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Snap Judgments from Colts-Patriots

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FOXBORO, MA. — Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we watch New England climb back over .500 in a convincing 38-24 beatdown of the injury-depleted but plucky Indianapolis Colts Thursday night in Gillette Stadium….

* If ever there was Exhibit A for why the NFL shouldn’t ask their players to endure Thursday night games just four days after playing on Sunday, we give you the Colts depth chart for this game in Foxboro. Four days after playing 70 minutes in a 37-34 overtime loss to visiting Houston (which resulted in 34 extra snaps, mind you), Indianapolis listed seven players as out against the Patriots. Teams are allowed to dress 46 players on game day, but Indianapolis was so banged up it could only suit up 44 players in taking on New England, and that’s a skeleton crew roster by modern NFL standards.

Two players who weren’t even on the seven-man inactive list were held out of action due to injury, star rookie inside linebacker Darius Leonard (ankle) and cornerback Nate Hairston (ankle). Beside no Leonard or Hairston, Indy played without it’s top receiver, T.Y. Hilton (hamstring/chest), it’s top tight end, Jack Doyle (hip), running back Marlon Mack (hamstring), cornerback Kenny Moore (concussion), defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway (calf), cornerback Quincy Wilson and others.

Then once the game began, a bad situation grew even more dire. Linebacker Anthony Walker tried to tackle Patriots rookie running back Sony Michel in the first quarter and was lost to a concussion. Later in the half, safety Clayton Geathers left the game after trying to tackle Michel, and was checked into the concussion protocol. He was cleared from the protocol but later ruled out with a neck injury.

Just when you thought the Colts were going to start seeking volunteers out of the crowd, Indianapolis defensive lineman Margus Hunt, the team’s co-leader in sacks with four, also left the field in the second quarter, after suffering a knee injury. He too was listed as questionable for the rest of the night. In the second half, defensive lineman Denico Autry injured a hamstring and was ruled out. And that’s after the Colts were already playing without their two top offensive tackles — Anthony Castonzo (dressed, not starting) and Denzelle Good.

The league can make a good show of prioritizing player safety all it wants, but those actions look somewhat hollow given that the Thursday night problem is real and needs to be addressed sooner than later. Yes, the Colts were unlucky in that they played the full 10-minute overtime period against Houston on Sunday. But that’s going to happen and even shortening the extra period by a third did not eradicate the risk the hardship the Colts were playing under Thursday night. No NFL team should be playing with an active roster of about 40 players mid-way through a game, no matter how big the TV dollars are. The NFL must find a way to work a schedule that has clubs playing on Thursdays only if they were off the preceding 10 days.

* Did that night in Detroit really happen or was it just a nightmarish mirage in the Motor City? Whatever has happened to the Patriots offense since that low point in Week 3, it’s a distant memory now. New England’s attack is again dangerous, multi-faceted and methodical in its precision.

When New England (3-2) opened the game with a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took six-plus minutes, it looked like the Patriots were out there executing a 7-on-7 drill. Tom Brady was a perfect 9-of-9 for 78 yards on the drive, with 8.7 yards per pass and an optimum 158.6 passer rating. New England finished with 438 yards of offense, 26 first downs, and scored touchdowns on three of their four red zone drives.

Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson caught a 1-yard scoring pass to cap the opening drive, and it’s encouraging that New England is finding creative ways to use his speed and play-making talents in ways that Minnesota and Oakland failed to do.

This was, of course, the first time the Colts and Patriots had met since New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels spurned Indianapolis and reneged on the head coaching job he had briefly accepted in early February. McDaniels showed the Colts what they were missing (by his choice) with a well-crafted game plan that varied the play-calling and kept the Colts defense largely off balance.

* Pretty strong return to the Patriots lineup for receiver Julian Edelman, after serving his four-game league suspension for a PED violation. Edelman caught seven passes for 57 yards, including three grabs for 28 yards on New England’s game-opening touchdown drive.

But maybe more importantly, Edelman handled the Patriots’ punt return duties, and watching him make those quick and darting change-of-direction moves was all I needed to see to believe his recovery from last year’s torn ACL is complete. Punt return duty is a stress test for a knee, and Edelman’s passed. He had a pair of returns for 20 yards.

* If you had Josh Gordon as the league record-breaking 71st touchdown pass recipient of Tom Brady’s, you win the pool. What an adjustment Gordon made on his fourth-quarter 34-yard touchdown catch — his first score as a Patriot — coming back to the ball in between two Colts defenders in the end zone.

The touchdown pass was also the 500th of Brady’s illustrious career and served to cap an efficient night for No. 12. Despite being let down by several of his receivers with three drops or so, Brady was on his game for most of the night. He was a blistering 23 of 27 for 203 yards and two touchdown passes in the first half, and he finished 34 of 44 for 341 yards and three touchdown passes, with a 1-yard touchdown sneak to boot. Only one of Brady’s two interceptions was his fault, and he wasn’t sacked, with a passer rating of 102.5.

If Gordon (two receptions for 50 yards) can stay locked in and committed to football — a very big if — the Patriots might have found their most elite receiver since Randy Moss left town, and he was just tossed on the Browns’ scrap heap. Gordon’s a potential game-changing weapon who I predict Brady is going to grow to love throwing to. If he doesn’t already after that end zone maneuver for the score.

* Good thing the NFL didn't change the roughing the passer rule based on that competition committee conference call last week. The Patriots basically took a team picture as they were landing on Andrew Luck for a first-half sack and yet there were no flags whatsoever.

But the league expects us to believe that no changes were made to the rule. (Wink, wink). However you want to spin it, officials aren’t calling the rule the same way they were in the season’s first three weeks, when Clay Matthews and his repeatedly flagged quarterback hits sparked a national conversation.

In the first quarter, Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers and safety Patrick Chung combined to absolutely flatten Luck on a 10-yard sack, with both landing on him with their full body weight. But no laundry.

“The hit on Luck would have been a foul in the first three weeks of the season FOX rules analyst Mike Pereira, the NFL’s former head of officiating, pointed out on Twitter. “The defender did try to break his fall at the end. I am happy that is not being called. The conference call with the competition committee has made a difference.”

Not that the league is about to admit that. And don’t get me wrong, the change was for the better, getting rid of some of those ridiculous flags that didn’t rise to the level of roughing. But the NFL’s inconsistency and ability to change on a dime should drive everyone involved just a little nuts.

* The Colts had played four tight games in a row before Thursday, but it’s clear Indianapolis versus New England is no “rivalry,’’ no matter what Colts general manager Chris Ballard boldly declared at that post-Josh McDaniels saga news conference in early February. The gap remains sizable at the moment.

If you’re scoring at home, keep these facts in mind: In the post-Peyton era in Indianapolis, the Colts are a humbling 0-7 when facing the Patriots, giving up more than 41 points per game. Indianapolis has lost eight in a row against New England, last winning in the memorable 4th-and-2 game in November 2009, when Bill Belichick’s coaching genius took a one-week sabbatical in Lucas Oil Stadium.

Since the 4th-and-2 game nine years ago, the Patriots have a mind-boggling mark of 122-38 (.763) in all games, while the Colts are a middling 76-74 (.507). Maybe the Frank Reich coaching hire will help Indy get back toward something approaching a level playing field with the Patriots in time. But on this night, Reich’s team didn’t have the same magic or available firepower as his last team that faced New England. With the Eagles as their offensive coordinator in 2017, Reich had his handprints all over the Super Bowl game plan that befuddled the Patriots defense in Minneapolis.

That game took place just two days before McDaniels spurned the Colts to stay in New England, so score a tiny slice of revenge for the Patriots on that front.

* At this rate, Andrew Luck’s surgically repaired throwing shoulder might be fine, but his arm could still fall off from over-use. Luck threw a whopping 59 times against the Patriots, just four days after tossing up 62 passes in that overtime loss to Houston. Against New England, Luck was a sharp 38 of 59 for 365 yards, with three touchdowns and a pair of interceptions.

The mini-bye the Colts will get this weekend should come in handy for No. 12, who was 40 of 62 for a career-best 464 yards and four touchdowns against the Texans. There was no sign of arm weakness or fatigue from Luck in those two performances, and he had a 39 of 53 passing day in Week 1 at home against Cincinnati.

Luck’s all the way back all right. Now let’s see if he can stay that way throwing 50-plus times a game.

* Despite playing mostly competitive games, the Colts fall to 1-4, and it would seem likely they’re headed for their second consecutive losing season. That’s a real rarity in Indianapolis and hasn’t happened since 1997-98, the year before Peyton Manning was drafted, and his rookie year.

In fact, since Manning’s first big year of 1999, the Colts have only endured three losing seasons total, and two of those came when their star quarterback was injured — first Manning in 2011 and then Luck last year. Can the Colts faithful handled a potentially long rebuilding program? Former Colts defensive coordinator and onetime interim head coach Rick Venturi is not convinced.

“Chris Ballard’s greatest job here so far has been creating a long-term expectation of the timetable and talking a rebuild,’’ said Venturi, now a member of the Indianapolis media as an NFL and Colts analyst. “I personally am kind of dubious that you can sell long-term rebuilding here, because of all the winning for so many years. For how long? Forever? Into perpetuity? In allows you to sell every move you make in that light, and I’m not sure how that’s going to play here.’’

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