven than efficiency.
News broke Friday afternoon that Pats lead back Damien Harris will not play due to a hamstring injury. The Pats RB committee has been dealt the blow by losing their best back, but they will likely rely upon Rhamondre Stevenson, Brandon Bolden, and James White to carry the load. Of the three, Stevenson is the one projected to shoulder most of the ground game, while Bolden & White are used more as the change of pace backs and receiving threats. Expect Bill Belichick to rotate his backs frequently, but if one gets momentum, he is unafraid to ride the hot hand, no matter who it is. If Rhamondre Stevenson gets a solid workload, don’t be surprised to see Kenny Moore II & especially Darius Leonard to try to punch out the football from him. While he has remained fumble-free in the 99 carries since his controversial rookie debut fumble, Stevenson had a fumbling issue in college as well (3 in 166 college attempts), & the Colts league-leading defense in turnovers might have an opportunity to add to their total.
The Patriots Defense remains just as potent as ever, allowing only 15.38 points a game, the fewest in the NFL. Their stifling defense is a strong all-around unit, especially the pass as a top 3 unit there. However, 2-star players headline the unit: pass rushers Matt Judon and ballhawk Cornerback JC Jackson.
Judon has been a crucial Free agent signing, with 12.5 sacks on the season in 13 games. JC Jackson has been a hidden gem on the Patriots for a few years before blossoming into a stat now that he finally has a bigger role. Judon’s terrifying strength at the point of attack is a big mismatch to Fisher’s poor anchor on the Colt’s left side. At the same time, JC Jackson has been a weapon for Belichick to use to shut down opposing teams’ top WRs. Michael Pittman Jr vs. JC Jackson should be a tough matchup, but he might be able to find some albeit limited success at times. However, it isn’t recommended to target JC too often as his 7 INTs this year have shown to punish opposing QBs for doing so.
While the Patriot’s top-ranked Defense & top 3 passing D, the biggest weakness is in favor of the Colt’s top Offensive strength: the run game. Jonathan Taylor has become the best running back in football this season, emerging as the top back in:
- Yards over Expected
- Yards after Contact
- Rushing yards
- Rushing TDs
- Total yards
- Total TDs
- Missed+Broken Tackles
- 20 Yard runs
- 1st downs
Taylor has been the engine that drives the Colts O, so naturally, Bill Belichick’s goal will be to limit if not outright try to neutralize him in the game. Expect to see the Evil Hoodie use five-man fronts to help take away Duo blocks up the middle and create tougher running lanes and use a box Safety to provide even more run support. Should both defenses strive to neutralize each other’s rushing attacks and succeed in doing so, then it is up for the passing game to decide the game.
Stopping Jonathan Taylor and the Colts vaunted blocking is easier said than done. However, committing your defensive scheme to stop the run should allow for more one-on-one matchups on the outside and deeper shots to be taken. With JC Jackson potentially shadowing Pittman, now might be an excellent opportunity for TY Hilton to win over the top of the Defense for a breakout game in 2021. The veteran has had a tough season, slogging through several injuries that have limited his availability. However, when given the opportunity, TY is still a potent and dangerous weapon, and when on the field, should not be taken lightly. Belichick, in years past, rolled coverage over to TY’s side and put his top CB on TY for most of the matchups, but with MPJ’s breakout and TY in the middle of one of his worst seasons, statistically, that approach could change.
Looking past the weapons on the outside and the pass protection against Judon, Carson Wentz is again facing a tough task. While he has been very good at avoiding turnover-worthy throws this season, consistent pressure and not relying upon his top weapon consistently will force him into an uncomfortable situation. Can he avoid the rush, make his way through his progressions quick enough, and with the right read, deliver an accurate pass to his secondary targets against a Bill Belichick scheme. If the ground game can’t be relied upon consistently, Wentz will be back against the wall against an opportunistic defense (top 5 in takeaways). This is exactly where turnovers can occur, potentially in bunches. Wentz needs to play mistake-free football and potentially play hero ball simultaneously to get the Colts the win in that scenario, which he has done with varying degrees of success. Maintaining a strong rushing attack & quick passing attack will take a lot of pressure off him, thus involving JT and/or Hines in the run and the pass will be crucial outlets for him to succeed.
Should the Colts out-physical the Patriots, that same scenario could be what Mac Jones faces with the Colt’s top opportunistic Defense, no RB1 to rely upon, a strong trio of Colts CBs that can neutralize his outside threats, and a few very hungry pass rushers. So the question remains: who will out physical each other and force their opposing QBs in a difficult position, and how will that QB react?
GAME MVP(s): Jonathan Taylor/Nyhiem Hines
While the ways Bill Belichick could try to counter the Colt’s potential MVP candidate Jonathan Taylor are well established, Frank Reich is no slouch in the play-caller/designer arena either. At times, Reich can employ a tactic we’ve seen in key situations to full advantage: 2 RB formations. Having Hines & Taylor on the field can create matchup and assignment nightmares for defenses, especially with their versatility together. We have seen them in a split backfield on either side of Wentz, lined up in a Split I formation (Taylor often as the FB and Hines as the HB), or either of them lined up outside/in the slot. With their 4.38-4.39 speeds, versatility (especially Hines’ former WR experience), and strength as rushers and receivers, neither can be taken lightly by the defense no matter where they are. Utilizing a series of presnap motions, misdirections, screens, & RPOs, the Hines/Taylor duo can be a nightmare for opposing defenses to defend. Overcommit to stopping one of them; the other can be in a favorable one-on-one matchup, exploit a zone gap, or break free for a big run. Having a five-man front can be thus be countered extra defender is not in coverage, limiting the types of zone coverage packages they can employ and asking their defenders to cover more ground. All it takes is one juke, stiff arm, or spin, and the runner with more space to work with can break free. Hines and Taylor can be the weapon or the ultimate decoy to free someone else to make a play. Getting involved in the game and demanding Belichick’s attention can be vital, especially in short-yardage or red zone situations.
Score Prediction: Colts 20-Patriots 17
Both defenses can do a lot to neutralize each other’s offenses, matching up well with a lot of each others’ weaknesses. Judon and JC are dangerous, but the Patriot’s middle-tier run Defense will need to make several adjustments to cover up their biggest weakness against the Colts rush attack. Avoiding JC can be done by targeting ancillary targets. Judon has the biggest individual mismatch in the passing game in favor of the Patriots, but he won’t have as big of an impact should the Colts establish the run. Losing Harris can prove detrimental to the Patriot’s ground attack, forcing Mac to pass more. Ultimately if the Colts Defense can win the turnover battle with some well-timed football punches or jumped routes, the Colts will have a much better shot at defeating the Patriots. Belichick has a strong team, but he has been at his best when able to out physical opponents. Should a team match his in such a tenacious way, Belichick has found less success.
This game will be a fervor and excitement in the air as neither team dominates the other, but the bad blood and history will be on display. The Colts are fighting not just for a playoff spot but reclaiming a legacy. The Patriots are fighting to reclaim the dominance they enjoyed once unchallenged by a certain Sheriff and maintain their hold on the AFC. A high-stakes late-season Colts vs. Patriots game is a very special thing in the NFL. No matter the outcome, I appreciate the opportunity to renew this historic rivalry. Now is the Colts time to ensure that their GM’s words ring true: