On Sunday the New England Patriots (6-3) will take on the Indianapolis Colts (6-3) as they attempt to extend their current three game win streak. While the Patriots were favorites to win the AFC heading into this season, they’ve disappointed for much of it. The Colts have done the opposite. Expected to be near the bottom of the league as they rebuild, they currently sit in a wild card spot.
The strength of the Colts is unquestionably their offense. In the 2012 NFL Draft the Colts selected quarterback Andrew Luck with the first overall pick. The followed that by selecting tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in the second round and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton in the third round. They add these rookies to an offense that already contains 33-year old Reggie Wayne who was selected to five consecutive pro bowls between 2006 and 2010 and is the team’s leading receiver in 2012.
The Colts passing game is what has turned a 2-14 team in 2011 into a 6-3 team so far this season. Replacing future hall of famer Peyton Manning is a tough task and some wondered whether Luck or fellow rookie Robert Griffin III should be handed the reins. But two week ago against Miami the rookie quarterback threw for 433 yards breaking the previous record of 432 set by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton last season.
Luck’s main targets in the passing game are Wayne and the three rookies. With the newly popular duel tight end formation, Fleener and Allen have been key components of the offense. Hilton’s impact on the offense has been less expected as he leads the team with 14.8 yards per catch and is second on the team with two touchdowns. As expected the leading receiver is Wayne. Having an experienced and successful receiver has been very positive for the Colts young quarterback.
The Colts rank fifth in total yards per game with 387.3 but they’ve been unable to convert those yards into points only scoring 20.7 points per game. While they’ve averaged 278 passing yards per game they’ve been less successful with their rushing attack. Splitting carries between 2012 fifth round selection Vick Ballard and 2009 draft pick Donald Brown, the Colts have averaged 109.4 rushing yards per game.
The Colts will likely attack the Patriots through the air Sunday with the Patriots passing defense remaining their weakest link. The Patriots did make an improvement when they acquired cornerback Aqib Talib from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He came off suspension Monday and participate in his first game with his new team Sunday. The move means that Pro Bowl cornerback Devin McCourty will remain at safety for the foreseeable future. McCourty and fellow safety Steve Gregory were a positive in last week’s win combining for three turnovers including a forced fumble that prevented a touchdown and a game ending interception.
The Patriots defensive strength is still their rushing defense. With Vince Wilfork as the catalyst, the Patriots currently rank ninth in the NFL giving up 96.8 yards per game. With the Colts problems in the running game and the Patriots defensive strength being their rushing defense, it will likely be a shootout Sunday.
The Colts defense will be their problem against the high powered Patriots offense. While they’ve been steadily improving, the defense still remains a bit of a liability for the Colts. Despite the rebuilding process, the Colts still do have quality in their defense returning starters Cory Redding, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Antoine Bethea. While the Patriots have struggled in pass defense the Colts have been pretty solid giving up just 230.2 passing yards per game. Meanwhile they’ve given up 120.2 rushing yards per game. Facing the most prolific offense they’ve seen all year, it’s likely to be a rough game for the Colts defensively.
Led by Tom Brady, the Patriots still lead the league in both yards per game and points per game. After missing Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills, it’s still unknown when star tight end Aaron Hernandez will return from his ankle injury. Still, the Patriots should be able to attack the Colts effectively both in the air and on the ground. With weapons like tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receivers Deion Branch, Brandon Lloyd, and Wes Welker, the Patriots will test the Colts passing defense more than any other team.
But the surprising aspect of the Patriots offense is the effectiveness of the run. After losing starting running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, some expected a lull in the rushing attack. However, second year running back Stevan Ridley has been solid all year and has been highly influential in each of the Patriots six wins. The team lost undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden to injury and then to a four-game suspension after he violated the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy but they got back second year running back Shane Vereen who will be expected to play a part Sunday.
Sunday’s game between the Patriots and Colts is expected to be a shootout. Both teams have been very effective on offense and have struggled on defense. If the Patriots defense can put pressure on Luck with defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and rookie Chandler Jones, the Patriots offense could run away with the game. If the Colts can keep up with the Patriots offensively for the first three quarters, they may be able to spring the upset as the Patriots have been unable to reach the end zone in the fourth quarter for much of the season.
This matchup will be between one of the league’s most disappointing teams this season and one of the league’s most surprising teams this season. Back in September this game would’ve looked like a blowout win for the Patriots. But the Patriots inability to put teams away late and the surprisingly effective young Colts offense makes this look like a marquee matchup this weekend. It’ll be a true test for both teams when they meet Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.