by Andrew Healy and Scott Kacsmar
By performance this year, Sunday's Patriots-Colts matchup is close. Crazy close. The Patriots and Colts are dead-even in overall DVOA (13.0%). No two teams are closer on offense, either, where the Patriots' 10.5% ranks ninth and the Colts' 11.0% ranks eighth. And the gaps between the Patriots and Colts are not much bigger on defense (4.7% vs. 3.6%) and special teams (5.6% vs. 7.1%). If we add up the gaps between the two teams across the three units, Sunday's matchup is the closest matchup for any game in ten years, and the third-closest going back to 1991, a time in which more than 10,000 games have been played.
|The Closest Matchups by DVOA Since 1991
It's safe to say that a few more eyes will be on Sunday night's game than were on that 1998 Bengals-Colts classic. While that matchup had one soon-to-be-great quarterback, Sunday's game features two already-great signal-callers. With the very large playoff implications -- the winner of Sunday's game will have about a 75 percent chance of getting a first-round bye, while the loser will have just a 25 percent chance -- this dead-even-on-paper matchup appears to have it all.
But the Patriots and Colts of Week 11 are different from those teams that accumulated those overall numbers earlier in the season, The matchup is very different from the Patriots' blowout in the divisional playoffs in January, too. On the Patriots side, Rob Gronkowski is healthy, and playing very much like the best tight end in the game. But Andrew Luck is also not the same quarterback who threw four interceptions in that playoff game, and this time he and the Colts get to play at Lucas Oil Stadium.
HOME SWEET HOME
Since 2009, no two teams have gotten a bigger boost from playing at home against winning teams than the Patriots and Colts. The Patriots are just 3-11 on the road against teams that finished the season with a winning record (including playoffs, but not the neutral-site Super Bowl XLVI loss). That's the 20th-best win percentage in the NFL in that time. Even the Jaguars (3-16) and Titans (3-16) have three road wins against winning teams.
On the other side of the coin, New England's 15-5 home record against winning teams from 2009-13 is tied with New Orleans for the best record in the league. The Colts come in at third place at 14-5 (2-2 in 2011 without a franchise quarterback). Like New England, their road record isn't the greatest at 5-16, but that does include an 0-6 slump in 2011 without Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck.
The table below looks at home vs. road performance splits from 2009-2013 (playoffs included) in games against teams finishing the season with a winning record. The Patriots and Colts get the biggest boost in these games from being at home. Please note that the average DVOA only includes regular season games (92 percent of the sample).
|Team||Record (Win%)||Scoring Margin (PPG)||Total DVOA|
|Team||Record (Win%)||Scoring Margin (PPG)||Total DVOA|
Sometimes, splits happen. That's true at least to some extent here, as the Patriots are 6-1 on the road since 2009 against teams that finished the season at 8-8. They finished ranked first in overall road DVOA in 2010, 2011, and 2012, too, which makes sense given that their road losses have often been very close. So we want to be cautious in interpreting these splits. Still, the last time the Patriots beat a great quarterback on the road was 2010, when they beat Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in Rob Gronkowski's coming-out party. And the home team has gone 11-0 in games featuring two of the AFC's current top quarterbacks (Brady, Roethlisberger, Luck, and Manning) since Luck's rookie year.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Andrew Luck's performance is not always well understood. As a rookie, he often received too much credit when he was skating just on the edge of disaster, albeit with a bad offensive line and limited receiving options. He had 18 interceptions, and was fortunate not to throw more. He led the league with 14 dropped picks. Accounting for luck, Luck had the highest interception rate for any quarterback with 300 attempts not named Brandon Weeden. Last year, Luck had mostly fixed that problem, but still his efficiency was only good enough to make 2012 Sam Bradford his closest comparable by the numbers.
But new evidence is in and it's time to adjust our evaluations. Luck has made a quantum leap in his efficiency this year. After ranking 19th and 16th in DVOA his first two years, Luck is up to fifth this season. The best number other than DVOA that we have to look at efficiency is Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (ANY/A). From averaging 5.66 and 6.06 Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (ANY/A) in his first two years, Luck is averaging 7.70 yards in 2014. To put that in perspective, Luck has made the jump from about Cam Newton's career efficiency (6.02 ANY/A) to Aaron Rodgers's all-time leading career average (7.70 ANY/A).
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So the Patriots are not facing the same quarterback they picked off four times in the rain last January. The Patriots are facing a quarterback who takes markedly fewer sacks than he did in his first two years, down to 3.4 percent of dropbacks from 5.3 percent and 6.1 percent his first two years. Instead of last year's 60.2 percent passer, the Patriots have to stop a quarterback who completes 63.6 percent of his throws. Is Luck great? The evidence across all his throws (and runs) indicates that third-year Luck is a top-tier quarterback right now.
To slow down Andrew Luck and the Colts' offense, the Patriots will need to force mistakes. Over the last three years, the Patriots have been relatively bad on defense, but good at forcing interceptions on downfield throws. The Patriots have forced a below-average number of interceptions when the pass travels 15 yards or less, but the most interceptions in the NFL (and the fifth-highest rate) on passes traveling more than 15 yards. The Colts still throw downfield more than the league average, even under offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. If the Patriots are going to get a mistake out of Andrew Luck, their best chance is a throw down the field like the one Jamie Collins picked off in his breakout game against the Colts in January.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
The quarterback immediately ahead of Luck in DVOA is Tom Brady. For all their problems on offense in the first four weeks, the Patriots have the league's second-ranked passing offense. If they are going to score 30 points against the Colts, they will have to do it differently than they did in January's playoff game. In that game, the Patriots won on the ground, rushing 46 times for 234 yards. LeGarrette Blount had 24 of those carries for 166 yards (6.9 Y/C) and four touchdowns. Those Patriots, however, were a good running team all year. This year, however, has been an entirely different story.
After ranking no lower than ninth in rushing from 2006 to 2013, the Patriots have fallen all the way to 31st this year. These numbers are so bad that even the failed offensive line experiments from early in the season with the disastrous blocking of Jordan Devey, Cameron Fleming, and crew can't fully explain it. Either retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia needs his own wing in Canton or the Patriots really miss both Blount and the now-injured Stevan Ridley, or a little bit of both. The Patriots are unlikely to beat the Colts this time on the ground.
On the other hand, their primary offensive strength does match up well with the Colts' biggest defensive weakness. The Patriots have a tight end who can do this:
That balletic-at-265-pounds force of nature is the undeniable key to the Patriots offense, and perhaps the most essential non-quarterback in football. With a full-strength Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots have been great on offense since late 2010. When Gronkowski gets at least 100 yards receiving, the Patriots have had an all-time great offense. Over those 15 games, the Patriots have averaged 41.9 points per game, on pace for 670 points (!) over a full season. By comparison, since 2010, the Patriots have averaged 10 points fewer for the 19 games where Wes Welker or Julian Edelman eclipsed 100 yards. And Gronkowski's production is on the upswing. In last two games, he has caught 18 of 19 targets for 254 yards (13.4 yards per target) and four touchdowns.
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On Sunday, Gronkowski is facing a Colts defense that ranks 29th in DVOA at stopping tight ends. To slow down a good tight end, the Colts might ideally want to emulate the Patriots' strategy against Denver in Week 9. The Patriots also struggled to cover tight ends early in the year, but they held Julius Thomas to just two catches in that game. Unlike earlier weeks when they were torched by the likes of Scott Chandler and Travis Kelce, the Patriots primarily used a corner (Brandon Browner) in coverage on Thomas. The Colts don't really have the same option to cover Gronkowski, however. Vontae Davis has been great this year, but he is 5-foot-11, not 6-foot-4. The Colts may have to use double-teams to contain Gronkowski.
In this closest of matchups by DVOA, the Patriots' strengths match up well with the Colts' tendencies and weaknesses. On defense, the Patriots have been unusually good at forcing turnovers on downfield passes, throws that the Colts still make more than most. On offense, the Patriots rely upon on an all-world tight end much better than the tight ends who have dominated the Colts' defense in earlier games. We like the Patriots' chances to break through on the road and win a relatively close one.