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Patriots Replay Sat Dec 15 | 12:00 AM - 11:59 PM

Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Keep it rolling vs. Colts

Thanks to last Sunday afternoon’s 38-7 blowout of the Dolphins that allowed New England to hit October with surprisingly calming 2-2 record, the overall vibe of Patriot Nation has changed dramatically in less than a week.

As much as the prior week’s loss in Detroit had many on high alert, the well-rounded beatdown of Miami brought about a sense of calm.

Now, though, Bill Belichick’s team needs to take advantage of the positive momentum and keep it rolling on Thursday Night Football as the banged-up Colts (1-3) arrive in Foxborough. Indy has already ruled seven players out for the game, including star receiver Ty Hilton and starting cornerback Kenny Moore.

History tells us that Thursday night games heavily favor the home squad. The Patriots should be the better team in this matchup, regardless of whether that’s based on four games of action or preseason expectations. As such, this Week 5 battle is one that New England is very much expected to win.

But, being expected to win and executing the victory can be two very different things, as the trip to Detroit proved.

So far, the Patriots are far from a team that can take anything for granted. There are no presumptions of greatness on either side of the ball at this point. Each week brings new challenges and a search for a consistent identity on both offense and defense.

The first of back-to-back primetime games at Gillette Stadium gives New England the opportunity to reclaim its spot among NFL contenders as well as for the rabid home crowd to once again stamp Foxborough as a tough place to visit.

Though the rivalry may not be as back on as Colts GM Chris Ballard may seem to think, the latest installment of the long series of historic battles between New England and Indianapolis does bring its share of intrigue thanks to Andrew Luck’s return to health and Josh McDaniels’ decision to remain with the Patriots last winter.

Are Luck, first-year head coach Frank Reich and the Colts ready for this tough spot on the road on Thursday Night Football? Are the Patriots ready to establish consistency in their play to move back into the head of the NFL pack?

As the hours of the work day count down to some midweek football, here are some of the Keys to Thursday night’s meeting between the Patriots and Colts.

Edelman, Edelman… -- Julian Edelman was back to work on the practice field this week with a bounce in his step. The slot machine brings energy to everything he does and that should include his 2018 debut on Thursday night. Edelman hasn’t played a meaningful game since Super Bowl LI. From watching him sprint down the field to the delight of the home crowd in warmups to his return to his on-field role as Tom Brady’s most trusted, consistent short passing option, Edelman will be one of the major storylines to keep an eye on. Coming off a four-week suspension and a year missed to a torn ACL, is Edelman ready to be a focal point of the passing attack? He looked quick during the preseason but also dealt with too many drops. The quicker he knocks off the rust and gets up to speed the better it is for the Patriots.

Third down defense – The Colts have the best third-down offense in the NFL, converting 51.6 percent of their chances on the money down through four games. New England showed major improvement defensively on third down last week, but it’s still been an issue over the first month. It certainly helps the Patriots that Luck will be without Hilton in the passing game, but that doesn’t mean it won’t remain a challenge. If Luck can consistently hit his short throws it will be a first step toward the upset. Like the team as a whole, New England’s defense must keep its third down momentum going.

Pass protection – One of the few negatives from last Sunday’s win over Miami was that Brady got hit by the Dolphins a bit too often. Indy brings to town one of the most productive pass rushes in the NFL from early season action. The Colts have 17 sacks in four games, with six different guys notching two or more sacks. There is no one elite guy to focus on in the pass rush – though Margus Hunt and rookie Darius Leonard are among league leaders with four apiece -- which sometimes is more of a challenge for an offensive line. If Brady is upright and clean he should have room to work against the Colts. Trent Brown, Marcus Cannon and the rest of the line must give him a chance to do his job and keep him from getting hit like he did against the Dolphins.

Tackle – Luck is going to throw the ball. A lot. He’s going to throw the ball short. A lot. That means New England’s linebackers and safeties must have a good night in terms of tackling and not allowing short passes to turn into longer gains. Running back Nyheim Hines has a team-leading 22 catches for the Colts but he’s one of six Indy targets averaging less than 10 yards per catch. Luck is second in the NFL in both attempts and completions, but 31st in yards per gain. Getting yards after the catch is the key to the Colts passing game. Avoiding it is one of the keys to the Patriots defensive success.

Ball security – Both the Patriots and Colts are even in the turnover game this season. The Colts probably need to sway the numbers in their favor on Thursday night if they are going to pull off the substantial upset. That’s not to say that can’t happen. Brady has thrown four picks in the first four games, including three in the last two weeks. The Colts have also forced opponents to fumble eight times in the first four games, including three that they recovered. It’s hard to imagine an Indy win that doesn’t include some turnovers favoring the visitors.

Sony, Sony, Sony can do it again – Rookie first-round running back Sony Michel has increased his carries, yards and yards-per-carry in each of the last three games. He was a key part of the offense in the blowout of the Dolphins with his first-career 100-yard game. As the team is currently constituted, Michel is likely to be a factor on offense pretty much each week. Indy has a solid run defense that’s allowed opponents a combined 3.9-yard average through four games, although it did allow Joe Mixon to run for 95 yards on just 17 rushes on opening day, including a 27-yard long. As Michel continues to improve it will help balance out the offense. Based on the last three weeks, McDaniels seems intent on the rookie being a part of the game plan on the ground with regularity. Getting Michel going early takes pressure off the pass protection and Brady, only opening things up through the air. Continue to see what Sony can do.

Prediction: As ESPN pointed out, Brady is 7-0 on three days of rest in his career. Clearly with less time to prepare and game plan a guy with all the answers to the test, so to speak, is generally at an advantage. Still, Brady’s passing game is a work in progress. Edelman should help. Josh Gordon should be more comfortable, even with Rob Gronkowski questionable with an ankle injury. The biggest injury in the game, though, is the Colts receiver Hilton sitting out with chest and hamstring injuries. That’s big blow to Luck’s options. The Patriots have most of the advantages in this game both in terms of “spot” and matchups. Assuming last week’s defensive execution wasn’t an aberration, they should be able to limit Luck’s production. Brady should find room to work through the air. The energy of the home crowd should help inject life into the home team and dissuade the visitors on the short week. Put it all together and it looks like a 31-20 victory for Belichick’s team as it gets above .500 for the first time in a month and prepares for the meat of the schedule.

What do you think of our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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