Peyton Manning won't be involved, but the Patriots and Colts will renew their postseason rivalry Saturday night at Gillette Stadium. Young gun Andrew Luck will lead Indianapolis to town coming off his crazy comeback victory over the Chiefs on Wild Card Weekend. New England blew Luck and the Colts out during the 2012 regular season, 59-24, but this a new season and he's a different quarterback. New England has beaten Indy the last three times they've met. The Patriots are just 3-3 in their last six postseason games. The last three times these teams have met in the playoffs, the winner went on to win the Super Bowl. Tom Brady is a sure-fire Hall of Famer looking to extend his legacy. Luck is the hot-shot youngster with all the potential in the world looking to add to his early-career resume. He led his team to victories in the regular season over the likes of the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos. He's looking to add the Patriots to that impressive list. A spot in the AFC Championship Game is on the line and the loser goes home. As you prepare for Saturday night's kickoff, enjoy this freshly-brewed Colts at Patriots Divisional Playoff Pregame Six-Pack!
- Forget the Mike, find Mathis** - It's been pretty clear over the years the way to disrupt Brady and pull off the upset over the Patriots is through pass rush and forced fumbles. Just ask the Ravens or the Giants. Those are two things that Robert Mathis specializes in. He led the NFL with 19.5 sacks this fall and eight forced fumbles. He has more strip sacks than any other player in NFL history. Indy moves the outside linebacker around the defensive front. So it's not as simple has helping out right tackle Marcus Cannon with a back or tight end. Both tackles could be tested by Mathis, or even the entire line. It will be up to Brady, his line, the backs and the tight ends to all be aware of Mathis on every snap and what the plan is to deal with on every play. He had a strip sack last week against Alex Smith and the Chiefs that helped fuel the Colts comeback. Mathis is by far the most dangerous impact player on somewhat limited Colts defense. New England simply can't let him ruin the playoff opener.
2. Make Luck uncomfortable - While Brady will be looking for his front to keep Mathis in check so that he can do his work through the air, the Patriots will be looking to make sure that Luck isn't just comfortably standing there picking apart the back end. Luck was only sacked 32 times on the season, ranking Indy fifth in the NFL in sacks allowed as an offense. The first way the Patriots can get after Luck is obviously through the rush of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Ninkovich emphasized this week that when Luck runs he looks to throw, more than to run for yards. So it's not a huge fear that he's going to take the game over with his legs. Jones wasn't all that productive down the stretch, picking up just one sack in the final five games of the regular season on the way to his team-high 11.5. Ninkovich was a bit hotter at the bye, with three sacks in the final four weeks. Luck doesn't make it easy given his combination of underrated athleticism and field smarts. The other aspect of dealing with Luck is through confusion. New England will clearly be looking to disguise coverages and change things up in the back end to ensure that Luck can't get a beat on what Matt Patricia's troops are doing on every snap. Put the entire defensive game plan together, and it has to be focused on keeping Luck from getting too comfortable.
- In the running** - LeGarrette Blount and the Patriots were rolling on the ground down the stretch of the regular season. The Colts had the NFL's No. 26 rush defense during the regular season. That should create an opportunity for the Patriots to run the ball in this one. As the Patriots continue to search for an identity on offense, the running game could be a lifeline. Blount showed he can churn things out in the rain, so he may have a chance to do it again on Saturday. From offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and quarterback Tom Brady to Logan Mankins and the running backs, everyone seems happy with the way the ground game has built toward the postseason. Now it's time to take advantage of the depth and ability in the backfield. Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are among the team's most consistent and capable offensive playmakers. This is a chance for them to earn their keep and help the Patriots advance in the postseason. It's not like the game plan will necessarily be to run the ball 45 times, but having a balanced, complementary attack should be the plan. That will move the ball, keep Luck on the sidelines, set up the play-action pass and help stagnate Mathis' pass rush.
- Pass it around** - Julian Edelman has had a remarkable season to reach 16 games, 100 catches and 1,000 yards. But down the stretch he was really the only receiver making plays with any consistency. He was the receiver on 47 percent of Brady's completions over the final three weeks of the regular season, including 64 percent of his completions in the finale. That's great for Edelman, but not necessarily great for the Patriots offense and passing attack. Brady needs other options to make plays. Danny Amendola is next in line on the receiver depth chart, although he's clearly not at full health given the groin issue that's slowed him all season. Maybe the best option to give the attack a boost would be Vereen. The back had eight or more catches in three of his first four games after returning from injured reserve. But then he had three or fewer receptions in each of the last three weeks, while he also battled a groin issue. Vereen can be a mismatch nightmare for defenses when he's at his best. The bottom line is that someone other than Edelman needs to step up and make some plays in the passing game. The opportunity should be there against a banged up Colts secondary.
5. Fear Hilton, respect Fleener - T.Y. Hilton is the clear top receiver and playmaker for the Colts. Even Bill Belichick admitted that if Luck "had his druthers" he would get the ball to Hilton as often as possible. Hilton has been hot, with 200-plus yards last week and 150-plus in the regular season. Theoretically the best way to take away a No. 1 receiver would be with your No. 1 cornerback, which for the Patriots is obviously Aqib Talib. But it's not a perfect matchup for the Pro Bowl cover man, as Hilton is a smaller, quicker target than the bigger, more physical guys that Talib generally has the most success against. The other option would be to use Talib on tight end Coby Fleener, sort of like New England did matching the cornerback up with Charles Clay against Miami. That would leave someone like Alfonzo Dennard and safety help to deal with Hilton. I'd prefer to see Talib with Hilton more often than not, and even give him some help. The Patriots have played more zone than man down the stretch anyway. My concern is the consistency within the overall coverage dealing with both Hilton and Fleener. New England should have the entirety of its secondary back, but it's been a while since they were all relatively healthy and on the field playing together. They can ill afford to have any communication or coverage breakdowns, because Luck will take advantage. Belichick has made it clear that the team's first focus on defense is to take away Hilton. I agree with that. But Fleener could be a problem in the middle of the field, too. With the Colts bringing a relatively limited rushing attack to the table, New England's pass defense will likely be the key to success on that side of the ball.
6. Rain supreme - New England had quite performance in the rain in the regular season finale. Forecasts are calling for more rain and temperatures in the 40s for this Saturday night fight. The Colts are a dome team coming off a dome shootout in which their dome quarterback and dome playmaking receiver carried the load. There are clearly some questions about how Luck, Hilton and the rest of the Indy skill guys will deal with the elements outdoors. As was the case at Gillette against the Bills two weeks ago, wind could also be an issue in this one. Winds are expected to be 20-30 mph. We know that Brady can make the best of bad conditions and make due as one of the top bad-weather quarterbacks in history. Luck doesn't quite have that same resume playing in Indy and coming from a career at Stanford. Hilton is a Florida guy who plays in a dome. There is always talk about a team being suited for playoff football in the northeast in January. With Brady under center and a running game that's been building momentum over the last month the Patriots are ready to go. The same can't be said for the Colts. Weather could be an issue. Weather could help the Patriots.
The more I've looked at this game as the week has gone on, the more confident I've been in a Patriots victory. It probably won't be a blowout. The Patriots don't blow anybody out. The Colts don't turn the ball over, which usually leads to blowouts. But I still envision New England controlling the game for most of the night. I see Blount and Co. getting things going on the ground against a suspect front. I see Brady making the best of the wet, windy conditions with an opportunistic passing game. I see the defense getting just enough pressure on Luck to keep him off balance. I see Hilton wilting in the cool, wet, windy weather. I see the Patriots getting an early lead and being able to control the game from there. The Colts hurry-up tempo on offense is a mild concern, but not enough to get me to lean any of my analysis in the Indy direction. I'm going with a 27-13 victory for the home squad, with the Patriots advancing to the AFC title game for the third straight year.