This week, the 6-1 Patriots welcome ex-Patriot kicker Adam Vinatieri and the 7-0 Indianapolis Colts to Gillette Stadium, which is looking much better since the sod was replaced in both end zones and between the hash marks last week. The Colts are coming off a last second victory over the Broncos in Denver, and their offense is riding high after scoring 34 points against Denver's top-notch defense. The Colts defense, on the other hand, isn't the most polished group in the NFL. Here are five things the Patriots will need to focus on if they want to knock off unbeaten Indy.
1. Put the brakes on Peyton Manning
Perhaps the best gunslinger in the NFL, Peyton Manning picked apart the Broncos defense last week with Indy's signature no-huddle offense. Pats safety Rodney Harrison spoke this week about the importance of maintaining communication on defense, since Manning loves to bark out adjustments at the line of scrimmage. LinebackerJunior Seau said he hopes Manning has to make a lot of adjustments at the line, because that means he doesn't like what he's seeing. It seems the communication Harrison was talking about will be key in shutting down Manning's passing attack, because the secondary will need to keep tabs on serious threats Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison and Dallas Clark during the whole game. Moreover, the defense is going to have to work well as a cohesive unit, with Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour and the rest of the big men pressuring Manning while the defensive backs stick to the receivers. If only one of those two things is happening, it could mean bad news for the Pats. That's because Manning can find an open receiver if he's given the time to look and can dump it off quickly if he's being pressured but the coverage isn't there. Rookie running back Joseph Addai is steadily improving in the Colts ground game, but if the Pats can shut that down quickly and force Manning to throw the ball 60 times, they'll be much happier. Manning is not error prone, even though he doesn't have the best reputation in high-pressure games. Keeping him on his toes, reacting to the defense is the best way to get him to slip up.
2.Win the turnover battleThe Patriots solid defense (very good) against Indy's stellar offense (great) seems to be outmatched similarly to Indy's defense (good) against the Pats offense (very good), so don't be surprised if turnovers make up the difference in what could be a high-scoring matchup. Tom Brady and the Pats have only given up four interceptions and four fumbles this season, however Manning and the Colts have given up half as many of each. Additionally, the Pats defense has played well this season, and the secondary has done a good job of ball hawking, so the team's turnover differential is at 6. Indy's defense hasn't gotten to the ball as much as the Patriots have, but the Colts turnover differential is slightly better at 7. For Manning, the word "mistake" usually constitutes a few incomplete passes resulting in a fourth-down punt, but if the Patriots can make turnovers happen in this game, their chances of walking away with the win are exponentially increased. A turnover is the fastest way to get the Colts offense off the field and supply Brady and his offense with a short trip to the end zone. If the Patriots can win the turnover battle in this game, it could mean the end of the Colts winning streak.
3. Run the football
The Patriots running game had been a staple all season until last week when they faced the top rush defense in the league at Minnesota. The Pats took to the sky and Brady was named FedEx Express Player of the Week for his awesome game plan execution. However, the Colts have the worst run defense in the league entering this game. They're allowing 167.9 rushing yards per game and have given up a league-high 5.4 yards per carry, so expect the Patriots to return to their bread-and-butter this week. A return to the running game could bode well for the Patriots, because it means they'll be less likely to turn over the football. Sticking to the ground game will also allow New England to eat up the clock and keep Manning and the Colts offense off the field. Patriots offensive lineman Billy Yates filled in nicely in the Patriots pass protection last week when Stephen Neal was out with and injured shoulder. Neal and his usual backup, Russ Hochstein are both still listed as questionable on the injury report so Yates may get a chance to prove his run blocking ability in this game. The Pats will need to score quickly in the game and frequently there after, but if they have a lot of field between them and the goal line, running the ball will be the best strategy.
4. Keep it up in the red zone
The Patriots currently have the best red-zone offense in the NFL, scoring 18 touchdowns and six field goals in 28 red-zone possessions. Indy's red-zone defense is tied for last in the league. With these odds, the Patriots should be able to continue performing well in the red zone. They simply cannot settle for field goals in this game. The Colts offense is too powerful. The Pats defense, on the other hand, is the third best in the league at stopping red-zone drives. They've showed it in games like their first meeting with the Bills. Manning and the Colts offense will probably force the Patriots defense to bend a lot in this game, but if they can hold their ground like they have been the Colts offense could be a lot less impressive than they look on paper.
5. Be special on special teams
The Colts offense is good enough that they don't need good field position to start their drives in order for them to finish them in the end zone. Manning has a knack for stringing together long drives, even when the odds are against him. Colts punter Hunter Smith has one of the worst averages in the NFL right now, so the Pats offense probably won't need to put together drives that are as long as the Colts could be with punter Josh Miller having another good season. Patriot rookie Laurence Maroney leads the league in kick return average and Kevin Faulk has the best punt return average in the AFC. If one of those two guys can break one open, it could cause a big change in momentum and pin the Colts down. The main story in this department, of course, is Adam Vinatieri's return to Gillette Stadium. Even though Vinatieri was a direct contributor in all three of the Patriots Super Bowl Championships, not many Patriots wanted to talk about his return to New England this week. His replacement, rookie Stephen Gostkowski, is the only kicker in the league who hasn't kicked a field goal longer than 35 yards this season. He's relatively untested. The worst possible scenarios for the Patriots would be if Gostkowski missed one early in the game and the Colts won by a few points, or if Vinatieri had the chance to kick a game-winning field goal in this game, like he did as effectively as always last week against the Broncos. He's still Automatic Adam, even with a horseshoe on the side of his helmet.
The Patriots held practice outside today wearing sweats, helmets and shells. The injury report includes over one-third of the Pats active roster, but every player was on the field during the portion of practice available to the media. … Tom Brady beat out quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Michael Vick to be named FedEx Express Player of the Week for games played during Week 7. Brady put together his best passing performance of the season against the Vikings, connecting with 10 different pass-catchers and throwing four touchdown passes in the 31-7 victory.