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Colts at Patriots AFC Championship Pregame Six-Pack!

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The Patriots needed a hard-fought comeback over the Ravens last weekend, overcoming a pair of 14-point deficits in the divisional round, to advance to this Sunday night's AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium against the upstart Colts. For its part, Indianapolis went on the road to Denver to upset Peyton Manning's Broncos to get to this spot, with Andrew Luck leading the team to within a game of the Super Bowl. Tom Brady will be starting his ninth AFC title game, his fourth straight, and looking to advance to his sixth Super Bowl. Luck has gone a round deeper into the playoffs in each of his three NFL seasons, now looking to get to the ultimate game and ascend to the hierarchy of the league's truly elite passers. Bill Belichick's team is a heavy favorite, the No. 1 seed playing at home against a team it has beaten three straight times by more than 20 points. The Patriots aren't cruising quite the way they were when they blew out the Colts in early November in Indy. The Colts are packaged as a different team than the one that got its butt kicked that night. It's not quite the same as the Brady vs. Manning AFC title games of a decade earlier, but it's a Patriots and Colts battle for AFC supremacy and the right to fight for another Lombardi Trophy. As you try to gradually build your excitement for the big game on Sunday night at 6:40 p.m. ET, enjoy this winter sampler and Kraft brewed edition of the Colts at Patriots AFC Championship Pregame Six-Pack!

1. Sunday is run day - The last three times the Patriots have blown the Colts out in the Luck era, New England averaged nearly 40 carries, 200 yards rushing and four scores on the ground. That includes not only Jonas Gray's big day this year leading the Patriots to 246 yards with his 201 yards and four scores, but also LeGarrette Blount's 166-yard, four-touchdown effort last postseason. The Colts had the NFL's No. 18 rush defense during the regular season. The group allowed 4.3 yards per carry during the year and 14 rushing scores, while allowing 113.4 yards per game on the ground. Denver averaged 4.4 yards per carry in the losing effort last weekend. Three of the final four games of the regular season saw Indy's opponents run the ball 32 times or more. Simply put, you can and should run on the Colts. The Patriots know that firsthand. A deviation from that game plan just doesn't seem warranted on any level. New England may have advanced to the title game by not handing off a single time in the second half of the Ravens game and never really trying to run the ball against the Baltimore front. But the Patriots are the ultimate game plan team and the game plan this week calls for a far more balanced approach against the Colts front. Running the ball and setting up the play-action passing game - which on some level is already set up by New England's past performances against these Indy defenders - is clearly the way to go. Whether that's Gray getting his chance to relive his regular season glory or Blount taking the lead role and turning back the clock to what he did last season against the Colts is irrelevant. Sunday night, with the potential for a wet weather game against a bad run defense, the Patriots need to establish some consistency on the ground. It's the way to go. The way to win.

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  1. One more round, Tommy Gun** - Brady had arguably one of his best playoff performances of the last decade in last Saturday evening's win over the Ravens. He was hit early and often, yet the pressure never seemed to deter him from his focus on making plays and willing his team to the next round of playoff action. Brady is the physical and emotional leader of the Patriots. The way he goes - again, physically and emotionally - is generally the way New England goes. Some have questioned Brady's postseason performances in recent years and ability to put together consecutive games of high level play in January. This is a chance to do just that against a team with a limited pass rush and secondary that is banged up coming out of the Denver game. Both Indy cornerbacks - Vontae Davis (knee) and Greg Toler (groin) - missed practice early in the week and might be hampered in the damp conditions. Brady has a relatively healthy, diverse group of weapons at his disposal, including All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk was jacked up as both a blocker and a pass-catcher in the regular season meeting. Gronkowski also made key plays in last week's win. He's a huge matchup problem for the Colts and a huge ally for Brady as the veteran passer looks to add to his legend by becoming the first quarterback to lead his team to six Super Bowls. Brady threw a couple ugly interceptions in the regular season meeting with the Colts on a night when the ground game carried the offense. His two previous matchups with Luck were quite impressive. Luck is the young gun looking to get to where Brady is. Brady is the aging legend looking to hold onto his elite status and improve his impressive legacy. Battle of the 12s, so to speak.

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  1. Ground-to-air defense** - The Patriots defense - which had been lauded all year as an equal shareholder in the New England championship hopes - struggled against the Ravens. The Vince Wilfork-led run defense that had been so stout over the second half of the year looked shaky against Justin Forsett. The Darrelle Revis-led pass defense was shaky against the Smith tandem, especially early on. That sucked some of the wind out of the talk of the Patriots championship-caliber defense. The obvious focus of the Colts offense is the team's passing attack that ranked No. 1 in the NFL during the regular season. But the best way to start an impressive defensive performance is to stop the run and … wait for the cliché … make the opponent one dimensional. It's true. Boom Herron has run 35 times in two postseason games for 119 yards and a 3.4-yard average with two touchdowns. Zurlon Tipton has run 13 times for a 4.2-yard average. If you give the Colts life in the running game early, they will take it. Wilfork and Co. need to shut that down so that the rest of the day can be spent on Luck and his own diverse cast of weapons. That pass defense is likely to see Revis trailing T.Y. Hilton with some regularity. Hilton led the Colts with 82 catches for 1,345 yards and seven scores during the regular season. But he's far from the only guy Luck has to turn to. Reggie Wayne has slowed of late, but he caught 64 balls this fall. Tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, who was injured early on in the regular season meeting, combined for 80 catches, more than 1,000 yards and had eight touchdowns apiece during the regular season. Rookie Donte Moncrief has come on, including a 36-yard postseason touchdown. Luck had nine different targets catch 20 or more passes during the regular season, eight guys with two or more touchdowns. Four different Colts have had catches of 30 yards or longer in a pair of playoff games. Herron is actually the leading receiver with 18 January receptions out of the backfield. It's a big challenge for Revis, Brandon Browner, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Kyle Arrington, Jamie Collins and the rest of the pass defense.

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  1. Line it up** - The Patriots offensive line that's been a concern off and on all season was not at its best against the Ravens. Brady was beaten and battered. The Baltimore front won the battle of the trenches. And Bryan Stork is now out once again with the knee injury suffered against the Ravens. That means Ryan Wendell is likely to slide inside for the start at center. That's not a concern. But a backup will have to come in at right guard. Could be Josh Kline, as was the case last Saturday night. I won't rule out Marcus Cannon or Cameron Fleming. Regardless, the fill-in will need to prove he's not a weak link up front. The Colts don't haven nearly the physical, talented front of the Ravens. Cory Redding is a solid veteran. So is Arthur Jones, Chandler's brother who didn't play in the regular season. The Colts had 41 regular season sacks, led by rookie linebacker Jonathan Newsome (6.5). Linebacker Erik Walden was next with six. Bjoern Werner led the defensive line with 4. Indy will send some blitzes at Brady and play tight, press coverage behind it. The Patriots will count on the line to protect Brady and move the line of scrimmage in a physical battle the unit has proven it can win in the past. That shouldn't change just because a rookie center is unable to play. But nothing should be taken for granted with this line, this year and that doesn't change in a postseason matchup in which the opposing front doesn't exactly elicit fear. All success - and potential failure - begins with the New England line.

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  1. Secure it** - Ball security is always an issue. Even more of an issue in a postseason game with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. The Patriots used up some of their good fortune in the turnover game against the Ravens with fortunate recoveries of Danny Amendola's fumbled kickoff return and Julian Edelman's recovery of his own fumble after a reception. Can't count on that luck to continue. (Especially since Luck is on the other sideline this week!) The Patriots are known for taking care of the football. But Brady had a couple picks in Indy in November that kept the game close in the first half. He's also thrown at least one interception in seven of the last nine games. Of course Luck has thrown at least one pick in all but five of the 18 games he's played this year, at least one in six of the last nine games he's played. Luck also lost six fumbles during the regular season. New England's plus-12 turnover differential was tied for the second best in the NFL this year. The Colts minus-5 ranked tied for 22nd in the league. If that holds to form, it will go a long way toward ensuring that Indy can't pull the upset. But if the Patriots get loose with the ball - on the ground or through the air in what could be wet conditions - it could open the door for the young, upstart visitors. Rarely do upsets happen in the postseason without turnovers being a factor.

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  1. Special considerations** - The Patriots are the better team. It's why they are the No. 1 seed and playing at home. And favored. And the choice to win among most of the world. But stuff happens. Any given Sunday…blah, blah, blah. If turnovers aren't the equalizer, then sometimes it's the kicking game. Josh Cribbs is a veteran returner for the Colts, even if he had some issues in Denver last week. Cribbs averaged 32 yards per kick return during the year. He also handles punts. He's proven over his time in the NFL, if not this year at this latter point in his career, that he can make big plays. Adam Vinatieri is still one of the top kickers in the game and he likely won't wilt in the face of a big kick in bad conditions in Foxborough. (If memory serves me, he's come up big in that scenario before!) The Patriots special teams unit was impactful all year but didn't do a heck of a lot in the Ravens win. Maybe Scott O'Brien's troops are due for a bounce back effort that could open things up for the home team. And special considerations need to be paid to the weather. Current forecasts from Weather.com - although they're wrong more often than Charley Casserly -- call for light winds, rain and mild temps for Foxborough on Sunday night. So the balls might be moist, but beyond that it shouldn't be a huge deal. Of course the Colts are still a dome team and Luck is a dome quarterback. We know Brady and New England will be ready for any weather that comes their way, but will the Colts?

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Prediction:
There aren't too many people who are picking the Colts to pull off the upset this weekend at Gillette Stadium. And I won't be one of them. The only ways I see the Patriots losing, which isn't very likely, is either through a lot of New England mistakes or through just a crazy, career-defining breakout performance for Luck. I'm not willing to project either to happen at this point. Luck is good. The passing attack is good. But not good enough. This matchup seems like such a preconceived Patriots win that I'm wondering where Belichick got his bulletin board motivational material from this week? Maybe he had to create his own? The Patriots have blown the Colts out three straight times. Two in Foxborough. Once in the postseason. Nothing leads me to believe that will change, even if the score is a little less lopsided. I think the Patriots will come out and run the ball - although I would guess there is a strong shot for a play-action pass to open the game - and put forth a balanced attack. I think Brady will find open receivers all over the field. Indy may dare him to try to throw deep and to the outside, like they did with Manning, and I think he'll hit some of those. I also think Gronkowski will find some fun and games in the middle of the field. Blount will top 100 yards. And the offensive line with be good enough in a matchup it should at least play to a draw. Defensively I'm going to assume last week's performance was an aberration more than a sign that we overrated the unit. I'll take my chances with Revis on Hilton. Same, really, with all the matchups. The tight ends worry me in the middle of the field, but I don't see them being good enough to swing the game. And I don't expect the Colts to run with the success the Ravens did. Throw this all in the blender and I'm overconfident like many others, looking at a
New England win in the range of 35-21**. I expect the Patriots to control the game, energize the home crowd and keep Luck & Co. from truly being able to make this an overly competitive battle. On to Arizona! On to the Super Bowl! On to the Katy Perry halftime show!

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