Wild Card weekend is over, and for the Patriots things seem to be working out in their favor after Indianapolis knocked out the Chiefs, and San Diego took care of the Bengals to set things up for next week's Divisional round.
For the Patriots, this means that the Colts are headed to Foxboro for New England's first playoff game next Saturday night, while the Chargers will head out to Denver to battle the Broncos on Sunday. The latter match-up is the bigger deal because the Chargers seem to be the more favorable foe that's potentially capable enough of helping Peyton Manning add to his list of "one-and-done" in the postseason. If Philip Rivers and his bunch can muster another road win, that would potentially set up an AFC Championship Game game at Gillette Stadium in two weeks.
However, in order for that to happen, New England has to first be at their best against a team that has a lot to prove against them. In their previous meeting last November, the Patriots destroyed the Colts 59-24, although it ended with Rob Gronkowski fracturing his forearm on the Patriots' final extra point. That set Gronkowski back heading into this year, but it ended up being a season-ending knee injury that will sideline him for this rematch. That's a relatively big loss as Gronkowksi played a big role during the win, accumulating 137-yards on 7 receptions including two touchdowns.
But it was New England's defense that was the big story during that last game. The Patriots dictated the game by forcing Andrew Luck to make plays, with the rookie quarterback attempting 50 passes, which saw him get intercepted three times. Two of those went for touchdowns after Aqib Talib took one back 59-yards, as well as another later on by Alfonzo Dennard that was returned 87-yards for a score. The second one was more or less the knock-out blow and essentially put the game out of reach, with Dennard's coming on the first play of the fourth quarter to put the Patriots up 45-17.
Odds are pretty good the Patriots won't return two interceptions for a touchdown in this meeting, but nevertheless they should be able to at least put up points against a Colts team that was ranked 13th in pass defense during the regular season, but more importantly they're 26th against the run, which given New England's recent success running the football should bode well for their chances against Indianapolis' defense.
Offensively the Colts have been an average team, ranking in the middle of the pack in nearly every offensive category including yards-per-game (341.8), yards-per-play (5.3), 1st downs per game (19.9), and 3rd down efficiency (37.6%). That should hopefully mean this game will be manageable enough for New England's defense to keep them in the game long enough for the offense to put up points.
Obviously seeing the Colts come back from being down 38-10 in their playoff win over the Chiefs shows you that like the Patriots, they're able to overcome adversity. It's a team they can't take lightly, but if they can manage to win next week, Sunday's match-up between Denver and the Chargers may favor having a shot at getting a home game to advance to New Jersey in a few weeks. San Diego seems to have Denver's number, so on that side of the coin Patriots fans have reason to feel optimistic about that possibility.
Fortunately, this game takes place first and will require a performance much like the ones we saw against Buffalo and Baltimore. This Colts team has already proven they're a dangerous opponent, and Bill Belichick noted in his conference call on Sunday that it will require another great effort by his team if they hope to advance into next week.
"They beat some of the best teams in the league - in both the AFC and the NFC," said Belichick. "They've just been impressive. We've gotten a little work done on them but we obviously have a lot more to do and a short week here. We'll have to really gear it up and obviously play our best football of the year and try to be competitive against this team. This is a good football team."