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Patriots’ Potential Playoff Opponents: Colts

01.01.14 at 10:15 am ET
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With the Patriots securely in the postseason, it’€™s time to start sizing up their possible postseason opponents. This is the first in a series of features on the rest of the AFC playoff teams. We already took a look at the Chargers. Now, it’€™s the Colts.

The skinny: The Colts captured the AFC South crown with an 11-5 mark, good enough for the fourth overall seed in the playoff chase. Like just about everyone else in the conference, Indy is a wildly flawed team that demonstrated it could be terrific one week (the Colts beat the Niners and Chiefs on the road, as well as the Seahawks and Broncos at home) and an absolute hot mess another week (they lost to the Rams at home by 30 and got waxed by the Cardinals in the desert by 29.) They have, however, played well down the stretch, winning four of their last five games by an average of 17 points. (Their final three wins were by a combined score of 78-20.) Players say they were spurred on late in the season after a players-only meeting following the November loss to Arizona — whatever was said, it appeared to work.

Offense: Quarterback Andrew Luck and the passing game is carrying the load here. The second-year signal caller out of Stanford has continued to make impressive gains, finishing the year with a 60 percent completion rate (343-for-570), 3,822 passing yards and 23 touchdowns against just nine picks — half of what he threw last season. The leading target is T.Y. Hilton, who has matured into one of the better young receivers in the game with 82 catches (on 138 targets) for 1,083 yards and five touchdowns, all of which are team-highs. Coby Fleener (52 catches, 608 yards, four TDs) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (29 catches, 309 yards, one TD) have also managed to pick up some of the slack in the wake of Reggie Wayne going down with a season-ending injury. It’€™s a good thing they have, as they have struggled to run the ball with any sort of consistency — Donald Brown (102 carries, 537 yards, six TDs) is the only real threat in the ground game for the Colts. Indy committed the fewest turnovers in the league with 14.

Defense: As we stated previously, the team has played well down the stretch. And while much of that is due to Luck’€™s evolution as one of the best young quarterbacks in the league, there’€™s also something to defensive improvements. They allowed 6.7 points per game over their final three games, and old reliable Robert Mathis has been a big reason for their success — he’€™s piled up a whopping 19.5 sacks this season to lead the league. Defensive lineman Cory Redding has done well in run support, while defensive back Vontae Davis and ex-Patriot Darius Butler (a team-high four picks) have led an competitive secondary. Overall, the Colts are ninth in the league when it comes to points allowed (21 points per game), 13th in the league against the pass (231.9 passing yards per game) and 26th in the league against the run (125.1 rushing yards per game). The defense is really good when it comes to takeaways with 27 (15 picks, 12 fumbles), one of the better totals in the AFC.

Why the Patriots should be afraid: You get the feeling Luck is on the verge of a breakout postseason performance where he ends up throwing for 350 yards and four touchdowns for a signature playoff win. It might not come this year, it might not come next year. But it’€™s going to happen sooner rather than later, and you just don’€™t want to be the defense standing on the tracks when that train comes roiling into the station. And while Indy’€™s trick-or-treat act took it to some interesting places over the course of the 2013 regular season, it appears the Colts are headed in the right direction at this point in the year. That wild-card game with the Chiefs will be a lot of fun to watch.

Why the Patriots shouldn’€™t be afraid: The Colts really can’€™t run the ball well — the Trent Richardson deal has been a bad one for Indy, at least to this point — and even though the Colts have one of the finest young quarterbacks in the league, one-dimensional teams rarely play deep into January. New England’€™s defensive game plan for a contest with Indy? Put Aqib Talib on Hilton and dare the Colts to beat you with another pass catcher, or try and run the ball. Not an appetizing prospect if you’€™re an Indy fan.

One guy to look out for: Fleener. The second-year tight end out of Stanford has become something of a security blanket for Luck. He’€™s not an overly dynamic playmaker, but does a good job as a complementary element in the Indianapolis passing game. The Patriots have struggled at time to keep up with some good, pass-catching tight ends this season — that is, when Talib has been off defending other options in the passing game — and Fleener is a favored target of the quarterback.

Potential playoff villain: Adam Vinatieri. The former Patriots kicker — who left New England nearly a decade ago — is the oldest guy in the league, but still getting it done at the age of 41. He’€™s not a lock anymore, as his 87.5 percentage on field goal attempts was 18th in the league, and he missed four field-goal attempts from 40-plus this season. But he’€™s still the best big-game kicker of his generation, and the idea of him coming into Gillette Stadium and delivering during a big postseason moment against the Patriots would be a surreal image.

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