Football Outsiders
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2015 AFC Championship Preview

2015 AFC Championship Preview
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

Fresh off an exciting win over Denver, the Colts head to New England with their franchise quarterback enjoying the best season of his career. He will try to improve on last January's four-interception disaster and earn his first win against the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady-led Patriots.

Did I just copy and paste someone's article from ten years ago? No, but the exact same words could have been used for the 2004 AFC Divisional matchup, when the Peyton Manning-led Colts played the Patriots for the second year in a row in the playoffs, both games won by New England and its dominant defense. (In case you are curious, here's the FO preview for that one, from the early days of the site.) While the NFL has changed so much in the last decade, this particular rivalry basically remains the same. Both teams have a star quarterback, but the Patriots have the coaching advantage and a better-rounded roster capable of adapting to any game plan.

We all know how great the Patriots are at home, where Brady is 103-17 (.858) as a starter in his career. New England earned this year's No. 1 seed thanks in part to one of its most impressive road wins in years in Week 11, beating the Colts 42-20 on Sunday Night Football behind an unexpected performance from running back Jonas Gray (201 rushing yards and four touchdowns). Now that the venue switches to Gillette Stadium, how can Indianapolis change the script?

Everyone has to learn from past mistakes. Andrew Luck threw seven interceptions in his first two games in Foxboro, but at home in Week 11 against a better New England secondary he only suffered one pick on a tipped ball. He also had an interception dropped in the fourth quarter while behind by 22 points, but he must protect the ball this week. Since 2001 the Patriots are 76-3 (.962) at home when winning the turnover battle, including a meaningless loss in Week 17 to the Bills.

Fortunately, the Luck-era Colts have done a great job of learning from past matchups. Since 2012 the Colts are 12-0 in same-season rematches: 9-0 in the AFC South and 3-0 in the playoffs. One could argue that that record is not as impressive as it sounds. The AFC South has been really bad in that time. In those three playoff wins, the Colts needed a 28-point comeback to beat Kansas City; the Bengals had Andy Dalton and didn't have any receivers or pass rush; and Peyton Manning was struggling with a torn quad on Sunday.

There is also this playoff fact: since 2001 the Patriots are 10-0 against new playoff opponents, but only 9-8 in rematches from the regular season. Since 2005 the Patriots are just 4-8 in playoff rematches, with wins over Eric Mangini's Jets, Philip Rivers playing on a torn ACL, the Tim Tebow-led Broncos, and a Houston team that faded down the stretch. So that's not impressive either. We have seen teams make dramatic turnarounds against New England before, such as the 2010 Jets turning a 45-3 December loss into a 28-21 playoff upset. The 2007 Giants went from allowing 38 points at home in Week 17 to just 14 points in Super Bowl XLII.

The Colts can give New England a much better challenge this time, but the path to victory likely requires the kind of team that Chuck Pagano has tried, but rarely succeeded, to lead onto the field. My first advice to Pagano is to defer if he wins the coin toss, because that would take the Patriots out of their comfort zone. Last postseason the Colts chose to receive and trailed 7-0 after 79 seconds.

Getting behind in Foxboro is a death sentence. Since 2001, only three teams have won in New England after trailing in the second half. Who was the last team to pull that off? It was Baltimore in the 2012 AFC Championship Game. Overall, the Patriots are 87-0 at home since 2001 when leading by at least eight points at any time in the game.

No pressure, Indy.

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. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted. All game charting for these two teams is now complete; any game charting data that appears with a asterisk appears courtesy of the ESPN Stats & Information Group. This preview has two different week-to-week charts for each team, one for offense and one for defense. Because defensive DVOA is opposite of offensive DVOA, the defensive charts are flipped upside-down; thus, the higher dots still represent better games.

Indianapolis at New England



Colts on Offense
IND OFF NE DEF
DVOA -0.9% (17) -3.4% (11)
WEI DVOA -5.0% (19) -7.4% (12)
PASS 15.6% (13) 2.0% (12)
RUSH -15.9% (27) -10.4% (14)
RED ZONE -12.0% (19) -11.4% (10)


Patriots on Offense
NE OFF IND DEF
DVOA 13.6% (6) -2.3% (13)
WEI DVOA 21.1% (3) -10.3% (7)
PASS 35.0% (5) 1.1% (10)
RUSH -3.6% (14) -6.6% (19)
RED ZONE 5.2% (11) 1.9% (20)


Special Teams
IND NE
DVOA 3.3% (8) 5.5% (5)
IND kickoff +4.9 (9) +0.5 (13)
NE kickoff +0.4 (14) +8.4 (3)
IND punts +11.2 (6) +8.4 (5)
NE punts -8.5 (31) -0.6 (18)
FG/XP +8.4 (4) +10.8 (1)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL

Last week the Colts seemed to follow my advice, ignoring the run as Luck dropped back on each of the first 11 offensive plays. Soon they realized Denver's run defense was not the impenetrable force the stats suggested and helped Luck out with 26 carries. This week I think the Colts need to run the ball from spread sets early in the game so Luck does not start off thinking he has to be a one-man show. In last year's playoff loss, he threw a bad interception on the third play of the game and the Patriots only had to drive 2 yards for a touchdown. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton needs to take some of the pressure off Luck early with productive running plays.

In Week 11, the Colts had a pathetic night with 13 carries for 4 yards. One of their worst plays was Ahmad Bradshaw dropping a wide-open pass on second-and-12. Luck ended up leading the team in rushing with 15 yards. That obviously cannot happen again as the backs need to play better. Trent Richardson has been benched and Dan Herron has displayed tough running along with 18 catches in 19 targets in the postseason. Luck has fallen in love with that checkdown and should keep using Herron that way to complement the running game. A wrinkle like the read option could also open up the running lanes. Last postseason, Luck kept the ball on a fourth-and-1 and picked up 21 yards, but we have rarely ever seen that from the Colts. One area where the Colts may want to avoid calling runs is in the red zone. The Colts are 31st in red-zone rushing DVOA, while New England's defense is fifth. You may recall left tackle Anthony Castonzo catching a 1-yard touchdown from Luck in Week 11 on a tackle-eligible play.

Only the left side of the offensive line remains intact from Week 11 for the Colts, but this new unit has handled things very well in recent weeks, including holding Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to a very quiet day in Denver. Chandler Jones did not play in the last meeting, but the Colts have already blocked better pass rushers. The bigger concern may be Jamie Collins attacking the inexperienced interior. Collins' breakout game came last postseason against the Colts.

The Colts have to keep third downs manageable. On third down, the offense is ranked sixth in DVOA while the New England defense ranks 21st. That sounds favorable, but it may become a necessity given the second-down matchup: the Colts are 27th, the Patriots fifth.

Darrelle Revis is a big advantage for the Patriots, though Luck will not fear testing him. T.Y. Hilton can get open against any defensive back, but the Patriots doubled and defended him very well in Week 11, holding him to three catches in seven targets for 24 yards. He was not stuck on Revis Island, as four of his targets came with Kyle Arrington in coverage. Obviously Hilton is the biggest threat the Colts have, but tight end Coby Fleener really stepped up last time with 144 yards, catching all seven of his targets and often beating cornerback Brandon Browner while lined up as a wideout. The Patriots rank 30th against tight ends in DVOA, but Fleener is the big-play receiver and Dwayne Allen is the guy to target in the red zone. The Patriots rank second against passes thrown over the middle.

It is not a highly-used personnel grouping for the Colts, but I would often attack with a single back and four receivers. The Colts used four wide receivers on four plays against the Patriots in Week 11, and Luck completed one pass for 13 yards along with a drop by Reggie Wayne, who continues to get a lot of playing time despite very little production. Revis covered Wayne in Week 11 but is unlikely to be assigned to him this week. I was mad at myself for omitting Hakeem Nicks from last week's preview, because he has been productive since Week 15. Earlier in the season Nicks never seemed to be on the same page as Luck, but he has been productive lately despite playing barely more than 20 snaps per game in the postseason. Rookie Donte Moncrief could make the big plays down the field that Luck found with LaVon Brazill last postseason in Foxboro. At this point Wayne is really the team's fourth-best wide receiver, so the Colts are doing themselves a little disservice by featuring him over Nicks, Moncrief, or Fleener. There is enough receiving talent here to spread the Patriots out and soften the Revis matchup.

Luck is the first quarterback to ever throw for at least 250 yards in each of his first five playoff games. Luck has thrown for more than 300 yards and two touchdowns in each of his three games against the Patriots, but the Colts have only scored 20 to 24 points while allowing at least 42 points each time. Aside from cutting down mistakes, what more can Luck do this week, and is it even realistic to expect more from the third-year quarterback? I know some people, including myself, fell into the trap last week of thinking Luck had to be brilliant to win in Denver, but his team showed up (and the Broncos did not). Do road teams often win big playoff games because of a virtuoso passing performance? (Green Bay fans may also want to take note of this section.)

I dug into my quarterback database for the postseason trying to find winning performances that fit a specific set of criteria:

  • The quarterback started and won in a true road game (no Super Bowls)
  • The game had to be in the Divisional round or a conference championship (better competition, higher stakes)
  • The quarterback had to throw for at least 250 yards and throw more touchdowns than interceptions
  • The opponent had to score at least 20 points so that it wasn't just a case of dominant defense

Seventeen games fit that criteria, including Divisional wins from three recent Super Bowl runs. I included, if available, where the opponent ranked in DVOA on defense and pass defense for the season.

Quarterbacks: "Virtuoso" Road Playoff Wins
Player Year Team Round Opp. Result Att. Cmp Pct. Yds TD INT PR DEF DVOA Rk PASS D Rk
Sammy Baugh 1937 WAS NFL-C CHI W 28-21 33 18 54.5 335 3 1 107.5 - - - -
Bart Starr 1966 GB NFL-C DAL W 34-27 28 19 67.9 304 4 0 143.5 - - - -
Ken Stabler 1977 OAK AFC-D CLT W 37-31 2OT 40 21 52.5 345 3 2 85.9 - - - -
Danny White 1980 DAL NFC-D ATL W 30-27 39 25 64.1 322 3 1 104.9 - - - -
Jim Plunkett 1980 OAK AFC-C SD W 34-27 18 14 77.8 261 2 0 155.8 - - - -
Dan Fouts 1981 SD AFC-D MIA W 41-38 OT 53 33 62.3 433 3 1 99.0 - - - -
Wade Wilson 1987 MIN NFC-D SF W 36-24 34 20 58.8 298 2 1 95.0 - - - -
Troy Aikman 1992 DAL NFC-C SF W 30-20 34 24 70.6 322 2 0 120.0 2.9% 17 0.2% 12
Jim Kelly 1993 BUF AFC-D LARD W 29-23 37 27 73.0 287 2 0 113.2 0.7% 17 3.8% 18
Joe Montana 1993 KC AFC-D HOIL W 28-20 38 22 57.9 299 3 2 87.5 -15.3% 2 -19.3% 2
Chris Chandler 1998 ATL NFC-C MIN W 30-27 OT 43 27 62.8 340 3 0 110.6 1.3% 18 3.8% 15
Peyton Manning 2003 IND AFC-D KC W 38-31 30 22 73.3 304 3 0 138.8 9.4% 25 8.9% 19
Jake Delhomme 2005 CAR NFC-D CHI W 29-21 33 24 72.7 319 3 1 120.6 -19.4% 1 -23.8% 1
Philip Rivers 2007 SD AFC-D IND W 28-24 19 14 73.7 264 3 1 133.2 -13.0% 2 -15.7% 2
Aaron Rodgers 2010 GB NFC-D ATL W 48-21 36 31 86.1 366 3 0 136.8 -2.1% 14 0.8% 11
Eli Manning 2011 NYG NFC-D GB W 37-20 33 21 63.6 330 3 1 114.5 8.6% 25 10.6% 24
Joe Flacco 2012 BAL AFC-D DEN W 38-35 2OT 34 18 52.9 331 3 0 116.2 -13.8% 5 -10.5% 5

That is an interesting list with some really memorable games and moments. If we opened this up to regular-season games and looked at the Patriots in the Brady era, then we only find four such games that qualify, all engineered by the Manning brothers and Brett Favre (with the 2008 Jets). Eli Manning's win in 2011 really did not impress until the fourth quarter, but that quarter deserves the highest praise when you consider this next piece of data.

Since 2001, New England has lost one home game after leading in the fourth quarter. Every other team has lost at least six. I looked at every fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) opportunity since 2001, including the playoffs. These are defined as games where the offense had possession in the fourth quarter, trailing by 1 to 8 points. Overtime is also included now with the new rules.

Opponents are 1-46 (.021) at 4QC opportunities in New England since 2001. That is absolutely absurd. Including Super Bowls on neutral fields, the record is 3-49 (.058), and Eli Manning has led all three wins. For reference, Brady (34-29) and Luck (9-8) have the two best 4QC opportunity records of any quarterback I have tracked (minimum 15 games). Despite the 43-22 final last postseason, Luck had a chance in that game with the score at 29-22. He was tripped on a scramble, but the referees missed the call. LeGarrette Blount then rushed for a 73-yard touchdown, Luck threw an interception, and it was quickly 43-22. See how things snowball?

So when Joe Flacco threw that bomb for an interception last Saturday, he became loss No. 46. That was a close call, just as it was earlier this season when the Jets failed to hit a long field goal in their 27-25 loss. Except for that time in 2011 when Eli led two late touchdown drives, every team has come up short in crunch time in Foxboro. Look at how the rest of the league compares in the last 14 years. I included splits for home, road, and neutral games. Note that there are some games excluded that resulted in a "no decision" where neither the offense nor defense get any credit because a return score or safety decided the game. I flipped the records around so that they are from the perspective of the team trying to hold the lead, so the Patriots are 46-1 at home instead of 1-46.

Holding the Lead: Opponent 4QC Opportunities, Including Playoffs (2001-2014)
Rk Team Overall Home Games Road Games Neutral Field Home-Road DIFF
4QC Record Pct. 4QC Record Pct. Rk 4QC Record Pct. Rk 4QC Record Pct. Pct. Rk
1 NE 82-14 0.854 46-1 0.979 1 33-11 0.750 4 3-2 0.600 0.229 3
2 IND 83-19 0.814 41-13 0.759 7 41-5 0.891 1 1-1 0.500 -0.132 31
3 PIT 77-23-1 0.767 35-11-1 0.755 8 40-12 0.769 3 2-0 1.000 -0.014 25
4 ATL 69-21 0.767 36-8 0.818 4 33-13 0.717 10 0-0 0.000 0.101 8
5 NYJ 64-22 0.744 32-11 0.744 10 32-11 0.744 5 0-0 0.000 0.000 21
6 CHI 65-23 0.739 33-11 0.750 9 32-12 0.727 7 0-0 0.000 0.023 17
7 ARI 65-23 0.739 41-9 0.820 3 24-13 0.649 18 0-1 0.000 0.171 5
8 GB 67-25-1 0.726 36-6-1 0.849 2 30-19 0.612 26 1-0 1.000 0.237 2
9 DEN 58-22 0.725 35-13 0.729 11 23-9 0.719 9 0-0 0.000 0.010 19
10 NYG 63-24 0.724 26-11 0.703 19 35-13 0.729 6 2-0 1.000 -0.026 27
11 BAL 74-29 0.718 42-12 0.778 5 31-17 0.646 21 1-0 1.000 0.132 7
12 TEN 66-26 0.717 35-20 0.636 27 31-6 0.838 2 0-0 0.000 -0.201 32
13 NO 65-26 0.714 28-12 0.700 20 36-14 0.720 8 1-0 1.000 -0.020 26
14 PHI 67-28 0.705 35-15 0.700 21 32-13 0.711 11 0-0 0.000 -0.011 24
15 KC 59-25 0.702 31-12 0.721 14 28-13 0.683 13 0-0 0.000 0.038 15
16 MIA 67-29 0.698 35-14 0.714 16 32-15 0.681 14 0-0 0.000 0.033 16
Rk Team Overall Home Games Road Games Neutral Field Home-Road DIFF
4QC Record Pct. 4QC Record Pct. Rk 4QC Record Pct. Rk 4QC Record Pct. Pct. Rk
17 STL 51-22-1 0.696 30-12 0.714 17 21-10-1 0.672 15 0-0 0.000 0.042 14
18 JAC 60-27 0.690 32-12 0.727 13 28-15 0.651 17 0-0 0.000 0.076 11
19 SF 66-30-1 0.686 33-12-1 0.728 12 33-18 0.647 19 0-0 0.000 0.081 10
20 DAL 67-33 0.670 36-15 0.706 18 31-18 0.633 22 0-0 0.000 0.073 12
21 CIN 60-30-2 0.663 31-17-2 0.640 26 29-13 0.690 12 0-0 0.000 -0.050 29
22 MIN 51-27-1 0.652 34-10 0.773 6 17-17-1 0.500 31 0-0 0.000 0.273 1
23 SEA 63-34 0.649 38-15 0.717 15 25-19 0.568 29 0-0 0.000 0.149 6
24 TB 54-30 0.643 30-18 0.625 28 24-12 0.667 16 0-0 0.000 -0.042 28
25 SD 61-34 0.642 30-16 0.652 24 31-18 0.633 23 0-0 0.000 0.020 18
26 CAR 64-37-1 0.632 31-15 0.674 22 33-21-1 0.609 27 0-1 0.000 0.065 13
27 HOU 47-29 0.618 29-18 0.617 29 18-11 0.621 24 0-0 0.000 -0.004 23
28 OAK 45-28 0.616 24-15 0.615 30 21-13 0.618 25 0-0 0.000 -0.002 22
29 BUF 49-31 0.613 27-19 0.587 32 22-12 0.647 20 0-0 0.000 -0.060 30
30 WAS 60-39 0.606 34-18 0.654 23 26-21 0.553 30 0-0 0.000 0.101 9
31 CLE 53-37 0.589 29-20 0.592 31 24-17 0.585 28 0-0 0.000 0.006 20
32 DET 46-36 0.561 28-15 0.651 25 18-21 0.462 32 0-0 0.000 0.190 4
AVG - 1988-883-8 0.692 1063-426-5 0.713 - 914-452-3 0.669 - 11-5 0.688 0.046 -

This can get confusing if you lose perspective, but here is how to read the table. The Patriots are 82-14 (.854) at holding off 4QC attempts, meaning teams trying to mount a 4QC against the Patriots are 14-82 (.146) since 2001. At home, the Patriots have held off 46 of 47 attempts, while on the road they prevent 75 percent (33-11) of 4QC attempts. They have the third-largest increase in winning percentage points from road to home (+0.229). Fitting for this week's game, the Colts have been the second-best team at holding off 4QC attempts. The strangest part may be how the Colts are the best at holding one-score leads on the road (41-5).

Having a great offense/quarterback that is capable of coming back and closing games definitely helps teams like the Patriots and Colts to have great records with one-score leads. However, this is still very much a credit to the defense first and foremost. There were only nine games where the Patriots surrendered the lead and the offense got it back (10 for the Colts). That's about average with the Saints having the most (15) and Bills having the fewest (three) such games.

This is not the week for the Colts to rely on a comeback. Interestingly enough, both the Indianapolis offense and New England defense rank 30th in first-quarter DVOA. The Colts still need a good start, because even with a quarterback that's great at comebacks, those comebacks just do not materialize in Foxboro. As nearly four dozen teams can attest, something always seems to go wrong.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL

This feels like a case of "they know that we know we have run the ball all over this defense, so since we know they want to stop the run, they know we know we might pass the ball instead, so we know we might just run the ball anyway, even if they know that we know this."

Know what I'm saying?

After all, the Patriots could probably dig up Kevin Faulk this weekend and still gain 8 yards a pop on shotgun draws against the Colts. The mind games at hand here are fascinating, because it certainly looks like the Patriots can attack the Colts either with a run-heavy game or a pass-happy approach. Either way, Rob Gronkowski is a nightmare matchup whether he's blocking or dominating down the seam and on crossing routes, lined up out wide or killing it on slants in the red zone. The Colts cannot seriously put safety LaRon Landry in coverage here without getting killed. Indianapolis fared OK against Gronkowski in Week 11, but that's probably because he had five targets, his fewest since Week 4. He still caught four passes for 71 yards and showed how hard he is to tackle on a touchdown that was all him. He is a major problem for the Colts and I am not convinced cornerback Vontae Davis would be up for that matchup, especially in single coverage.

This matchup is all about New England's flexibility and an Indianapolis defense that is high in variance. For the last time this year (maybe), let me remind you that the 2014 Colts are the first defense in NFL history to allow a 500-yard passer (Ben Roethlisberger) and 200-yard rusher (Jonas Gray) in the same season. New England has scored at least 42 points in the last two meetings without Brady even playing that efficiently. He completed 13-of-25 passes for 198 yards last January and threw two interceptions in Week 11. In last year's playoff game Blount rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns. He has eight carries for 7 yards in the two playoff games since. After the Colts made Gray the talk of the league, he has 20 carries for 80 yards and was a healthy scratch last week. Does anyone remember the Patriots ranked 31st in rushing DVOA heading into that Gray game?

If Brandon Bolden rushes for 160 yards and four touchdowns in this game, maybe Chuck Pagano should be fired in the locker room. This cannot happen for a third time, and I don't think it will. In these last two meetings, the Patriots had a bye week to prepare new wrinkles. In Week 11, the Patriots used Cameron Fleming as a sixth lineman dozens of times to power a running game that produced 250 yards on 40 carries. The Colts struggled with those big formations, as Cian Fahey detailed this week. That game was a big rushing outlier for both teams this season. The Colts just handled C.J. Anderson very well in Denver, holding him to many short gains that put the Broncos behind on down-and-distance.

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New England's running game, ranked 14th in DVOA, has not been consistent and was flat-out abandoned last week, producing just 14 yards, the fewest by a winning team in postseason history. Yet there is hope for the Patriots to find rushing success again this week because of how varied this team is with its formations and personnel groupings. They scheme as well as anyone to get defenses out of position. I always hate charting a Patriots game because of how often they change the offense. You will see things like fullback James Develin lined up out wide. Now this week we have Pagano calling the league offices to inquire about the four-lineman sets the Patriots showed off against Baltimore last week. We might not see that trickery again, but it is part of the mind games the Patriots play with teams.

While the Colts will likely sell out to stop the run, you still have to worry about Brady. This is a bad matchup for Indianapolis because of the way these teams are built. The Colts lack a dominant pass rusher. Rookie Jonathan Newsome notched another sack in Denver for a big forced fumble, but that's because no one even blocked him. The Patriots have been sound with their protection after deciding on this current offensive line configuration, which still rarely missed a beat after center Bryan Stork went down with injury last week.

In Week 11, Brady was under pressure seven times in the first half and it had a desired impact, as he went 10-of-19 for 84 yards and two interceptions.* Five of those pressures were helped by the Patriots using play action and trying to hit big plays. The Colts rushed at least five defenders on 53.3 percent of Brady's dropbacks that night, which is a season-high for New England according to Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston. The Patriots adjusted and the Colts only registered one pressure in the second half while Brady completed 9-of-11 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns with one drop. It's pressure or bust for this defense, but they have to blitz to get that pressure. The Colts rush more than five defenders on 45 percent of plays, which is higher than the league average (31 percent), but they allow 6.7 yards per play when they do that (league average: 6.4 yards per play).*

Brady is the undisputed king of the dink-and-dunk passing game, which is bad news for a Colts defense that ranks sixth against deep passes (thrown more than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage) and 30th against short passes. That's why Denver's game plan was so horrid last week with Manning going 2-of-14 on deep passes. He repeatedly missed against the strength of the defense: the outside corner coverage. Brady will dink and dunk defenses to death, but if the Colts can tackle the way they did in Denver (allowed just 78 yards after the catch) then they stand a chance of keeping this offense under 30.

The Colts have a solid cornerback trio with Davis, Greg Toler and Darius Butler, but the Patriots will look to work the middle of the field with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. Even Danny Amendola has come on lately. Brandon LaFell has played well, but the Colts should be able to prevent him from having a big game. Baltimore may have won last week if they had had Indy's cornerback trio instead of Rashaan Melvin and company.

Maybe it's suicide and I probably say this every week with the Patriots, but I would consistently rush four and five defenders, shrink the field, flood the zones, and play press coverage on the outside, daring Brady to make those tough throws. This season he has only hit 11-of-55 passes thrown more than 20 yards down the field. Would you rather risk a big play that he hits 20 percent of the time, or give up the 6-yard hook route over and over?

The Colts cannot afford to get gashed on the ground again, but what's more likely to happen: another huge rushing performance or the good game from the future Hall of Fame quarterback? Forcing Brady into a mediocre game is still crucial to success on Sunday. In eight career AFC Championship games, Brady has thrown eight touchdowns and nine interceptions, with a 5-3 record.

In fact, the Indianapolis defense probably has to exceed the offense's performance to get this win. We saw in the previous section how rare it is for a quarterback to dominate in games like this, and it is certainly very difficult to outgun Brady in a shootout in Foxboro.

What are the prevailing trends in Brady's 17 home losses in 14 seasons? For starters, I removed two Week 17 losses (2005 Miami and 2014 Buffalo) where Brady did not play after the first half, so we are actually down to 15 losses in 14 years. Incredible.

Tom Brady in New England: 15 Complete Home Losses
Date Opp Result Rush Mg TO Mg Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD INT Sk PR DYAR DVOA QBR
11/18/2001 STL L 17-24 -35 0 19 27 70.4 185 1 2 2 70.8 -13 -18.0% -
10/13/2002 GB L 10-28 -35 -4 24 44 54.5 183 1 3 2 44.0 -34 -23.0% -
10/27/2002 DEN L 16-24 -67 2 15 29 51.7 130 1 0 5 75.4 40 7.7% -
12/22/2002 NYJ L 17-30 -11 -2 19 37 51.4 133 1 1 2 57.6 -41 -27.9% -
10/2/2005 SD L 17-41 -111 -2 19 32 59.4 224 1 1 1 78.1 54 16.2% -
11/7/2005 IND L 21-40 -98 -1 22 33 66.7 265 3 0 2 121.4 145 56.4% -
9/24/2006 DEN L 7-17 -94 0 31 55 56.4 320 1 0 0 79.4 127 23.8% 32.7
11/5/2006 IND L 20-27 95 -3 20 35 57.1 201 0 4 0 34.0 -47 -31.6% 41.5
11/12/2006 NYJ L 14-17 28 -1 24 36 66.7 253 1 1 4 84.6 1 -10.9% 50.3
1/10/2010 BAL L 14-33 -170 -2 23 42 54.8 154 2 3 3 49.1 -157 -66.3% 4.2
1/16/2011 NYJ L 21-28 -7 -1 29 45 64.4 299 2 1 5 89.0 32 -2.4% 8.7
11/6/2011 NYG L 20-24 -5 -2 28 49 57.1 342 2 2 2 75.4 -2 -11.8% 54.7
9/16/2012 ARI L 18-20 -12 1 28 46 60.9 316 1 1 4 79.6 130 29.2% 37.2
12/16/2012 SF L 34-41 -85 -2 36 65 55.4 443 1 2 3 68.9 100 10.3% 55.5
1/20/2013 BAL L 13-28 -13 -3 29 54 53.7 320 1 2 0 62.3 39 0.2% 40.2
TOT/AVG 17.3 PF, 28.1 PA -41.3 -1.3 366 629 58.2 3768 19 23 35 70.4 24.9 -3.2% 36.1

See, this Sunday needs to be more about the defense stepping up again than Luck having an outstanding game. Aside from that epic 28-point comeback attempt against San Francisco in 2012, Brady's offense scored 21 points or fewer in every loss. A poor Brady passing performance was key in most of the games, as he averaged just 5.99 yards per attempt in those losses. He broke a 90.0 passer rating once and had seven games with multiple interceptions. We have QBR back to 2006, and Brady lost that battle seven out of nine times, with his average at 36.1 compared to 64.3 for the opposing quarterback. The Patriots were outgained in rushing in 13 of the games, but that's common for a trailing team. We know only the 2011 Giants, 2012 Cardinals, and 2012 Ravens came back in the second half to win. The Patriots averaged 3.95 yards per carry compared to 3.85 for the opponent. New England also lost the turnover battle 11 times.

Luck has to play better than last week, but this is more about Pagano's defense playing a physical game and rattling Brady into mistakes. I am not about to compare the return of defensive tackle Arthur Jones to that of Bob Sanders in 2006, but the Colts have played a lot of good defense since losing to the Patriots. We have seen unexpected runs carry teams through the playoffs before, but Sunday is the toughest task yet. Either the Colts have closed the gap or this rivalry is even more one-sided than it was a decade ago.

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SPECIAL TEAMS

Both Indianapolis and New England rank in the top eight in special teams. If the Patriots have a big advantage, it is in punting. Pat McAfee had an All-Pro season, but Julian Edelman is an excellent punt returner. He got the Patriots rolling in 2012 when he returned a McAfee punt 68 yards for a touchdown. While Josh Cribbs has done a very good job as kick returner for the Colts, the punt returns have been disastrous, with Indianapolis ranking 31st in punt return value. Cribbs took several big hits in Denver on returns when he should have called for a fair catch, including a play that was initially ruled a fumble before being overturned.

Maybe this game will fuel the fire of the irrational Adam Vinatieri vs. Stephen Gostkowski debate. Does that even exist yet? Both kickers are great, though Vinatieri surprisingly missed a 44-yard kick in Denver last week. Belichick has already benefitted from the only two misses on do-or-die field goal attempts in championship games (Scott Norwood and Billy Cundiff), so a third would just be proof that he is a modern-day Faust.

Would Pagano dare risk a surprise onside kick on the road? The Colts went 3-for-3 at recovering McAfee's onside attempts this year (the element of surprise helped greatly), compared to the rest of the league's puny average: 6-of-56 (10.7 percent).

OUTLOOK

I know I said the same thing last week for Denver, but the Patriots are also clearly better than the Colts on both sides of the ball. Now it's just a matter of showing up and getting the job done. That was a real scare against Baltimore, but I think the offense gets more balanced and the defense defends the big plays much better. The Colts also won't have nearly as much rushing success as Gary Kubiak's offense did.

Luck has already played like a great quarterback, but I think the moment will still be a little too big for this Indianapolis team on Sunday evening. If this team had veterans like Ahmad Bradshaw and Robert Mathis available to shore up the running game and pass rush, then their chances would be better. The strengths of this roster just do not match up well with the Patriots, and it would be surprising to see the Colts surpass Baltimore's effort last week -- and Baltimore still lost.

Home teams favored by at least seven points in conference championships are 24-6 straight up, though New England suffered the last of those losses to Baltimore in 2012, and was a Lee Evans catch away from dropping two in a row. If the Colts can make it to the fourth quarter within striking distance, then there's always a chance, but more than ever they could use some luck to go along with Luck.


STATS EXPLAINED

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.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

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. Those numbers are explained here.

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.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI 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).

Comments

33 comments, Last at 19 Jan 2015, 3:35pm

1 Re: 2015 AFC Championship Preview

Don't underrate Reggie Wayne's skills as a blocker. Mostly down the field although he was seen chipping Ware and Miller at times last week. I think those skills are a factor in him still seeing the field despite lagging personal production.

2 Re: 2015 AFC Championship Preview

Aha! Someone else remembered the Colts' onside kicks from earlier this season. They were a great, agressive strategy and Pagano used them when the opponent least suspected it.
I've been wondering if Pagano decided to bank the onside kick play and hope everyone else would forget how good the Colts were at it. I don't think they've tried one since week three or four.

6 Re: 2015 AFC Championship Preview

It would be tempting fate to assume Belichick would forget. He knows all and sees all.
I was thinking more that Pagano didn't want his team to become "known" for it. You don't want the talking heads at ESPN going on about, "the Onside-Kicking Colts..."

Remember the Dolphins and the Wildcat? Great strategy. They got famous for it, and by week 8,, everybody in the league had a game plan to stop it
The Colts certainly did put the onside kick away, and not because it wasn't working. Maybe Pagano is playing the long game. A very Belichick-ian thing to do.

12 Re: 2015 AFC Championship Preview

I think it had more to do with helping out our usually atrocious kick off coverage than anything else. Since the Colts always line up in an onside formation on kickoffs, and they've executed it well, the teams we've faced have been playing their men up closer, to prevent the possibility of an onside kick, and thus have reduced the effectiveness of their own kick return unit.

4 Re: 2015 AFC Championship Preview

Just going from the DVOA charts, I find it interesting that the Week 11 game was NE's best on O and 3rd best on D. So if it's a case of matchup advantages, well, same old same old. But if it's a case of them just playing great that game, it's hard to expect a team to repeat their best performance.

Correspondingly, it was Indy's 2nd worst defensive performance and 3rd worst on O. Same logic holds--if it's truly a matchup issue then they are sunk, but if it was just a mater of them playing poorly, are they likely to play their shittiest game again?

This approach is getting dangerously close to phoney-baloney technical analysis of stocks (NB: human being performances are not random like stock price movements--if Reggie Wayne is hurt one week, he's likely to be less than 100% the next week as well), but there's probably not much chance of another best/worst performance pairing. Pretty charts are pretty, though.

I was kind of surprised the Colts did not try a "surprise" OS kick last week, but pulling it off three times early in the season may have killed any chance of it working in the post season. Of course, I would not be surprised if the Pats faked one "clueless" receiving formation to bluff McAfee into calling for the OS kick (he had the option with the right look earlier in the year), only to change to an OS receiving formation as Mac is running for his kick (Gronk on the front line would be a bit of a tipoff, no?). Would McAfee then be able to adjust in time to boot it long? Oh man, I'm getting knots in my gut already.

8 Re: 2015 AFC Championship Preview

I actually looked that up this week, because Google Maps goes with Foxborough while the Weather Channel goes with Foxboro. The official name is Foxborough, but Foxboro is a commonly used second spelling.

Here's a link.

http://patch.com/massachusetts/foxborough/poll-is-it-foxborough-or-foxboro

9 Re: 2015 AFC Championship Preview

There are a few voodoo-magic type trends and stats that do point to the Colts having a reasonable chance here:

As Scott mentioned, the Colts have been great against teams the 2nd time around. I know most of that record is against AFC South teams, but the Titans weren't awful in 2012, and the Texans were 12-3 in that second meeting, needing the game to hold onto a bye. What is more odd is the Patriots 9-8 record against teams a 2nd or 3rd time in the playoffs, despite having BB and that coaching staff.

I believe four of those 8 losses were to teams they had previously beaten ('07 NYG, '09 BAL, '10 NYJ, '13 DEN). That is a surprising stat.

Also, the Patriots are not very good at covering spreads in the playoffs in the Brady era. They are, by my count, 11-15-1 ATS in the playoffs, including a 3-11 streak since the 2006 AFC Championship (all three covers coming in the Divisional round the last three years). The COlts, and I know this isn't an apples to apples comparison, were the best team in teh NFL this season at covering spreads.

I don't think the Colts win. I'll be happily surprised (though not shocked - far less so than the Giants winning the SB, or the Jets winning in 2010), but the Patriots are better on both sides of the ball (though I would take the Colts passing game).

But I would be surprised if this is as one-sided as any of the three previous games.

19 Re: 2015 AFC Championship Preview

"I believe four of those 8 losses were to teams they had previously beaten ('07 NYG, '09 BAL, '10 NYJ, '13 DEN). That is a surprising stat."

It was disappointing, certainly, but the situations aren't quite as comparable as Indy fans would hope. Baltimore and Denver were clearly the better teams by the time the playoffs rolled around - 2013 because of injuries and 2009 because they were just terrible. The Patriots blew out NYJ, so it seems similar, but they beat NE handily in week two. NYG gave NE a serious scare in 2007.

All of those teams had either played NE very close or beaten them earlier in the year, so the seeds of a victory had already been planted.

20 Re: 2015 AFC Championship Preview

That's very fair. I was even going to mention that the teams that have turned the tables on the Patriots have had (w.r.t. SSS) pretty good success against them over the years (Ravens, Giants, Jets). With the Colts, NE pretty much always opens up a 17+ pt lead on them. The last two Indy wins over NE with Brady featured comebacks of 17 and 18 points and were done in Indy.

10 Re: 2015 AFC Championship Preview

I wrote about on the Week 19 DVOA article, but one thing that FO - and many other statistically-oriented analysts - seem to be overlooking when they talk about the Colts "lack of talent" is that barring the Dallas game, this team was quite good all year.

Just by raising the floor of that game to something similarly bad to the first NE game juices their WEI DVOA by 5-6% and their overall DVOA a few points as well. Removing it entirely as being an outlier obviously has a much more dramatic impact. This also brings the Colts in-line to how the betting market seems to perceive them, as well as how they are rated by SRS and other point-adjusted systems.

This is a 12-6 team by pythagenpat and the 7th-8th best team in the league by SRS once you account for playoffs even with that game's results; those are hardly indicative of wholesale talent issues that are referred to here, in Barnwell's article on Grantland and in the ESPN preview.

30 Re: 2015 AFC Championship Preview

Yeah, DVOA was impressed with the Minny game, but NE didn't play all that well. They didn't move the ball at all and the defense was mostly gifted the game with Cassel picks. By comparison, NE beat the ever loving snot out of Chicago and DVOA thinks that was just an OK performance.

This is one of the rare cases that the subjective seems more accurate than the objective, even when considering predictive qualities.

18 Re: 2015 AFC Championship Preview

I was thinking the same thing. Indy was lousy against Cleveland as well, and weren't impressive against TN or Houston down the stretch either.

Really, you have to search harder to find the very good games. The description of Indy being a good-but-not-great team seems to be dead on.

23 Re: 2015 AFC Championship Preview

It's now being reported that Trent Richardson is going to meet the AFC championship game for "personal reasons".

I'm guessing he never suits up for the Colts again.

29 Re: 2015 AFC Championship Preview

Agreed. He is much too slow, both physically and mentally. If he can flow into a big hole, the one the play design expected, he's okay. But he doesn't see the field well, and he doesn't have a very quick "burst." His one major plus is he is a tough runner at contact.

25 Re: 2015 AFC Championship Preview

Quick comment from a Colts fan perspective: I am excited that they won the last two weeks, and I have been referring to those as "two Super Bowl wins," as I thought each was the limit for this team. I thought they could beat Cincy but then would get the beatdown in the next round. We got lucky to beat Denver and a QB who didn't seem right (though I do like the positives: the offense's pass protection and the run defense), but I can't really see a way out of the forrest this time. Unless Indy gets some lucky turnovers, or they have some great returns, I think they lose.

I do like that NE was forced to pull out some tricks last week, as those were likely their best ones (why would you hold back when down by 14 or 7?). Certainly every good team would have more than two things, but I am glad NE had to show at least some of their hand.

Still, as much as I like this Colts team as a fan, they just aren't there in terms of talent yet. It's an odd feeling, going into an AFC Championship tilt as a Colts fan and think you don't have a chance to win. Even with the weakest of years with Manning, I always though they would win (even if they got trampled).