“The Rivalry is Back On”
– Colts General Manager Chris Ballard, 2/7/2018
Those words finally ring true for the first time in years. They were uttered by Ballard at the end of a press conference that was supposed to announce Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels as the new Head Coach for the Colts. The Colts roster assembled by Ballard and coached by Frank Reich along with Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus and former Patriots ST coach Bubba Ventrone beat the evil empire. For the Colts entire building, this game was personal.
DC Matt Eberflus was initially hired by McDaniels to be his defensive coordinator, before also being left at the proverbial altar. You think Eberflus took it personally dear reader? I would think so based off of shutting down the Patriots offense to 0 points in the first Quarter, first time that has happened in over 100 games. The culminating moment in that dominant stretch? Colts All Pro LB Darius Leonard, the first player drafted for Eberflus’ Defense in Indy, fooling McDaniels’ QB Mac Jones into making an ill advised throw in the red zone, picking the ball off, then stiff arming the Patriots top Wide Receiver Jakobi Meyers into oblivion on the return. Poetic Justice.
Heading into this week, the Bill Belichick led Patriots were in a groove. After starting 2-4, they went on a 7 game win streak. The last of those 2 wins was against the at the time 1 seeded Titans by 23 points, and a 14-10 win over their best division rival Bills in a game where Mac Jones only threw 3 times the entire game. They had reclaimed the top seed in the AFC and controlled their destiny of home field advantage for the playoffs all before heading into the bye. They had returned to supremacy in the AFC, and many analysts were declaring them back to peak form and Super Bowl contenders.
Both Patriots and Colts had Byes heading into the game, giving both teams time to get healthy and scheme up ways to win. Both teams were only missing a single offensive starter, the Patriots leading rusher Damien Harris due to a lingering hamstring injury, and the Colts starting Center Ryan Kelly due to personal matters. Both Colts and Patriots had well rounded teams with top 10 Defenses (Patriots #1 in points allowed vs Colts #8, Colts most turnovers forced vs Patriots 3rd), strong physical offenses, and intelligent coaches keeping their teams schematically sound and disciplined. Because of this many analyst predicted a close game heading into the game, but few if any predicting the Colts to topple the Patriots for the first time since 2010.
— coltsmilitia (@coltsmilitia_) December 19, 2021
And yet here we are at this wonderful moment in time, where the Colts have defeated the Patriots 27-17. They beat the Patriots with Eberflus’ Defense playing lights out for 3 quarters to embarrass McDaniels’ Offense and QB protegè. They did so with a roster nearly entirely created from scratch by Ballard since that infamous 2018 press conference (only players left on the roster: TY Hilton, inactive Marlon Mack, & the aforementioned Ryan Kelly). They beat the so with a waved Patriots depth Corner emerging as the best slot corners and one of the best corners in the NFL: Kenny Moore II. They beat the Patriots by using the Patriots own formula of beating teams to submission with strong opportunistic defenses and elite offensive line play bullying opposing defenses to allow running backs to burst free against them, a formula most infamously used against the Colts in several early 2000s Super Bowl runs in cold January nights in Foxborough. Long had the Patriots reigned off of knocking off the finesse Colts with a bruising style of play. But last night, the Colts gave them a taste of their own medicine.
Special Shoutout to the Colts Offensive Line, Tight Ends, and Wide Receivers for their blocking chops dominating the Patriots at the line of Scrimmage. Every single one of the blockers deserves a round of applause for their dominance. Eric Fisher was a mauler at sealing off the edge on the left side in the run game and survived vs Judon in the passing game. Quenton Nelson was his usual dominant self, at times blocking 2-3 defenders at the same time and manhandling his assignments. Danny Pinter filled in well yet again for Ryan Kelly and is showing to be another day 3 steal for the Colts. Chris Reed and Braden Smith were monsters on the right side as well. Jack Doyle, Mo Alie Cox, and even Kylen Granson had several strong blocks in line to help jump start the Colts rushers. The blockers were playing with their hearts on their sleeves last night and deserve a nice St. Elmo’s steak dinner compliments of Carson Wentz, Jonathan Taylor, Nyhiem Hines, and Ashton Dulin in my opinion.
The Colts linebackers to their credit were a high impact unit as well. They had 2 INTs (Bobby Okereke reading Mac Jones like a book & the aforementioned Maniac Stiff Arm INT) as well as blocking a punt and scoring a TD of their own (block by Matthew Adams, recovery & TD by EJ Speed). With the Linebackers swarming on defense and special teams, the Patriots were simply overwhelmed throughout the game.
Some could say Carson Wentz was holding the Colts back today. Narratives can be said that while he doesn’t turn the ball over much, but when he does it can cost the Colts big in tight games. His tipped INT into double/triple coverage late in the game does little to disavow those concerns. Neither did throwing 0 TDs in his 12 attempts (though one was dropped in the endzone by Mo Alie Cox). Wentz did not step up for the most part in the game, particularly in the passing attack. Despite his passing struggles, Wentz did show some clutch play in the game. His rushing stat line of 8 carries for 17 yards is not eye opening at all, especially in the era of Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, or Kyler Murray. But he had at least half of them turn into critical first downs. 3 of them were simple QB sneaks on 3rd or 4th down which showed a nice deal of trust in him from Frank Reich. Another was a scramble after avoiding a strong Patriots pass rush and break it to the outside for a 10+ yard gain and a first down. Was he the main driver of the Colts offensive success? Not at all in this game. But Wentz in several key moments did what was needed for victory, which should not be entirely dismissed either.
One could choose to dwell on the nitpicks and negatives of the game. Hunter Henry and Mac Jones teaming up to beat the Colts mid zones in the 2nd half was worrying sure. So was the Colts offense stalling for a good portion of the 2nd half to make the game 20-17. After several multiscore blown leads to playoff teams this season, Colts fans at the time were rightfully nervous at the time for a repeat of what happened vs the Ravens, Titans, and Buccaneers earlier. But the nervous tension in Lucas Oil Stadium gave way to deafening euphoria with one play.
The Patriots did what they were supposed to in the situation: load the box to commit to stop the run. The Colts blockers did what they were supposed to even better: zone off nearly the entire left side of the Patriots front. Jonathan Taylor did what he was supposed to do masterfully: use impeccable footwork and spacial awareness paired with lightning quick acceleration and track star speed to practically freeze the 2 defenders in the running lane and race to the endzone at a top speed of 22.13 mph (the best this season among all ball carriers per NFL’s Next Gen Stats).
JONATHAN TAYLOR. 67 YARDS. GOOD NIGHT.
— NFL (@NFL) December 19, 2021
MVP: Jonathan Taylor
Jonathan Taylor made yet another MVP-worthy game. 29 carries for 170 yards, and that game-sealing touchdown is another very impressive stat line. To do so against the Patriots selling out to the run makes it even more impressive. Bill Belichick loves to scheme up ways to take away opposing offense’s best weapon, of which Jonathan Taylor is clearly the Colts. Frank Reich knew this and started the game with a huge jet sweep to Ashton Dulin on the game’s first play. Reich then brought in the double back formations in the RedZone to create further trickery with Hines and Taylor on the field together. This culminated in a direct snap to Taylor, handoff to Carson Wentz, and handoff to Hines on the end-around sweep with Taylor as a lead blocker to escort his fellow back into the endzone for the game-opening TD. Whether Taylor was being a decoy, delivering critical pass blocks against blitzing defenders, or running the damn ball himself, Jonathan Taylor made a significant impact despite being THE essential focal point of the Evil Hoodie’s machinations and plots. For that, JT deserves not just the game’s MVP award but to be amongst the frontrunners for the 2021 MVP award.
The 8-6 Colts now are in control of their playoff destiny. They own the top WC spot at the 5th seed in the AFC playoff race, along with either Head to Head or Conference Record Tiebreakers over every team in the wildcard race. Thanks to the Steelers defeating the Titans 19-13 today, the Colts are still very much in the mix for the AFC South title as well, only 1.5 games back with three left. The Colt’s next opponent: on the road against the Arizona Cardinals fresh off of a significant 18 point upset loss to the Detroit Lions. But for now, Colts fans, let’s enjoy this sweet Victory.