Indianapolis Colts: New England Patriots

Live blog: Colts at Patriots

January, 11, 2014
Jan 11
6:30
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts for playoff football between the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 8:15 p.m. ET. See you there.

W2W4: Colts at Patriots

January, 11, 2014
Jan 11
3:00
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are five storylines to watch in Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots.


Weathering the situation: There will be rain with gusty wind. That, along with trying to battle the crowd noise to run their no-huddle offense, does not favor the Colts. The Colts are definitely at their best when they spread it out and go with the no-huddle, but having any kind of run game will help them. Indianapolis also can’t think about its previous trip to Gillette Stadium. The Patriots steamrolled the Colts 59-24 and quarterback Andrew Luck turned the ball over four times. Head into the fourth quarter with the lead or the game being close, and Luck will ensure they have a chance to win and advance to the AFC Championship Game.

Stopping the run: The Patriots have what it takes to deal with the poor weather conditions and keep Luck on the sidelines. Running backs LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley both rushed for at least 772 yards during the regular season. Colts coach Chuck Pagano told ESPN’s Bob Holtzman that tackling Blount is like trying to take down a “greased pig at the county fair.” The Colts will be setting Tom Brady up to be successful with the play-action pass if they can’t stop the run.

The Edelman factor: It’s no secret that Brady will look to slot receiver Julian Edelman when he drops back to pass. Edelman had 105 receptions this season. It’ll be Colts nickelback Darius Butler’s responsibility to make it as tough as possible on Edelman. Butler, a former Patriot, chased around Denver’s Wes Welker earlier this season.

Make the Patriots one-dimensional: I know Brady has been to five Super Bowls and I know he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but the the Colts need to make him beat them. That means the Colts will need to take away New England’s running game. Do that and Colts linebacker Robert Mathis will be able to put pressure on Brady because New England does a poor job with its pass protection. Brady was sacked 40 times during the regular season. Don’t worry about him beating the Colts with his legs, either, because he rushed for a total of 18 yards this season.

Have a backup plan: Patriots coach Bill Belichick will find a way to take Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton out of the game. I’m pretty sure Belichick showed his team plenty of film of Hilton going off for 224 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs on Jan. 4. Just ask New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham if you need further proof of Belichick’s ability to take a player out of a game. Graham didn’t have a catch – he wasn’t even targeted – in New Orleans’ loss to the Patriots in the middle of October. That means tight end Coby Fleener, receiver Da’Rick Rogers and running back Donald Brown must find a way to get open so Luck has somebody else to turn to.

Some might say this is just like old times.

The Indianapolis Colts visit the New England Patriots in a highly anticipated playoff game. We’ve seen this script before, and it was often extremely entertaining, not to mention history-making.

But in a way, this is also much different.

The marquee players have mostly changed. Furthermore, because the Colts are in the second year of a new front-office and coaching regime, there's a new face on what was once arguably one of the NFL’s greatest rivalries. Maybe a game like Saturday’s sparks it up again.

We can hardly wait, and here to break it down for us are ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Mike Wells (Colts):

Reiss: Mike, it used to be the Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning storyline. Now it’s Brady against Andrew Luck. From having watched Luck throughout the season, what have you noticed about him that reflects his growth as the Colts’ franchise player in his second season?

Wells: His maturity and will to win. Both of those elements were on display last weekend when Luck led the Colts to an improbable 45-44 come-from-behind victory over Kansas City after being down by 28 points in the third quarter. It looked like the Colts were going to have a difficult time winning the AFC South after receiver Reggie Wayne was lost for the season with a torn ACL, but Luck continued to work with his young receivers to develop continuity with them. Luck didn’t pass for as many yards this season as he did during his rookie season, but he improved his completion percentage and also cut his interceptions in half from 18 to nine. Reducing his turnovers was huge for Luck. He went from trying to force the issue with his arm to tucking the ball and running or just taking the sack.

I’ve said all season that there’s no better quarterback in the NFL than Brady when it comes to getting the most out of his receivers. Some Colts fans don’t agree with me. You’re around Brady on a regular basis. Why is he able to be successful with a group of relatively unknown receivers?

Reiss: Where to begin? Brady is exceptionally smart, with the recall of a golfer who might go through each shot of his round with vivid detail. Former offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien once nicknamed Brady’s brain “IBM” because it is computer-like, and when you consider that Brady has essentially been in the same offensive system for 14 years, that’s a major advantage. Brady also takes great care of himself physically, having just played every snap of a regular season for the first time of his 14-year career. I think it starts there, and it trickles down to his competitive drive and the feeling that he has an ownership stake in this team. He’s been having weekly film sessions with the young receivers on Tuesdays this year, as he’s almost morphed into another coach who demands excellence. He previously acknowledged that he had to learn to have more patience because of the unique situation and he’s been rewarded for it. It’s been impressive to watch.

We covered the quarterbacks, but let’s not stop there. Tell us more about the Colts’ defense and what linebacker Robert Mathis has done to put himself in the discussion for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Wells: Mathis hasn’t hidden the fact that he came into this season with a glacier-sized chip on his shoulder. He wanted to prove to people that he didn’t need Dwight Freeney starting opposite of him to be effective. Mathis backed it up by leading the league in sacks with 19.5. He became the 30th player in league history to record at least 100 sacks in a career earlier this season. He also set the Colts’ single-season and career sack records. I think Mathis is the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. Mathis has a knack for pulling off one of his customary strip-sacks at the right time. He did it against Manning and the Denver Broncos in Week 7 and he did it again against Kansas City last weekend. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was having his way against the Colts when Mathis forced the turnover. The Colts scored five plays later.

Speaking of defense, how much will the loss of linebacker Brandon Spikes impact New England?

Reiss: I thought Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower summed it up nicely when asked what the Patriots would miss without Spikes. He said, “Intimidation. Fire. He brings that spark to the defense that a lot of people don’t.” Spikes was most effective playing downhill in the running game, which was especially important for the team after losing powerful defensive tackles Vince Wilfork (Sept. 29) and Tommy Kelly (Oct. 6) to season-ending injuries. At times, the Patriots just sent Spikes straight into the heart of the opposing offensive line to account for those injuries. So they’ll have to piece things together, with top draft pick Jamie Collins (52nd overall) and four-year veteran Dane Fletcher the two linebackers who figure to see a spike in playing time. Spikes wasn’t a big factor in sub packages as pass coverage isn’t his forte, so he probably wasn’t going to have a very high snap count in this game anyway. He played 59 percent of the defensive snaps on the season.

We heard Bill Belichick say that if ever there was a Hall of Fame kicker, it was Adam Vinatieri. He just turned 41, is the oldest player in the NFL, and is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. What are your thoughts on his future with the Colts?

Wells: This is going to be a tough decision for the Colts in the offseason. Vinatieri was 35-of-40 on field goals, including four from at least 50 yards, and a perfect 34-of-34 on extra points in the regular season. But he’ll be 42 years by the end of next season. Age and the fact that Vinatieri just handles field goals and extra points are two major things that the Colts will take into consideration this winter. Punter Pat McAfee, who also handles kickoff duties, will be a free agent, too. The Colts have to decide what direction they want to go in the kicking department. If I were a betting man, which I’m not outside of penny slot machines, I’d say Vinatieri will not be back next season. He may end up being a Hall of Famer like Belichick said when he finally decides to hang up his cleats.

The Patriots were a perfect 8-0 at Gillette Stadium during the regular season. Half of those wins were by three points or less, though. Is Gillette Stadium really a home-field advantage for New England?

Reiss: I don’t think this is a home-field advantage like I’ve seen for other teams, such as Seattle with the “12th Man.” That, to me, is at the top of the list based on tough places to play because of the crowd and other factors. In this case, I think what makes the Patriots tough at home is that they are a good team that plays smart, and almost annually develops the type of mental toughness that is necessary to have when playing in the Northeast at this time of year. The Patriots’ home record (regular season and playoffs) since 2002 is 91-18, easily the best mark in the NFL over that span. I see where the Colts are 79-27 at home in that same period, third in the NFL. The Patriots have had some close calls at home this year and no one should be surprised if this game also comes down to the wire.

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's like new Indianapolis Colts receiver Deion Branch is back in college cramming for a final that's days away. He's spending almost every free minute he has trying to learn his new team's system.

But Branch, who signed on Monday, didn't sound a player who's sure he'll be able to contribute on the field during Saturday's playoff game against the New England Patriots.

Branch
"Stuff is just flying around," he said. "I think with the two days, I think I'm okay. I'm not where I want to be as a professional. I know how I am about me getting in and learning the offense and knowing where everybody's at. I won't say I'm up to speed on that part. As far as the things they've been throwing at me, I think I've been doing okay at it."

Branch has one more practice, a walk through and any extra film sessions or one-on-one time with quarterback Andrew Luck to grasp as much of the offense as possible.

Another reason to think Branch may not do much Saturday is because he hasn't played in an NFL game since Jan. 20, 2013.

"Not being active for a couple of months, I've been training on my own but it's totally different when you're competing," he said. "As far as playing the game, that's going to be Coach [Chuck Pagano's] decision. Me personally, I'm just every day trying to do my best to pick up everything I possibly can."

Branch has been spending a lot of time with backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to help him get caught up to speed on things. The two were teammates together with the Seattle Seahawks

"I think Matt's biggest thing is just knowing that the backup is an actual starting quarterback," Branch said. "Just hearing the plays, that's my thing. I need to hear them and I know Luck is so busy right now, he really doesn't have as much time to sit down with me and call these plays out to me. But hearing the plays from a quarterback is what I need and that's what Matt is doing for me right now."

Well Branch can at least help the Colts by giving them tips about the Patriots, right?

Nope.

"I'm an old school player and I always learned from my coach back in the days," Branch said. "You can always tell somebody what you're doing, but they still got to stop you. If that came about, we still got to stop them, or they still have to stop us. If we knew exactly what they were doing, we still have to stop it. This is the NFL. These guys, the scouts, I think those guys have done a great job. They knew all the ins-and-outs about the Patriots before they thought of bringing me back."

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