It wasn’t long ago that the Colts and Pats met in Indianapolis in a game billed as “Super Bowl XLI 1/2”, both teams undefeated and streaking toward the top seeds in the playoffs. The game stayed tight until Brady and Moss busted it open, grabbing the lead late in the game to win 24-20. The Pats marched on to an undefeated[ASTERISK] season and the Colts fell in desultory fashion to the Chargers in first round of the post-season. Fast forward a couple years, add a new head coach, subtract Randy Moss, multiply by rookies and divide by injuries, and we have our new Colts/Pats throwdown. Let’s call this year’s version Super Bowl 45.29.
Their records are very similar (Colts at 6-3, Pats at 7-2), but the team’s confidence and health could not be much different. The Ponies are struggling to field a complete team, culling a wide receiver named Brandon James from the NFL’s cesspool of unemployed, and apparently calling Edgerrin James about a comeback: “No? You’re done? Uhh…know anyone else who might wanna play?” Half of our payroll is on injured reserve: Dallas Clark, Bob Sanders, Anthony Gonzalez, Clark backup Tom Santi, Sanders backup Melvin Bullitt. Joe Addai hasn’t played since the Washington game and the football gods rewarded Mike Hart for his fine play against Houston with an ankle injury. We all remember the Austin Collie hit (OK, OK, sorry Austin, I won’t bring it up anymore). Peyton hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since the Nixon era.
Meanwhile, it’s business as usual in New England, as
Krang Bill Belichick has fielded a bunch of rookies, nobodies, and pretty boys to create a team that again is bamboozling the competition. They just stomped the previously-unstompable Steelers at PIT. Brady has developed a fine rapport with two new tight ends. Belichick cut Randy Moss, who has gone on a traveling circus show through the midwest, and the offense does not miss him much; the Pats lead the league in scoring.
Of course, we’re talking about the National Football League here. Momentum lasts about as far as you can throw it (even from your knees!). It’s easy to forget that the Cleveland Freaking Browns just stomped the Pats in embarrassing fashion a couple weeks ago. The Colts even had a running game for a hot minute! But with Peyton running cold, and his weapons nursing wounds on the sidelines (or at home), can we put up enough points to keep the game competitive?
Tough to say. After spending most of his career scratching his head after another Pats loss, Peyton seems to have mastered the Pats defense. (Make no mistake–the duel that pushes this rivalry into the all-time pantheon is Peyton vs. Bill, not Peyton vs. Tom.) And regardless of the Colts’ O injuries, the Pats’ secondary struggles to stop anyone. But this Colts O for once has problems beyond injuries, and it starts with Pierre Garcon. Yes–a starting wide receiver for the Indianapolis Colts (in the National Football League) might be causing more consternation than the lost players. Huh?
Let’s examine the evolution of defensive schemes against Indy this season as the offense has adjusted to the injuries. The injury recoveries of this preseason brought hope bordering on demand for another Super Bowl season. Peyton would have perhaps the finest, deepest receiving core of his career, while Bob Sanders would return to shore up the run defense. Despite the blowout in Houston, Peyton had perhaps the best start of his career through the first 3 or 4 games. But the first red flag arose when we learned that Dallas Clark, arguably the offense’s MVP after 18, lost the rest of his season to a wrist injury.
Dallas is a nearly impossible one-on-one matchup for defenses. He can block, receive as a tight end in a 2WR set, or split out wide as “wide receiver” in the shotgun. Defenses must decide–do you cover him with a linebacker, which is a speed mismatch, or go nickel and put a DB on him, which is a physicality mismatch? Clark could exploit the middle of the field if the defense focused on the receivers, or open the run game as a blocker. He drew particular focus from Belichick. Defenses must plan for him the way offenses must plan for Dwight Freeney. As the TE in a 3 WR set, he was almost guaranteed an opening somewhere on the field.
So when he went down, I looked next to the slot receiver–the next wild-card in the Indy O. Peyton loved throwing to Brandon Stokely, and he quickly developed a connection with second-year player Austin Collie. Both players have decent speed paired with route-running discipline that often exposed the nickel back. Of course, Collie went down with the concussion in Philadelphia. Anthony Gonzalez has barely been an option all year, and was officially placed on IR (again), temporarily leaving the Colts without an established player as the third receiver. While Jacob Tamme has filled in well for Clark, the starting WRs, Reggie Wayne and Garcon, must pick up the slack, right?
Well, maybe, if Garcon could shape up. Garcon simply cannot keep his hands on the ball these days. Yes, there was the circus catch in Washington. He had a huge game against the Jets in the playoffs last year. But we’re definitely in the midst of a sophomore (junior?) slump–he just does not have the hands of a typical Colts receiver. And when you don’t catch the ball, you do not gain Peyton’s favor, or trust. Some have already speculated Peyton doesn’t want to throw the ball his way–and who can blame him? Garcon’s struggles have allowed opposing defenses to retool their approach to our aerial attack.
Here is a solid breakdown of the problem, particularly with the photos showing the coverage backed off Garcon. Without Clark or Collie to counter, any defense would obviously shift to shut down Wayne and Garcon, forcing Tamme (or backup slotter Blair White, who of course is also injured) or the running game to move the chains. But as you can see from the Bengals’ formation, they’re not overloading Garcon’s side of the field. This implies that Garcon is, if not a weakness, just another option for Peyton. If Wayne invites the double-teaming, but Garcon can’t exploit single coverage, that allows other linebackers/DBs to smother the TE/RB dumpoff. No wonder Peyton doesn’t have anywhere to go with the ball. He’s not used to dealing with someone who does not offer a net benefit on the field (except maybe that 6-pick day against San Diego…but we’ll blame that game on Vinatieri anyway).
On defense, the Colts also suffer a major TE mismatch. Tom Brady is throwing to his TEs more than ever, and with the athleticism of Gronkowski and Hernandez, who blames him? In the Colts version of the Tampa 2, the linebacking corps must cover the TEs down the field. So it’s quite convenient that the Horses’ defensive play-caller, MLB Gary Brackett, as well as physical OLB Clint Session, are not likely to play. The Patriots’ offense has basically been turned inside out–rather than streak down the sidelines and look for the big WR play, Brady can focus inside on the TE openings and short crossing patterns by Wes Welker. Jerraud Powers, emerging as the Colts’ finest corner, will have his hands full stopping the Pats’ timing-based attack, while Antoine Bethea must keep an eye on Brandon Tate deep. Add in our third-string strong safety (himself limited in practice today), a very Colts-like run defense (allowing a league-worst 5 yards a carry), and the weak O output against the Bengals, and the Colts may take a page out of the Pats’ book and videotape the sideline signals.
But as I noted earlier, anything can happen in the National Football League. Would anyone really be surprised if the Colts wiped the Pats out? (Well, probably.) Still, the problems facing the Colts won’t detract from the excitement of the event. Peyton surely has crafted a gameplan meant to exploit his strengths and minimize his (team’s) weaknesses. The Pats, playing this regular season meeting at home for the first time in years, will bring their brand of measured intensity. I often compare football to a big, physical chess match, and we’ve got two Bobby Fischers nervously fiddling with their bishops.
So who wins? I was going to hold off on making a pick, because the head says Patriots, which is blasphemy in the Hoosier State. So…
Colts 24, Pats 23