By Michael David Smith
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Normally this is where the full disclosure of possible pro-New England bias would go, but you'll notice that we handed off this preview to someone who has absolutely no emotional stake in either team.
In November the Colts met the Patriots in a close, hard-fought battle between two of the league's top teams. The hype surrounding the game focused on quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and the difference that night in New England was that Manning had a much better game than Brady did as Indianapolis won 27-20. But the quarterback is only one player, and as the teams prepare to meet again in the AFC Championship Sunday, the other 45 players on each team deserve most of the attention.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Everyone who watched football this season knew the Colts' run defense would be their downfall come playoff time. But through two playoff games, not only has the defense not hurt the Colts, it has come through and led them to victory against both the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens. In two playoff games, the Colts have allowed just 127 yards on 37 runs.
A big reason is that safety Bob Sanders is finally healthy after playing just four games in the regular season. (The victory over the Patriots was one of the four. He led the Colts with eight tackles and intercepted Brady.) Defensive end Dwight Freeney, usually a threat against the pass but a liability against the run, has also played a part in the Colts' playoff improvement by taking his pass rushing to the inside more often, which means teams have a harder time running in his direction. And the Colts are lining up their defensive backs closer to the line of scrimmage to help in run support.
That last tactic is something both Kansas City and Baltimore failed to capitalize on. Now it's New England's turn. Look for Brady to pass to Reche Caldwell early and often. In their first meeting Caldwell, who led the Patriots in catches and yards this season, caught just one pass, but in general number one receivers have burned the Colts' secondary. Caldwell figures to have a big day Sunday -- especially if Sanders and the rest of the secondary are focusing on the running game. Caldwell and the Patriots' other receivers shouldn't expect to break many big plays, though. One of the few things the Colts' defense did well this year was stop long passes: The Colts gave up only 27 passes of 20 or more yards, the lowest total in the league.
Whether Brady has time to pass will depend in large part on the battle between Freeney and Patriots left tackle Matt Light, which could be the most important individual match-up of the game. But that match-up won't just be important on passing plays. The Patriots average 5.1 yards per carry running around the left end, the fourth-best average in the league, but they average 2.3 yards per carry running around the right end, dead last in the league. Those runs around the left end will look inviting if Freeney continues his recent habit of rushing to the inside.
New England's rushing attack will come from veteran Corey Dillon and rookie Laurence Maroney Both are effective runners, and the Colts' success the last two weeks aside, it's hard to envision Indianapolis shutting both of them down. Even counting the playoffs, the Colts have allowed 5.2 yards per carry this season, the worst in the league. To put that in perspective, 5.2 yards per carry was Jim Brown's career average, which means the Colts have made the average runner they faced look like the greatest runner in the history of the game.
The Colts' weak defense is why Indianapolis had to win so many close games. Both teams won 12 games in the regular season, but only four of the Colts' wins were by double-digit margins, while the Patriots had eight such wins. Counting the playoffs, the Patriots have outscored their opponents this season by a cumulative 446-264, while the Colts' total score is 465-374.
With the exception of tackle Booger McFarland, who was brought in during the season to try to shore up the run defense, the Colts' line is undersized, and New England's offensive line should dominate in short-yardage situations. When they run on third or fourth down with a yard or two to go, the Patriots pick up the first down 82% of the time, the best average in the league. That helps explain why New England chooses to go for it so often on fourth down: The Patriots were an incredible 16-of-20 when going for it on fourth down this season. Expect that trend to continue Sunday, as the Colts allowed their opponents to pick up 11 first downs on 14 tries when going for it on fourth down. If the Patriots face a fourth-and-1, they'll most likely go for it almost anywhere on the field -- and a fourth down stop or conversion could be decisive.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel is one of the best in the business, and he could be the next defensive back to give Manning fits in the playoffs. But Manning might just avoid Samuel entirely. Manning is at his best when he looks to exploit weaknesses in the secondary, and the Patriots' secondary has some holes. Although New England can shut down the other team's top receiver, the Patriots' defensive scheme devotes so much attention to first receivers that the opponent's second receiver usually plays well against New England. Manning usually distributes the ball evenly between his two favorite targets, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, but on Sunday he'll focus primarily on whichever receiver is on the other side of the field, away from Samuel.
Safety Rodney Harrison has missed New England's two playoff games with a sprained knee, and it's unclear whether he'll play Sunday. Harrison is tough and physical and knows how to knock opposing receivers around while (usually) avoiding penalties for pass interference and illegal contact. That makes him exactly the kind of defensive back the Colts hate to face. His presence would make a big difference for New England -- and his absence would be a major confidence boost for Manning.
The Colts split their carries between two running backs, and throughout the regular season, rookie Joseph Addai was a significantly better runner than veteran Dominic Rhodes. But Rhodes has played well in the playoffs, especially on the Colts' final drive against Baltimore, when Indianapolis took more than seven minutes off the clock by giving Rhodes the ball 11 times. Addai is the faster runner of the two, but Rhodes has more power. Expect the Colts to split the workload between the two of them equally.
When teams run against the Patriots, they usually go right up the gut -- 68% of runs against New England went up the middle this season, which is the highest rate in the league. The Colts run well up the middle, but if they try it against the Patriots, center Jeff Saturday will have a tough assignment against nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
Left tackle Tarik Glenn is the Colts' best lineman. The Colts average an NFL-best 5.6 yards per carry running behind the left tackle and 4.6 yards per carry running around the left end, but they average just 4.4 yards per carry running behind the right tackle and 3.6 yards per carry running around the right end. Glenn will have a big challenge going against New England's Richard Seymour. Seymour was the only Patriot selected to the Pro Bowl and is one of the league's best defensive linemen, although he struggled on Sunday against San Diego left tackle Marcus McNeill.
If Manning and Co. can get into field goal range, they'll feel comfortable with their kicker. By signing Adam Vinatieri away from the Patriots, the Colts added field goal accuracy and playoff experience to their roster. Vinatieri is 7-for-7 in the Colts' two playoff games.
Field goals, however, are the only area where the Colts have the special teams advantage. Stephen Gostkowski, the rookie the Patriots drafted to replace Vinatieri, has more leg strength than Vinatieri on kickoffs, the Patriots' coverage units are better than the Colts', and New England has significantly better return men than Indianapolis.
The NFL hype machine would say otherwise, but this game may turn out to be less about which quarterback plays better, Manning or Brady, than about which safety is healthier, Sanders or Harrison. Sanders looks like he's back to full speed, while Harrison is doubtful. Combine that with the home-field advantage the Colts earned by winning at New England in November, and Indianapolis is the favorite to win what promises to be a great game between two great teams.
ALSO OF INTEREST
- FO FOX blog post on IND/NE pass coverage patterns
- FO FOX blog post on game charting stats for DBs from teams that played wild card weekend
- Every Play Counts: Colts' Run Defense
- Any Given Sunday: Colts over Ravens
- Any Given Sunday: Dolphins over Patriots
- Too Deep Zone: How to Run on the Colts
- Too Deep Zone articles on running and passing from multiple-tight end sets, a major part of the New England offense.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) Red zone DVOA is also listed.
WEI DVOA is WEIGHTED DVOA, which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here). This is the same formula used in this week's FOXSports.com power rankings, and it includes the playoffs. All numbers except for WEIGHTED DVOA are regular season only.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense.
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a third-power polynomial trendline. That's fancy talk for "the curve shifts direction once or twice." Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.