Could the rivalry be born again?
Earlier this year, I wrote that I slightly missed seeing Peyton Manning on the football field. Yes, I received flack for that comment. However, throughout the course of the team’s rivalry, you begin to appreciate the contention many in both cities have taking for granted—the epic comebacks, the prime time build up, and the playoff implications that went along with two franchises that defined a decade of football.
Manning was as important to the Colts and Patriot’s rivalry as the entire Colt’s teams, who often ran parallel with the Patriots for a top playoff spot. This year, the stakes between the franchises could be analogous, with the only missing storyline being the departure of Manning to the Broncos. Currently, the Colts and Patriots both own a 6-3 record, with the only differences lying in their seeding: New England holds the 3rd seed in the AFC and 1st place in the AFC East, while the Colts grab the 5th spot in the AFC and sit second to the surging Houston Texans in their division.
(Although, if I were the Texans, Andrew Luck’s quick progression would make me uneasy. If not now, they may feel déjà vu soon.)
Sunday’s match up will also mark the first time the Patriots face an almost universally respected quarterback—jokes on me for writing that—since they faced Andrew Luck’s predecessor, Peyton Manning, in week 5. Although every quarterback since Manning has torn apart New England’s secondary, which now ranks 31st overall in 3rd down conversions and 29th overall in opponent's passing yards, Luck brings a unique skill set unlike others at his position.
Luck has the innate ability to run and pass with deadly accuracy and may, to some, appear like a somewhat carbon copy of a younger Aaron Rodgers. On average, Luck’s passes have traveled a league leading 10 yards, mostly to long time Colt’s receiver Reggie Wayne. Wayne, who has seemingly found new life in his game, has caught more balls over 10 yards this season than he did in any of his previous years as a Colt and could prove troublesome to a New England team that is still vulnerable to the big play. Luck to Wayne could be a deadly attack, and most expect New England to not only put the clamp on Wayne, but to also take ownership of the middle of the field--Luck's comfort zone.
Luck is much more nimble than Manning in the pocket and has already scored 5 rushing touchdowns. He is not the fastest quarterback, but he is smart with his legs.
The Colt’s quarterback, however, is still a rookie and his 9 interceptions stand proof that he makes untimely mistakes. If the Patriots are able to take away the middle of the field and halt Wayne’s resurgence—a cumbersome task, indeed—Luck may lean on the ground game to open up his play action pass.
Not much has been said about Indianapolis’ running game. Their attack is not the deadliest, but their statistics cannot be ignored. Lead backs Donald Brown andVick Ballard both complement each other with 88 and 89 attempts, as well as 361 and 314 yards on the ground, respectively. Both are averaging roughly 3.5 yards per carry. (However, here is the catch: Luck owns 5 of the team’s 7 rushing touchdowns and the Colt's running backs have only one 20+ yard gain this season, a 26-yard sprint from Ballard.)
The Colt’s rushing attack does not place fear into their competition, but it is not built too. To keep Luck and Wayne in check, the Patriots will have to play formidable against Indy’s run. Doing so may help their team, ranked first in the league in turnover differential, cause a few turnovers.
And this is where the game could swing in New England’s favor. Thus far, an extra possession or two has been the difference in most of the Patriot’s victories. Further, despite their 6-3 record, the Colts are one of the few teams in the league to own a winning record and an appalling turnover differential. They sit at a paltry minus 9, behind only the Kansas City Chiefs who rest at minus 20.
The Patriots have weaknesses to exploit. The question is whether they can do it.
This is not the same Manning’s Colts vs. Brady’s Patriots that once defined the two teams as they shaped the NFL’s landscape to begin the 21st century. Yet, based on the buzz, break downs and discussions this week, it seems eerily similar, doesn’t it?