1. Force the Colts to kick field goals – Peyton Manning hasn't played well so far in the postseason, even for him. However, it's unrealistic for a defense to go into a game expecting Manning and his receivers not to be a factor. More than likely, the Colts offense will move the football on Sunday. The key for the Patriots is to make them settle for field goals like they've been doing to teams all year long.
In their last meeting, the Patriots forced Indianapolis' offense to settle for four field goal attempts, in which they converted two. Even though Manning, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne all had big games, New England held the Colts to 27 points and had a chance to tie late in the fourth quarter. Manning will get his yards and Harrison and Wayne their catches. However, if the Patriots defense can make the Colts settle for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, New England has a great chance to come out on top.
2. Stay balanced on offense – The Colts defense has turned into the 85 Bears overnight. But what most people aren't pointing out is Indianapolis has played two inept offenses so far in the postseason. Both the Ravens and Chiefs have had trouble scoring points this year. Say what you want about the Patriots offense in 2006 but they are much deadlier than the Colts first two opponents with Tom Brady under center.
After struggling earlier in the season, New England has found its identity on offense and it's Brady back in the shotgun delivering the ball quickly to his receivers. That's what the Patriots do well, so expect to see a lot more of it this Sunday. Although, don't be surprised if the Patriots running game returns this week. Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon racked up 148 yards on the ground when these two teams met in November. They should be a big factor this time around as well, especially Maroney who almost broke a couple of long runs in the first meeting. The Patriots are tough to beat because they have the ability to change how they play from week to week. Brady will be the key but look for Dillon and Maroney to have big roles in this game as well.
There's no question that the Colts defense is better with Bob Sanders in the lineup. But in all honesty if a safety is having that big of an impact on his team's defensive performance and one player is that important, then Sanders should be inducted into the Hall of Fame right now. The Colts could find out on Sunday that their new defense is the same as their old defense.
3. Win the turnover battle – The first time these two teams played, the Patriots had five turnovers to the Colts two and Indianapolis only won by a single score. Brady threw four costly interceptions, including one to Cato June to seal a Colts victory.
Other than late in the first half and fourth quarter, Brady didn't play that well against the Chargers either. Sure, he got the job done when it counted, that's why he's Tom Brady. It's just hard to imagine him coming out and playing another awful game against a defense that doesn't get much pressure on the quarterback. The Colts defense only had 25 sacks on the year. That means Brady will have time to sit in the pocket and survey the field. Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell have been on fire lately and should be able to keep it going against a suspect Colts secondary.
Turnovers are big in any game, especially one of this magnitude. These two teams are pretty close in terms of talent and each are led by an elite NFL quarterback. The one that makes the key mistakes in crucial situations will likely be forced to watch the Super Bowl from home.
4. Pressure Manning – If the Patriots can't get any pressure on Manning, he's going to pick them apart. Asante Samuel didn't cover Harrison much when the teams first met, but that should change this time around. As good as Harrison is, Samuel should at least contain him enough to the point where he doesn't kill New England's defense.
The problem is on the other side. Right now, Wayne is just as dangerous a receiver as his mentor but unfortunately for the Patriots, they only have one Samuel. That means Wayne will be matched up against Ellis Hobbs for most of the game and that's a big advantage for the Colts. Manning does a lot of things well but perhaps his greatest attribute is identifying a mismatch. There's no way Hobbs can cover Wayne all game long so New England's defensive front needs to put heat on Manning. Even if they don't sack him, Rosevelt Colvin and Tully Banta-Cain have to get in Manning's face and make him get rid of the ball before he wants to. Plus, the more pressure the Patriots can generate, the better their chances are of forcing Manning into making bad throws and coming away with turnovers.
James Sanders is another player who needs to play well. Sanders has done a great job since filling in for Rodney Harrison but he's not a great cover safety. With time to throw, Manning could exploit Sanders if he's matched up one-on-one with a receiver or tight end Dallas Clark.
5. Play Patriots football – What makes the Patriots one of the greatest postseason teams of all-time is the fact that they never panic. Down 14-3 to the Chargers, what happens? Brady leads New England on a drive in the final two minutes, cutting San Diego's lead to 14-10 at halftime. Trailing by eight points in the fourth quarter, what happens? Brady drives the offense down for the tying score, Kevin Faulk runs in the two point conversion, the defense forces a three and out, Brady to Caldwell down the sideline and a game-winning kick by Stephen Gostkowski. Just business as usual in New England.
If the Colts jump out to a huge lead early, they probably win. But what happens if the game is close with five minutes to go? Brady and the Patriots have proven over and over again that they have the poise to handle those situations. On the other hand, Manning and the Colts don't have the best track record in big games. New England needs to withstand the initial onslaught by the Colts. If they do that and it's a tight game in the second half, the Patriots have to like their chances.
6. Coaching – The Patriots have Bill Belichick roaming the sidelines. So far in the postseason that's been good enough for 12 wins in 13 tries during his time with the Patriots. Tony Dungy is a fine coach but as long as Belichick is wearing a gray hoodie in New England, the Patriots will always have an advantage when it comes to coaching. Having that edge is invaluable to a team in big games like this one.