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Ten things you have to know about Colts-Patriots

01.10.14 at 7:50 pm ET
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Here’€™s everything you need to know about Saturday’€™s divisional playoff game between the Patriots and Colts:

Our three favorite matchups on the night:

1. Cornerbacks Aqib Talib/Kyle Arrington vs. wide receiver T.Y. Hilton: There’€™s still some level of debate as to who will be the one to try and neutralize Hilton, the Colts’€™ leading option in the passing game. While it doesn’€™t figure to be man coverage most of the evening — like Talib vs. Jimmy Graham earlier in the season — some of the aspects of the matchup will likely be dictated by where Hilton is lined up. If he’€™s in the slot, he could see more of Arrington, who has carved out a rep as one of the best slot corners in the game, and has the ability needed to jam an opposing slot receiver on the line with a dose of physicality. If Hilton is kicked outside, he could see more of Talib, who has struggled occasionally against the quicker, shiftier pass catchers (like Steve Smith) but has done better when he’€™s been on the outside. If Arrington does line up opposite Hilton, look for Talib to work against tight end Coby Fleener or rookie receiver Da’€™Rick Rogers. Regardless, if the Patriots are able to contain Hilton consistently, it will take away a sizable portion of the Indy passing game, and allow New England to make the Colts a one-dimensional team.

2. Wide receiver Julian Edelman against cornerback Darius Butler: The Colts have the same dilemma when it comes to Edelman. Butler — the former New England corner — has done well as a slot corner for Indy this season, but with Edelman clearly the Patriots leader in the passing game, the Colts might be tempted to gofer an upgrade at the spot. (Problem is, they might not have a healthy option there, as Vontae Davis clearly isn’€™t at 100 percent. The same is true for the rest of their secondary, as safety LaRon Landry and his giant arms are also banged up.) Indy also could lean more on zone packages in hopes of trying to get a handle on Edelman, as well as wide receiver Danny Amendola and running back Shane Vereen. This is one to watch early — if Butler does find himself matched against Edelman out of the gate, Tom Brady could be tempted to test his former teammate Butler.

3. Right tackle Marcus Cannon against outside linebacker Robert Mathis: Mathis usually lines up on the quarterback’€™s blind side, but given the fact that the left side is very ably manned by Logan Mankins and Nate Solder, the Colts might feel that a matchup with Cannon could create more of an advantage. The 32-year-old Mathis had a career-year in Indy, finishing with a league-leading 19.5 sacks. But with Mathis, it’€™s not so much the sack totals, but when they have taken place — his strip sack of Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith in last week’€™s wild-card contest was the turnover that really changed the tone of the game. Cannon has struggled occasionally over the course of the season, but has seen an improvement as of late. If Cannon — presumably with help from a tight end like Matthew Mulligan — can hold off Mathis and give Brady time to operate, it will go a long way toward a New England victory.

4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’€™ fans need to know: Fleener is a sneaky good tight end who isn’€™t usually the first read in the Indy passing game, but remains tight with Luck for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that they have a history all the way back to Stanford. Fleener is second on the team in receptions (52), targets (88), yards (608) and receiving touchdowns (four), while 32 of his 52 catches this season have gone for first downs.

5. By the numbers: Per Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, since 2001, the Patriots are 8-0 in the playoffs when playing a team for the first time, and 9-7 when it’€™s a rematch.

(Two more statistical notes worth passing along: the Colts and Patriots were two of the best in the league this season when it came to smart football. In regards to turnover ratio, the Colts were plus-13, third best in the NFL, while New England was a plus-9, good for eighth-best in the NFL. In addition, they were two of the least-penalized teams in the league this year. Indy was best when it came to total penalties with 66 and penalty yardage with 576. Meanwhile, the Patriots were second in the league in penalties with 69 and third in the league in penalty yardage, finishing with 625 yards.)

6. Quote of note: ‘€”Any time you bang something up, you’€™ve got to let it cool off a few minutes and really see what’€™s going on. … It felt good enough to go, so we taped it up pretty good and got back in there. But, you know we have guys on our team that do that every week. We have a lot of good guys [and] being on the field on Sundays means a lot to them. That’€™s our job, and our number one thing here is do your job. You can’€™t do your job unless you’€™re on the field.”€ — Mankins, talking about the injury he suffered in the regular-season finale against the Bills. He’€™s expected to play Saturday against Indy.

7. Patriots fans should be worried about… Luck and his ability to create some late-game magic. Per Kacsmar, he has an 11-5 record when faced with game-winning drive opportunities, and showed as much last week against the Chiefs where he was able to pull one out down the stretch in the wild-card contest. There are several reasons why it would be advantageous for New England to have a two-score lead in the fourth quarter, including the fact that it would allow them to control the tempo and utilize their strong run game. But it would also go a long way toward making sure that Luck wouldn’€™t be able to pull one out of his hat like he did last week against the Chiefs.

8. Colts fans should be worried about… the Patriots controlling the tempo early and getting a double-digit lead heading into the second half. That would set up a terrific opportunity for New England’€™s run game to be a true difference-maker. The Patriots have been able to do a great job as of late when it comes to sustaining long drives with their running game — against Buffalo and Baltimore, LeGarrette Blount (and, to some extent, Stevan Ridley) was a battering ram down the stretch, allowing New England to control the clock. The Patriots executed their four-minute offense with ease, and sucked all the life out of their opponents. Indy is 26th in the league against the run. If New England has the opportunity to run the ball, particularly in the second half, it’€™ll be a winnable matchup for the Patriots.

9. One more thing: In most of the Colts-Patriots clashes of the last dozen years, the fortunes of the game have risen and fallen on the shoulders of the respective quarterbacks. But this time around, it’€™s likely the running backs will tell the story of who wins this thing. New England has run the ball well all season, but especially as of late — the Patriots have averaged 168 rushing yards a game in their last three contests, while the Colts have struggled to stop the run. Conversely, you would think Indy would try and take advantage of the Patriots vulnerabilities when it comes to run defense, but they have had their own issues when it comes to the ground game. Over the course of the regular season, the Colts averaged 108.9 rushing yards per game, tied for 20th in the NFL. Donald Brown had 102 carries for 537 yards and six touchdowns. (From this perspective, it wouldn’€™t be a surprise to see New England open in nickel and dime packages, daring the Colts to try and run the ball instead of relying on Luck’€™s right arm — the Patriots did a lot of this against the Broncos.) If Indy finds a magic elixir and has success on the ground against New England with either Brown or Trent Richardson, then the Colts will have more than a puncher’€™s chance of winning. If not, it could be a long night for Indy.

(One more note — New England and Indianapolis have met three times in the playoffs, and each time, the winner of the game has gone on to win the Super Bowl that postseason.)

10. Prediction:

 

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