Matchups to watch: Colts vs. Patriots

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
11:01
AM ET
A win Saturday night in Foxborough would make Andrew Luck the first quarterback drafted first overall to win two playoff games by the end of his second season. Considering the company on that list -- names like Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Troy Aikman and both Peyton and Eli Manning -- Luck is playing for an impressive amount of early postseason success.

If any quarterback knows early playoff success, it’s Tom Brady, who started his career 10-0 in the postseason with three Super Bowl championships before his first loss but has gone 7-7 since.

Here’s a look at how Brady has contributed to the 7-7 stretch as well as three other key matchups that will send either the Indianapolis Colts or New England Patriots to the AFC Championship Game.

The Colts’ four-man rush vs. Brady
Brady’s postseason play has been part of New England’s recent playoff problem. His 71.1 Total QBR in the regular season since losing Super Bowl XLII is fourth best in the league, but his 45.7 playoff QBR in that span ranks 19th.

Brady has always been good against the blitz. He has 76 touchdowns and six interceptions when opponents send at least five rushers since the start of 2008 (including the playoffs). His plus-70 TD-Int differential is best in the league, and only Aaron Rodgers has even thrown 70 touchdowns.

The problem is teams don’t blitz Brady as often in the postseason. The 2007 Giants solidified a basic tenet for beating Brady: don’t rely on extra pass-rushers. Teams have followed that blueprint with success since the 2007 Giants.

T.Y. Hilton vs. Aqib Talib
After Reggie Wayne went down in the fourth quarter of Week 7, Hilton emerged as Luck’s preferred target. Over the final 10 weeks of the regular season, Hilton’s 55 catches tied for eighth in the league. He had the fewest drops among the 18 players with at least 80 targets in that span.

The Chiefs didn’t provide an effective model for stopping the speedy Hilton. He set Colts playoff records (and career highs) with 13 catches for 224 receiving yards and added a pair of touchdowns. Hilton’s season-high 72 yards after the catch was the third highest in a game by a wide receiver against the Chiefs this season.

The New England secondary allowed only one wide receiver to reach 50 yards after the catch in a game this season -- Josh Gordon (90 in Week 14, 71 of which came on an 80-yard touchdown).

Hilton will likely draw Talib in coverage Saturday night. Talib, who was named second-team All-Pro last week, has been effective playing physically this season, something Hilton struggled with this year. Hilton caught 65 percent of targets against non-press coverage this season but only 48 percent against press coverage.

Donald Brown vs. Patriots rush D
While Trent Richardson was the most-publicized Colts running back this season, Brown quietly put together an impressive season.

Brown’s 5.3 yards per rush was second best in the league among running backs and more than a yard better than his career average entering this season (4.1). He averaged a half-yard more after contact per rush (2.7) than any other qualified rusher in the NFL this season.

Brandon Spikes is the latest Patriots run-stopper to be placed on injured reserve. Both Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo had played their final game of the season by Week 6, and from Weeks 7 to 17 the Patriots rush defense was ranked in the bottom six in rush yards, yards per rush, yards before contact per rush and first downs allowed.

Julian Edelman vs. Colts secondary
Injuries left Edelman and a cast of rookies as Brady’s supporting cast in the passing game. Edelman became Brady’s top receiver and had an extremely productive season.

If Edelman’s per-game averages without Rob Gronkowski (11.1 targets and 7.8 catches) were prorated for a full season, he would lead the league in catches (125) and tie A.J. Green for the league lead in targets (178).

The Colts defense allowed 8.0 yards per attempt to slot receivers this season, 23rd in the league. Edelman ran almost exactly half his routes from the slot this season (275 of 549) and has the third-shortest average target distance (8.1) of the 34 players with at least 100 targets.

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