DENVER – It will be painful to reflect back on the season and to think that it all came down to a senseless late season loss at Miami.
That loss gave Denver the home field for the AFC Championship Game. Instead of 35 degrees in Foxborough, it was 62 degrees in Denver. Peyton Manning, instead of freezing his behind off and being pressured into one mistake after another, breezed through the porous and inept Patriot defense without breaking a sweat. The Bronco defense, inspired by the home crowd and helped by the fact that this is the one venue Tom Brady cannot do well in, played its best game of the year. The Broncos punched their ticket to Super Bowl XLVIII with a 26-16 win over the Patriots on Sunday at Sports Authority Field, sending the 2013 Patriots to a season-ending defeat that really came down to the fact that the game was here in Denver and not Gillette Stadium.
This game was all Denver on all fronts. Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels lost a coaching battle they were seemingly predestined to win. Manning was able to run a slick and balanced offense which featured underneath crossing patterns that the Patriots couldn’t stop even if they brought back their secondary from ten years ago. Brady was hamstrung by bad play calling, a running game that never was, and a Denver defense that somehow found a way to be good for a change.
The offensive game plan by Denver was simply perfect. Rather than try and gash the Patriots with deep slants and in-cuts, Manning instead made great use of the crossing pattern. He made a lot of early hay with short but effective passes to Eric Decker and Wes Welker. Only later on when the Patriot defense started to tire did Manning go for deeper slant routes to Demaryius Thomas.
With the Patriots forced to respect the short crossing patterns, it helped open up rushing lanes for Knowshon Moreno. One particular play in general was in the second quarter, when on third down and 10 from the Patriot 39, Manning handed off to Moreno on a draw play out of the shotgun and it went for 28 yards thanks to this gaping hole on the right side the offensive line opened up.
Defensively, the Broncos were helped somewhat by bad play calling by McDaniels. On the first two offensive series for the Patriots, they went short pass, run for no gain, incomplete pass, punt. McDaniels made almost no effort early on to establish the run by running on first down.
Brady also was called on to make low percentage deep throws and touch passes which normally don’t work. In the first quarter the second offensive possession ended when he tried to lob a pass deep right for Matthew Slater, but overthrew him. Later in the quarter, he had Julian Edelman wide open on a deep left sideline route, but overthrew him. Late in the second half, while trying to get into field goal range just before halftime, he tried to hit Austin Collie on a deep right sideline pass. Collie was wide open but the pass was out of bounds and over his head.
The more the Patriot defense had to stay out on the field, the more tired they got and the more Manning was able to control the game time-wise. On two occasions Manning led drives of seven minutes or more, and three drives were of ten plays or more. The 93-yard touchdown drive early in the second quarter foretold bad tidings to come for the Patriots in general. The Patriots were brutal in getting off the field; the Broncos converted 7 of 13 third down attempts. After being held three and out on the initial drive, the Broncos scored on their next six possessions. The Patriots simply could do nothing to stop Manning and his passing juggernaut. The only thing the Patriot defense could hang their hat on was that they did play well in the Red Area, holding the Broncos to field goals on four drives.
In a sad reminder of last season, Aqib Talib was hurt early in the second quarter when he tripped over Welker and had to leave the game with bruised ribs. This once again hurt the pass coverage as Alfonzo Dennard was forced to cover Demaryius Thomas, and Logan Ryan was picked on quite a bit by Manning. This marks the second year in a row that the other team’s passing attack was helped by an injury to Talib in a conference championship game.
Manning’s final numbers pretty much told the whole story. He finished 32 of 43 passing for 400 yards and two touchdowns and a 118.4 passer rating. Once Demaryius Thomas was able to get worked into the offense, he caught fire in the second quarter and finished with 134 yards receiving on seven catches. Julius Thomas, the Pro Bowl tight end who did not play in the Week 12 game at Foxborough, had eight catches for 85 yards. Decker had five catches for 73 yards. Manning connected with eight different receivers in another stunning display of offensive balance.
The Patriots got away from what won them the previous matchup by shutting down the passing game and daring Denver to win by the run game. In this game, the reverse happened; Moreno was held to 59 yards on 14 carries, and Montee Ball had 43 yards on 12 carries. With Manning having such easy pickings on short passes, the running game for Denver became inconsequential.
Brady, meanwhile, finished 24 of 38 passing for 277 yards, a touchdown and a respectable 93.9 rating. He was sacked twice and never got into a good rhythm all game long. He had several overthrows and was not able to find holes in the Bronco back seven as he had earlier this season. Julian Edelman had ten catches for 89 yards, but perhaps the most glaring stat of the game was that Danny Amendola had zero catches and one drop.
About the only thing that went well for the Patriots was that they did not turn the ball over. Of course, neither did Denver. Brady made only one foolish throw, a rushed lob pass over the middle that Shane Vereen was able to haul in. But in all phases of the game, Denver simply bested the Patriots and sent them home for the offseason disappointed and forlorn.
Manning now advances to his third Super Bowl, and will be an underdog versus whichever NFC team he has to face. He will also have to play in the cold, and long-range forecasts for the New York area portend snow for February 2. Manning still needs to win the big one for him to validate his career, so his work is not done.
Meanwhile, the Patriots should be proud to get as far as they did despite all the adversity they faced in 2013. In this loss to Denver, guys like Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes were more missed than Rob Gronkowski was. Still, the Patriots won’t go home happy, but what they did this year was nothing short of remarkable.
But the Patriots aren’t going to the Super Bowl. Another Patriot season ends in Denver. Most people love this beautiful city. New Englanders probably hate it now.
Heading into Sunday's match-up against the Broncos everyone knew the threat Denver's offense posed for the Patriots defensively. Hopefully if all went well, all New England's defense had to do was keep the game within striking distance for their offense, which should have left Bill Belichick's club able to be competitive enough to win.
Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way.
While the Broncos offense did a good job of holding the football and moving the chains, ultimately when it counted the Patriots defense kept Denver out of the end zone and prevented Peyton Manning and company from piling up points badly enough to give them an opportunity to beat them.
They allowed just 13 points in the first half, and 13 in the second. That should have been enough for the Patriots to work with considering they hadn't scored less than 30 points since back on December 15th when they lost to the Dolphins down in Maimi 24-20. Since then it appeared they had figured things out, having scored 41 against Baltimore, 34 against the Bills, along with 43 last week against Indianapolis.
Instead New England mustered all of three points in the first half of play, and waited until it was too little, too late in the fourth quarter to put up their remaining 13 points in one of the more frustrating losing efforts we've seen all year.
The Patriots had their chances, including an overthrow early in the game on a play they had set up perfectly in the first half. Brady executed a perfect play-action pass to Julian Edelman after New England had opened things up late in the first quarter. Edelman had gotten behind the defense and Brady overthrew him badly, squandering a potential opportunity grab the lead back after the Broncos had kicked a field goal to get ahead early at 3-0.
Brady missed another big opportunity before the half ended on a 40-yard pass attempt to Austin Collie, who he also had wide open. Once again, Brady overthrew him and prevented Steve Gostkowski from potentially having a chance to kick a field goal, which would have cut the lead to just seven. Instead Denver took a 13-3 lead into the locker room after two quarters of play.
After the game Brady shouldered some of the blame, saying there was certainly more he could have done better.
"I mean anytime we lose there's things I can do better," said Brady. "So certainly there's things I wish I could have done better today to help us win."
Denver seemingly game-planned things to take away the Patriots' ground game in order to force Brady to beat them through the air. They made LeGarrette Blount completely irrelevant (he finished with 5 attempts for just 6-yards) and completely eliminated the running game that they had spent the past few weeks trying to establish.
With the ball in Brady's hands he finished 24-of-38 (63%) for 277 yards along with a touchdown. However, it was Julian Edelman who once again came up with a big performance, finishing with 10 catches for 89 yards along with their lone passing touchdown. On the other side of the spectrum Danny Amendola was targeted just once, with his injured groin, once again, making him less of a threat. That left New England slightly undermanned, which is a problem they've faced in the postseason repeatedly in recent years.
New England needed to make the most of every series, because Denver was methodically moving the football down the field and kept the ball out of their hands. Overall the Patriots only ran just 56 offensive plays on Sunday, marking the first time all year they ran less than 60 plays in a game. It was their lowest offensive play total since they ran just 60 back in week five. They also finished Sunday's game in Denver just six of twelve on third down (50%), with Denver holding a decided edge in time of possession with 35:44 compared to just 24:16 for New England.
The Patriots defense bent but in scoring territory didn't break, allowing just two touchdowns and four field goals. Facing one of the toughest offenses in the league this wasn't going to be a low scoring game, and unfortunately the Broncos came to play. On Sunday, New England just couldn't do enough offensively to answer and ultimately it cost them.
"We were able to hold them to some field goals defensively, but our third down defense and our third down offense, especially in the first half, let them get too far ahead," said Belichick. "They were able to stay on the field, had the ball, had field position, and even the couple of times we held them to field goals we still didn't have possession of the ball."
"We were just trying to keep them out of the end zone and I mean, that's O.K., but it would be a lot better if we could stop them on third down and get the ball back. We just weren't able to do that and then conversely, we weren't able to do it offensively."
In the end, when the Patriots look back at this game they'll probably realize they did enough defensively to at least put themselves in a position to win. With the window slowly closing on the Brady and Bill Belichick era, it's hard not to be a little frustrated considering the fact that as beaten up as they've been injury-wise this season, they still had their opportunities to win this game.
It's unfortunate, and Belichick said after the game there's a lot of things he wishes they could have done differently. But in the end Belichick also said he's still proud of the way his team fought this season.
"I'm proud of our football team, proud of everything we did this year," said Belichick. "We've got a lot of guys in that locker room that really played hard, played well, gave everything they had all season long, and I'm proud to be their coach. I just wish it could have ended a little bit better for us today. But again, give Denver credit, they did a good job."
Patriots Now Have Mile High Aspirations - Bob George - George writes that the playing in the altitude in Denver is a very real challenge, and after beating Manning twice as a Bronco in Foxboro, they'll now have to do it out there.
For Patriots QB Tom Brady, He Likely Saw This Rematch Coming - Ian Logue - When Brady stormed off from his press conference after their loss against Miami, the reason he was probably upset was because he saw this game coming.
Scouting the Denver Broncos - Erik Frenz - Frenz has his scouting report on the Broncos, and feels that a key cog of Denver's defense is Shaun Phillips, who is Denver's best pass-rusher with linebacker Von Miller on injured reserve.
Notable achievements from the Patriots' playoff victory over the Colts - Zuri Berry - Berry looks at some of the milestones reached by New England Saturday.
Ryan Allen injury could put Patriots in a bind - Michael Whitmer - Whitmer files his notebook this morning and writes that Allen's injury have the Patriots in a tough spot heading into this weekend.
Broncos become focus of Patriots' preparations - Shalise Manza Young - Manza Young writes that Belichick said in a conference call before Sunday's match-up between the Broncos and Chargers that he'd be watching, and now they'll start preparing to face Manning in Denver next weekend.
Patriots shouldn't be fazed by Broncos defense - Ben Volin - Volin was in Denver for Sunday's game between Denver and San Diego, and writes that the Broncos nearly choked away the game.
It was always going to be Broncos vs. Patriots - Christopher Gasper - Gasper writes that we should have seen this game coming, and feels it was written with the Sharpie of destiny.
Brady vs. Manning XV: Let the hype begin - Obnoxious Boston Fan - In this piece he writes that this is the AFC Championship Game match-up that many saw coming in August.
Borges: Generation's greatest quarterbacks square off for AFC title - Ron Borges - Borges looks at the match-up between Brady and Manning and feels if this is the end of their great rivalry, it ends in the right arena: with a championship on the line.
Buckley: Tinker Bill fixes it - Steve Buckley - Buckley looks at all the adjustments made by Bill Belichick this season, which now has them set to play in the AFC Title game.
Tom Brady's calls, not arm, set stage for huge win - Jeff Howe - Howe writes that despite Brady's unimpressive statistical performance, it was the calls and adjustments he made that were quietly a big key why they won.
Five Incredibly Early Thoughts on Patriots and Broncos - Christopher Price - Price has his thoughts on this match-up, and feels that Brady will be happy to face off against Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.
Getting to know the Broncos, again - Field Yates - Yates takes another look at the Broncos, providing a closer look at their current personnel on both sides of the ball.
Quick take: Patriots at Broncos - Mike Reiss - Reiss has some thoughts on this weekend's match-up, with Belichick's prediction coming to fruition after telling Wes Welker after their earlier win that they'd see them again.
Bucs made right call on LeGarrette Blount - Pat Yasinskas - Yasinskas has a bizarre entry as to why he feels the Buccaneers did the right thing by getting rid of Blount and claims to see the logic, and then doesn't offer much in terms of legimate reasons to back it up.
Patriots will be ready for Broncos rematch - Rich Garven - Garven writes that these two teams know each other well, with this being their third meeting in 16 months.
Morning Win: The best Super Bowl doesn't have New England in it - Chris Chase - Chase goes over each potential scenario for Super Bowl teams and ranks them, but has either game involving the Patriots ranking lower then Denver in terms of how compelling each one would be.
It's funny how in New England, every negative always seems to somehow turn into a positive for the Patriots, and that's certainly been the case this season.
With the amount of starters lost on the defensive side of the football, guys who likely would have had diminished roles this season have ended up gaining valuable experience that has not only helped them greatly this year, but will likely end up paying dividends down the road in the years to come.
On the defensive side of the ball, losing defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo were obviously big hits, and the loss of tackle Tommy Kelly was obviously another tough blow. However, we saw Joe Vellano and Chris Jones get thrust into the mix, with both players providing good contributions up front. Jones has become the more productive of the two players at this point, but both have been important pieces. Had Wilfork and Kelly remained healthy, it's tough to say how many snaps either would have seen this year.
Sealver Siliga has also been a great addition after being added to their practice squad midseason, and has also played well up front. He's another player that may not have come in had either player remained healthy and he could be someone who we see grow on this roster in the years to come depending on what happens after this season.
Obviously it's not ideal and having Kelly and Wilfork at this point in the season would have been the preferred scenario. But each of the guys who have filled in have taken advantage and worked hard. As a result, the growth over the course of this season is one that has been an important part of the journey to where they are now.
Looking at the secondary the injuries to Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard over the course of this season have given a player like rookie Logan Ryan an opportunity to see more playing time, and he's certainly made the most of it. The rookie out of Rutgers finished with five interceptions, the most of any Patriot this season. Injuries to safety Steve Gregory also forced rookie Duron Harmon into the mix, and we've seen growth from him as well that will certainly make him a better player in the years ahead.
At the linebacker position, the injuries to Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes have given opportunities for Dont'a Hightower to take on an expanded role this year and while it was shaky early on, last night was one of the best performances we've seen from him. Had he not been thrust into the fire, it may have kept him from developing into the player he is now. The same can definitely be said for rookie Jamie Collins, who had an unbelievable night against Indianapolis, including a pass defensed down field in coverage where on first glance he actually looked like a defensive back.
Belichick had high praise for him after the game, and said Collins is a team player that he loves having as part of his football team.
"First of all, he's worked very hard," said Belichick. "He's been very dependable and durable. He hasn't missed, you know, anything all year. He started out playing...not started out but he's playing outside linebacker in regular, he plays off the line in some regular, he plays nickel linebacker, and you saw today he's out there on a split out tight end covering them on fade patterns. And he's blitzing up the middle and he's making tackles in line.
"I think he's pretty comfortable wherever he is, whether he's out in space, or covering a guy 20-yards down field, or one-on-one coverage with no help or whether he's in line, taking on blockers or blitzing, or covering tight ends from in close. He's a very versatile athlete that's smart, works hard, really has a great team attitude and I love having him on our team. He brings a lot, doesn't want to come off the field. I mean even when he's playing defense, he wants to be out there in the kicking game, he's got good stamina. He's very athletic, and tough."
Injuries are never a "best case scenario" in any sense, but as usual the Patriots took a bad situation and turned it into a positive, which now has their team in position to potentially make a title run. Looking back at how things looked a couple of months ago, it's hard not to appreciate how far they've come.
The good news is that through it all it's helped them grow and has them still in the mix with the top remaining teams in the league. It's hard not to feel optimistic about their chances moving forward, and thanks to the experience all these players have had this season and the adversity they've overcome, it's likely going to be a big key why this team remains at this level in the years ahead.
When Tom Brady took to the podium following the Patriots week 15 24-20 loss to the Dolphins in Miami, you could almost tell he knew this was coming.
He had just walked off the field after the Patriots failed to seize an opportunity to put themselves in control of the number one seed in the postseason, which Denver had more or less handed to them after the Broncos lost a critical game to the Chargers last month.
In the back of his mind he likely knew his team squandered a key opportunity to make sure this wouldn't happen. The loss to Miami that day took their shot at home field advantage throughout the playoffs out of their hands, which meant that they may eventually have had to win a road game in order to advance.
And here they are, heading back to the city where they started their Super Bowl drought. Brady's first ever post season loss came when they were bounced by the Broncos in the Divisional round following their Championship seasons in 2003 and 2004. They haven't won another one Lombardi Trophy since.
They've been close. Brady's made it to and lost two AFC Championship games, and was also on the wrong end of two Super Bowl defeats, one of which cost them a perfect season. It's been a frustrating run, and considering how this season has gone there were likely plenty of people who never dreamed they'd make it that far.
But they're one win away from a trip to New Jersey, and the only thing standing in their way is to go back to Denver where their postseason woes started and beat Peyton Manning and Wes Welker to get there. If this was on Brady's mind in that loss last month, it's easy to understand why he was so agitated. They had their shot to ensure they were playing at home, but now this rematch will happen on Denver's turf.
With the emergence of their running game in recent weeks, much of the talk offensively has centered on how much more balanced New England has been, including their win over Indianapolis Saturday night where it was Blount's 166 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns that carried them.
But Denver was just as balanced in their win over San Diego. Oddly enough, like New England's performance Saturday night, Denver didn't need big passing plays to beat the Chargers. On Sunday Denver finished the afternoon with just 1 pass play of over 20 yards, with Manning and the offense doing most of their work on short yardage plays, as 18 of his 25 completions went for plays of between 1-10 yards.
The run vs pass attempt totals were close, as overall Manning finished with 36 pass attempts, compared to 33 combined carries between running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, who combined for 133 yards on the ground. They churned out first down after first down, finishing the afternoon with 26 first downs, which were evenly balanced with 13 rushing the ball and 11 throwing it (and two via penalty), as well as converting 9-of-13 (69%) on third down. They were also pretty lethal in scoring territory, scoring three times in four tries, and would have had four had the ball not gone off Eric Decker's chest in the end zone right before the half for the interception.
For New England, they've been relying on their offensive line and the terrific performances by running back LeGarrette Blount over the last two games to hopefully open things up for their passing game. Unlike the first meeting they don't have Rob Gronkowski, which has already affected their approach. Brady has instead recently found himself as an elite quarterback who has simply needed to manage the game, while mixing in his pinpoint accuracy to help them move the sticks.
It only took 13 completions from Brady to win their first playoff game Saturday night, with Brady not throwing a touchdown pass while Blount did all the work on the ground as the Patriots racked up 42 points. The defense did their part and forced turnovers, and Brady ended up being just a role player in a game where he didn't need to play a featured part.
In Denver, that likely won't be the case. The Broncos are already an early favorite in this one and will likely try and do something that normally wouldn't be expected, and that's shut down the Patriots' ground game and put the ball back in Brady's hands. Their offensive weapons are somewhat limited compared to years past, with Kenbrell Thompkins suffering an injury Saturday night and leaving them with just Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Austin Collie as their remaining healthy receivers. That's more youth and speed than they've had in recent years, which is certainly a positive. Should Aaron Dobson be able to return this weekend, that would certainly give them another weapon. Shane Vereen is also a player who hasn't been utilized much recently in the passing game and could certainly end up playing a key role.
Watching how Sunday's game transpired against San Diego, it's pretty obvious that the Patriots can expect a tough environment and that's an edge that certainly falls in Denver's favor. The crowd is deafening when the opponent is on the field, and the only thing you can hear when the Broncos' offense is out there is the non-stop barking of Manning at the line who seemingly wears down the defense as much with his cadence as he does with his methodical approach with the offense.
Needless to say, this one will likely be a little tougher than the first meeting. New England won't be able to spot them 24 points and have their way this time around, and the Broncos will be looking for blood with a chance to get even on their turf.
Looking back, you sort of knew that after Welker ended up there that this story line would somehow come to pass. For now the stage is set, and it should be quite a game when the two face off next Sunday in Denver at 3pm ET.
You wouldn't think that losing a punter would create such a problem, but after Ryan Allen went down Saturday night with a shoulder injury, the repercussions trickled down across several key positions that will likely force the team to address them this week.
After Ryan went out in the second quarter, place kicker Stephen Gostkowski took over the punting duties and booted punts of 53, 35, 43, 52, and 26 on the evening, while Patriots quarterback Tom Brady ended up taking over the holding duties on the extra point attempts.
"It's been a while since I've done that," Brady told reporters after the game. "I was happy to help the team. Maybe I'll try to renegotiate my contract or something for doing more work or something."
When asked how long it's been since he's done that, Brady had to go all the way back to his college days at Michigan when he played in the Orange Bowl back in 2000. His biggest concern when he was asked to do it was if there were any signals he needed to give, because it's something he admitted he's never even done in practice.
"I think it was when I played in the Orange Bowl 14, 15 years ago," said Brady. "I don't even do it in practice. They said, 'Get in there and do it,' and I said, 'What do I say?' So we figured it out."
Belichick also said that unfortunately this is the time of year where with a limited roster, everyone has to be ready, and that's what happened last night after Ryan got hurt.
"It's been a little while...it's been a little while," said Belichick when asked about Brady stepping in to hold on kicks. "But again, we saw Tom punt last week, or two weeks ago, whatever it was. I mean, we do those things. Look, it's that time of year and we all know we've only got 46 active guys. So everybody has to back up somebody and you just never know how those are going to come out. Have to have everybody ready, and they were. They did a good job. They were called on unexpectedly and they did a good job."
For one game, things worked out. However, having your starting quarterback in there, who could take a shot on a diving field goal block attempt, isn't exactly ideal. Not to mention having your place kicker take a shot during a punt return like we saw Bengals punter Kevin Huber take earlier this year and getting injured would also take out two positions, of which they don't currently have an additional option.
If Allen can't play in the AFC Championship game next Sunday, in all likelihood we'll see someone come in this week. But seeing the adjustments made following his injury just shows you another example of the versatility and ability to react on the fly, and the Patriots definitely put together an impressive performance.
Head coach Bill Belichick praised Gostkowski after the game, and was pleased with how he stepped up in a tough situation.
"Stephen, he punts in practice and he's done that before," Belichick said. "I thought that was a great job. Brady holding, Gostkowski punting, that's kind of playoff football. Things like that happen. Guys get called on to do something maybe they haven't done all year or haven't done in several years, and come through at a big time, so that was a great job by Steve, no question."
Overall it was a performance that left Belichick really happy with the way his team stepped up, and now they'll get another chance to advance to the Super Bowl next weekend.
"I'm really proud of our football team and I'm looking forward to moving on to a bigger game next week," said Belichick. "But it was a good win for us and I thought those guys really did a good job."
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."
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