Football Outsiders
Innovative Statistics, Intelligent Analysis

Game Preview: NE-IND

Game Preview: NE-IND
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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
Year
Team
DVOA
Record
Opp Team
Opp DVOA
Opp Record
Off Diff
Def Diff
St Diff
Tot Diff
1998 CIN -18.8% 2-11 IND -19.3% 2-11 0.6% 0.6% 0.5% 1.6%
2002 ARI -6.2% 3-2 DAL -7.0% 3-3 1.0% 0.2% 0.0% 1.2%
2014 NE 13.0% 7-2 IND 13.0% 6-3 0.5% 1.1% 1.5% 3.1%
2003 ATL -19.4% 2-9 HOU -22.7% 4-7 0.5% 1.7% 1.2% 3.3%
2004 HOU -10.3% 2-3 TEN -10.4% 2-3 0.5% 1.3% 1.8% 3.5%

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
Home Road Diff. Rk Home Road Diff. Rk Home Road Diff. Rk
NE 15-5 3-11 0.536 1 7.8 -2.6 10.3 6 50.1% 10.0% 40.1% 2
IND 14-5 5-16 0.499 2 2.7 -10.7 13.4 4 15.6% -13.5% 29.1% 6
CHI 10-11 1-14 0.409 3 -0.3 -16.1 15.8 1 22.4% -40.2% 62.6% 1
NO 15-5 7-11 0.361 4 9.5 -2.7 12.2 5 34.1% 6.0% 28.1% 8
ARI 8-9 2-15 0.353 5 -1.8 -15.7 13.9 2 -5.6% -26.5% 20.9% 12
MIN 8-8 3-19-1 0.348 6 -2.6 -8.6 6.0 13 -10.2% -7.3% -2.9% 30
BAL 13-6 9-16 0.324 7 4.8 -3.2 8.0 11 30.1% 1.4% 28.7% 7
SEA 11-8 6-15 0.293 8 0.1 -9.5 9.5 7 16.8% -20.9% 37.7% 4
STL 7-16 1-13-1 0.204 9 -9.8 -12.2 2.4 26 -11.3% -15.3% 4.0% 24
PIT 12-7 7-9 0.194 10 4.6 -3.6 8.3 10 27.7% 6.7% 21.0% 11
NYG 7-8 6-15 0.181 11 0.7 -13.1 13.8 3 11.7% -24.4% 36.2% 5
SF 10-8 9-15 0.181 12 0.0 -5.4 5.4 16 10.2% -7.8% 18.0% 14
DEN 9-10 6-13 0.158 13 -2.2 -5.8 3.6 22 9.3% 9.9% -0.6% 28
CLE 4-16 1-20 0.152 14 -7.7 -10.3 2.6 25 -10.0% -11.8% 1.8% 26
CIN 9-11 6-14 0.150 15 0.1 -9.1 9.1 8 27.8% -10.4% 38.2% 3
HOU 9-12 6-15 0.143 16 -1.2 -5.4 4.1 19 2.7% 1.2% 1.6% 27
Team Record (Win%) Scoring Margin (PPG) Total DVOA
Home Road Diff. Rk Home Road Diff. Rk Home Road Diff. Rk
GB 9-6 11-13 0.142 17 3.0 2.0 1.0 28 34.1% 18.6% 15.5% 18
KC 3-12 1-12 0.123 18 -8.7 -17.4 8.7 9 -5.8% -32.1% 26.2% 9
BUF 3-14 1-16 0.117 19 -9.8 -13.6 3.8 21 -6.9% -26.7% 19.9% 13
ATL 7-11 5-13 0.111 20 -2.8 -8.3 5.4 15 9.6% 0.2% 9.4% 21
OAK 5-10 4-13 0.098 21 -8.5 -12.3 3.8 20 -6.5% -23.6% 17.0% 17
CAR 6-15 4-17 0.096 22 -9.2 -8.8 -0.4 30 -12.5% -11.9% -0.6% 29
DET 3-18 1-18 0.090 23 -4.9 -11.8 6.9 12 -7.4% -15.5% 8.1% 23
NYJ 6-8 7-13 0.079 24 -1.9 -7.1 5.2 17 16.3% -5.2% 21.5% 10
MIA 6-12 5-13 0.055 25 -5.4 -8.9 3.5 23 5.6% -12.3% 18.0% 15
JAC 4-16 3-16 0.042 26 -14.0 -10.8 -3.2 32 -30.1% -24.1% -5.9% 32
TEN 4-16 3-16 0.042 27 -8.5 -13.2 4.7 18 -12.7% -21.1% 8.5% 22
WAS 6-15 3-9 0.036 28 -6.2 -6.5 0.3 29 -4.6% -15.1% 10.5% 20
PHI 6-13 4-8 -0.017 29 -5.2 -8.2 3.0 24 5.2% -12.5% 17.7% 16
TB 3-17 4-15 -0.061 30 -11.6 -9.2 -2.4 31 -16.3% -11.4% -4.9% 31
SD 6-10 6-6 -0.125 31 -0.2 -1.5 1.3 27 16.9% 5.4% 11.5% 19
DAL 3-13 9-12 -0.241 32 -0.2 -6.0 5.9 14 8.3% 6.4% 1.9% 25
AVG 0.408 0.250 0.159 - -2.8 -8.6 5.8 - 6.7% -10.1% 16.8% -

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.

Patriots on the Ground
Year
Rushing DVOA
Rushing Rank
2004 11.3% 4
2005 -2.8% 17
2006 7.0% 8
2007 19.6% 2
2008 15.3% 4
2009 6.2% 9
2010 24.2% 2
2011 12.6% 4
2012 11.9% 4
2013 6.9% 6
2014 -25.4% 31

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.

PREDICTION

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.

Comments

12 comments, Last at 18 Nov 2014, 5:18pm

1 Re: Game Preview: Patriots at Colts

It would be interesting to see the breakdown of all time "closeness" when comparing subunits.

RunO vs RunD, PassO vs PassD, Kick vs KickRET

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The standard is the standard!

2 Re: Game Preview: Patriots at Colts

In keeping with the rest of this year, I expect a blowout in one direction or the other. Either Gronkowski goes wild and the Patriots shut down the Colts' passing game, forcing Trent Richardson the-mighty-one to beat them, or the Patriots' offensive line lets them down, letting Brady succumb to pressure, and the Colts score a bushel off of short fields. I guess, the close possible outcome would be if both results happen, in true Colts fashion, perhaps the first result in the first half and the latter in the second...

4 Re: Game Preview: Patriots at Colts

Unfortunately for me as a Colts fan, I think we are more likely to see the NE blowout win than anything else. The Pats simply match up very well with the Colts, and tonight's referee crew is one of the least flag-happy crews in the NFL, which will help Browner do his thing with impunity. The only thing favoring Indy in this matchup is home field. The Colts defense is quite good against a line or QB who can't figure out their blitzes, but that does not describe Tom Brady very well. (Or Manning, or Big Ben ...)

As much as I enjoy this new-look Indy team (an actual special teams unit that works, a little defense at times!), tonight's game has the makings of a forgettable night for the Colts.

8 Re: Game Preview: Patriots at Colts

My prediction sort of came true, except for the part about the Colts scoring "a bushel". The Pats had the two terrible turnovers, and did yield a score from them, but Indy failed to capitalize on some of the good field position they had in the first half. Weird play by the NE offensive line though--amazing run blocking (out of nowhere) and lapses in pass protection; it was the bizarro NE offense look... Indy needed to be able to sustain drives a little bit better I suppose, but with no defensive ability to stop the run, the margin is razor thin--NE only punted once all night.

6 Re: Game Preview: Patriots at Colts

And I miss having reasons to believe the Colts would win these games! Oh, the good old days. (Of course, in the past two years the Colts have done some weird things, like beating Seattle and Denver last year, and then shutting out one team and then giving up 50 the next week this year, so anything's possible.)

10 Re: Game Preview: Patriots at Colts

I don't mind game previews at all, but this site usually considers DVOA as more important than W's and L's when evaluating teams. Therefore GB vs. PHI (3 vs. 5) and even SEA vs. KC (4 vs. 10) would be more compelling matchups than NE vs. IND (7 vs. 8).

12 Re: Game Preview: Patriots at Colts

In other words, one guess is as good as another. Brady has two goofy-bad INTs and the Patriots put the boot to the Colts. Indy's front line looked like the Little Sisters of the Poor out there.