Colts, Patriots battle for trip to AFC Championship

Colts, Patriots battle for trip to AFC Championship
January 11, 2014, 2:15 pm
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The Patriots cruised to a 59-24 win in the last matchup with the Colts back in November 2012. (USATSI)


- Indianapolis rallied from a 38-10 deficit, and beat the Chiefs, 45-44, at home last Saturday, winning its fourth straight game in the process (dating to Week 15 of the regular season). The Colts' 28-point comeback on Wild-Card Weekend marked the second-largest come-from-behind victory in NFL postseason history (Bills came back from 32 points to beat the Oilers in 1993 wild-card game).

- New England defeated Buffalo, 34-20, in Week 17, finishing up the regular season with its fifth straight and 10th AFC East title in the last 11 seasons overall (Miami won in 2008). The Patriots have posted 11 consecutive seasons with 10 or more wins -- the second-longest streak in NFL history (49ers had 16 straight 10+ win seasons from 1983 to 1998).

- The Patriots beat the Colts, 59-24, at Gillette Stadium in these clubs' last meeting (Week 11 in 2012), and have defeated Indianapolis three straight times overall (also 2010 and 2011). These franchises have played three times in the postseason: New England won the 2003 AFC Championship Game (24-14) and 2004 Divisional Playoff Game (20-3) -- the Colts won the 2006 AFC Championship Game (38-34).

- Andrew Luck threw for 443 yards last Saturday, recording the second-highest passing-yard performance in Colts' postseason history (Peyton Manning -- 458 pass yards on January 9, 2005 versus Denver). With the win, Luck also posted his 11th career game-winning drive in the 4th quarter/overtime -- most of any NFL quarterback since the beginning of 2012 (including playoffs).

- Tom Brady ended the 2013 regular season with 25 touchdown passes and 4343 passing yards -- both numbers were his fewest in any full season since 2006 (24 TD, 3529 yards). Brady, who already owns the NFL record for most playoff wins by a starting quarterback with 17, will play in his 25th career postseason game on Saturday -- most of any NFL QB all-time.

- T.Y. Hilton caught 13 passes versus the Chiefs last Saturday -- most of any wide receiver in a single postseason game all-time. Hilton's 224 receiving yards in the wild-card round were third most of any player in a single playoff game all-time (Eric Moulds, Buf -- 240 yards on January 2, 1999 at Miami and Anthony Carter, Min -- 227 yards on January 9, 1988 at San Francisco).

-Bill Belichick has won 18 postseason games as head coach of the Browns (1) and Patriots (17) -- third most of any head coach all-time (Tom Landry -- 20, Don Shula -- 19).

In just two seasons, Andrew Luck has shown an uncanny knack for winning close games with the Indianapolis Colts.

His lone appearance against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots was anything but close.

The Colts suffered their worst loss with Luck last season at New England, but the stakes will be higher in Saturday night's AFC divisional playoff matchup at Gillette Stadium.

Indianapolis (12-5) turned in the most stunning performance of the postseason to this point by rallying from a 28-point deficit in the second half last Saturday for a 45-44 home win over Kansas City. Luck was the catalyst, throwing for four touchdowns and 443 yards - many of which came after the Colts' fate seemed doomed thanks to his three interceptions.

"It was a tremendous performance coming back in the second half," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "They did a really good job in all three areas of the game. This is a team that's well coached, that's had a real good season. They beat some of the best teams in the league, in both the AFC and the NFC. They've just been impressive."

Luck's Colts are now 14-2 in games decided by seven or fewer points.

These teams met in 10 straight regular seasons before that streak ended in 2013, and New England (12-4) cruised to a 59-24 win Nov. 18, 2012, in the last matchup. Brady went 24 of 35 for 331 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, while Luck was 27 of 50 for 334 yards, two scores and three INTs.

"I don't want to dwell too much on last year," Luck said. "They do a great job of forcing turnovers, getting to the quarterback. We know it's going to be a dogfight."

One notable effort from last year was T.Y Hilton's six catches for 100 yards and two scores. The Patriots will no doubt have their full attention on the second-year receiver after he caught 13 passes for 224 yards and two scores against the Chiefs last week.

"He's productive at all three levels of the defense," Belichick said. "He's a vertical receiver, he's a good intermediate receiver and he's a good catch-and-run short receiver that can turn short plays into big plays."

The Patriots will counter with one of the best cornerback tandems in the league in rookie Logan Ryan and Aqib Talib, who combined for nine interceptions for the AFC East champions.

One concern for New England is an injury-plagued group of linebackers down to six - three who have seen little action. That trio doesn't include backup Dane Fletcher, who will start in place of Brandon Spikes.

"Everybody has to step up," Fletcher said. "Everybody's role kind of increases on defense, especially in the linebacker unit."

It hasn't been a vintage season for Brady, whose 87.3 passer rating is his lowest in a full season since 2003. He has been sacked 40 times, the most since his first full year in 2001.

The number of times he has been dropped no doubt adds to his awareness of Robert Mathis, who led the NFL with 19 1/2 sacks in the regular season and added one last weekend.

"He's a great player and been a great player for a long time," said Brady about Mathis. "We've played these guys a bunch over the years. We kind of know what we're up against. He's having one of the best years of his career."

The Patriots' offense hasn't been the same with Rob Gronkowski out for the season with a knee injury after he only saw action in seven games. That came after the embattled Aaron Hernandez was let go and Wes Welker departed to Denver.

What Brady did have at his disposal was a running game in which Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount combined for 1,545 yards and 14 scores. Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen have also been a factor running the football.

"It's a heck of a challenge," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "What LeGarrette is doing and Ridley and certainly with Shane coming in, and Bolden is no slouch. I mean, they've got a stable of guys that are all more than capable."

Brady's preferred target in 2013 was Julian Edelman, who posted career highs of 105 catches and 1,056 yards receiving.

One of Brady's former receivers, Deion Branch, was signed Monday by Indianapolis. Branch, a former Super Bowl MVP with New England, started four of 10 games for the Patriots last year.

"Having had some time spent there, we figured that the questions were going to come up 'If you're signing this guy who spent time in New England, is it just a coincidence or do you need the guy to help you win a football game?'" Pagano said. "We think we got a heck of a football player."

Branch was signed since Darrius Heyward-Bey injured a hamstring last weekend and is out for this game.

The Colts also have numerous injuries on defense. Starting cornerback Greg Toler (groin) and defensive end Fili Moala (knee) were placed on injured reserve this week while safety LaRon Landry is dealing with a concussion.

Landry was a full participant in practice this week and is listed as probable.

The home team has captured all three postseason meetings, with New England winning twice.