- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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When it comes to winning decisively, this New England Patriots team has been the antithesis of the 2007 record-setting juggernaut. Little has come easy for these Pats. There have been a lot of close calls.
Thus, instead of running-up-the-score talk, the question some have asked instead is, “How good is this team?”
That dynamic is part of what has made this year unique from the other 13 in Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach. It’s clear Belichick has a lot of respect for this collection of players, and the way they have rallied despite significant personnel losses.
"I have a lot of respect for this team,” Belichick told ESPN’s Chris Berman in an interview that will air Saturday morning. “I’ve demanded a lot from them. And they’ve responded in a very positive way in doing what’s best for the team, and being able to perform and execute under pressure.”
In 2009, for example, there wasn’t the same feeling. That year, as chronicled in the NFL Films-produced documentary on Belichick, was more of a struggle and it showed in the playoffs with a quick wild-card-round exit.
For the Patriots to avoid a one-and-done scenario and come away with a victory over the Colts in Saturday night’s divisional playoff game, here are 11 things we think need to happen.
Why 11? We decided to have a little fun because this is the 11th season Belichick has led the Patriots to the playoffs:
1. Play physical with Colts’ receivers: It wouldn’t surprise us if some old Ty Law vs. Marvin Harrison film was broken out this week to show defensive backs Aqib Talib and Co. the preferred style of play. One way to make a heady quarterback like Andrew Luck uncomfortable is to disrupt the timing of the passing game with physical play at the line, specifically against T.Y. Hilton. Luck is one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in the NFL, so defenses often have to find other ways to disrupt him.
2. Identifying and blocking Robert Mathis: Unlike the 4-3 Colts’ defenses under Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell, when it was more of a certainty that Mathis would line up opposite Dwight Freeney as a defensive end, the current Colts staff moves him around much more. So the first step is identifying where he is, then it’s blocking him, which is another challenge altogether (19.5 sacks led the NFL).
3. Defensive ends staying home: Whether in the base defense or sub, one mistake we’ve seen repeated by the Patriots at times this season is their ends losing containment, opening the edge for opposing quarterbacks to run. While Luck isn’t a scrambler like a Michael Vick, he can hurt a defense with his feet at times, as he showed with a clutch fourth-and-1 rush against the Chiefs.
4. Early commitment to the run: While the Colts looked vulnerable in the secondary against the Chiefs, and there should be favorable matchups in the passing game if Tom Brady gets the necessary protection, the temptation of getting too pass-happy early in the game should be resisted (especially if the current forecast for rain holds). The Patriots are a better offense when they establish the run, which sets up play-action opportunities.
5. Test Butler on the outside: With the Colts placing starting cornerback Greg Toler on season-ending injured reserve, it thrusts Darius Butler into a starting role on the outside. Patriots fans remember Butler well, as he was a second-round choice of the team in 2009. Similar to New England’s Kyle Arrington, Butler has been solid in the slot but has struggled when playing outside.
6. Beware of Brown and Richardson in the passing game: The Colts get their running backs involved in the passing game in a similar way as the Patriots do, with Trent Richardson (28 catches since joining Indianapolis) and Donald Brown (27). In a way, it’s like facing a Shane Vereen-type back, which could put stress on a linebacker corps figures to be thrusting rookie Jamie Collins and four-year veteran Dane Fletcher into expanded roles.
7. Exploit Colts’ punt coverage: Opponents averaged 13.7 yards per punt return against the Colts this season, which ranked them 31st out of 32 teams. They gave up a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown this year. Meanwhile, the Patriots have one of the NFL’s best punt returners in Julian Edelman. On paper, at least, it looks like a decisive matchup edge.
8. Beware of the Vinatieri factor: In the often-stressed “situational football,” if the Patriots have the option of playing keep-away or punting the ball away and relying on the defense to close things out, it would seem wise to be aggressive in approach. With a clutch kicker like Adam Vinatieri on the opposite sideline, that should alter the thinking if a game-winning field goal is in play.
9. Finish even or plus in turnover differential: The Colts led the NFL for fewest giveaways during the regular season (14) and ranked third in overall turnover differential (plus-13). Luck doesn’t often make the big mistake, although when forced into a comeback situation in the wild-card round against the Chiefs, he did get a bit sloppy. As Belichick has said countless times, no statistic correlates more to wins and losses than turnovers. If it rains, focus and concentration in this area becomes that much more important.
10. Maintain a reasonable penalty disparity: The Colts were the NFL's least-penalized team during the regular season (66), which reflects in part how they’re a team that doesn’t often beat itself. The Patriots had the second fewest (69). Both teams generally don't lose games, they force opponents to beat them.
11. Don’t give Bill Belichick a red hoodie: This is one we've cut-and-pasted since Super Bowl XLII.