Last week, the banged up Colts rode their defense to a win over the Bengals. Now, it's finally here: the yearly show-down between the two most dominant teams in the NFL over the past 10 years. It's Colts/Pats week. You and everyone else in the world will be watching. Here's what to keep an eye on:
1. Watch the tipping point. We pointed out that Pierre Garcon is having a rough season, but if there was ever a week where he would turn it around it would be this one. The Patriots secondary is as bad as advertised, and despite wishful thinking from Pats fans, there aren't many signs it's turning around. New England is horrible against #2 WRs (30th in the NFL), and Garcon should have room to run. His time is now. It's been a brutal season, but watch for Garcon to post huge numbers and get things moving forward. If he can't do it this Sunday, it's a terrible sign for his future.
2. Watch the injury report. Let's face it, we don't like having to lean on the injury card so heavily, but the Colts are a different team with Austin Collie on the field than with Gijon Robinson or Brandon James running routes. Guys like Eldrige, Tamme, and Addai would transform this offense from moribund to elite. This game is notoriously difficult to handicap, and with so many important players up in the air, the pregame active list might just tell you who is going to win.
3. Watch for Brady's bookends. The Patriots have a pair of rookie tight ends in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski who are playing like anything but first year players. Hernandez has become a go-to target for Tom Brady, compiling 34 catches for 436 yards, both second best on the team. And Brady clearly trusts them both in the red zone. Gronkowski racked up three scores in last week's demolition of the Steelers and combined the two have caught eight of Brady's 17 touchdown passes. With Gary Brackett hurting, it might fall to Pat Angerer to excel in coverage.
4. Watch for Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. I don't really care for Green-Ellis. First off, he has a long name and it's much harder to type than say Fred Taylor. On the field he's not much to write home about either. He has 472 yards rushing through nine games and a whopping six catches for 53 yards. However, he averages 4.2 yards a run to go along with six touchdowns. He may not be flashy or make his way to the weekly highlight reel, but he's one of the gears that keeps the Patriots offense moving. The Colts will seek to make the Pats one dimensional, so containing the law firm is a priority.
5. Watch the homecoming. The Colts kicker proved he's still got it, winning the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week after knocking down three field goals last week including a 47 yarder. It's obvious without Vinatieri the Patriots might not have any Super Bowl wins, let alone three. If this weekend's game comes down to a late field goal, I'm feeling pretty good that Vinatieri is on our side and looking like he's back to form. Meanwhile, the Patriots, who haven't had a big kick missed in roughly a decade (seriously), are going with Shayne Graham in an effort to corner the market on guys with weenie names.
6. Watch the pressure. Tom Brady played one of his best games ever last week. He sat back in a rocking chair, spreading the ball around like it was 2007. Tom Brady simply cannot be allowed to have 4-5 seconds to throw the ball in a clean pocket. The Colts are still relying on Freeney and Mathis to bring the heat, and the two have combined for 13.5 sacks and 5 forced fumbles. They don't necessarily have to get to Brady, but they have to get close. If Brady stands in the pocket untouched, the Colts will not win the game.
7. Watch the advantage. Once upon a time, Pats fans held up signs during Colts games that said "You can't win here". The Colts answered with road wins both in 2005 and 2006, but it's been a while since they've been to Foxboro. In a close game, homefield advantage can provide that extra penalty, that extra hesitation from a lineman, that extra something to push the Patriots over the top. Oh, there's this little matter of Tom Brady having not lost in 24 consecutive home starts (regular season). A win on Sunday would push him ahead of Brett Favre for the longest such streak ever. The last loss for Brady at home came the week after the Colts whipped him in '06. Unless of course you count that little playoff debacle last year...
8. Watch the weather. The forcast is for cool and clear weather between 35-45 degrees. That would be ideal for the Colts. The one factor to watch for is wind. A windy day could actually work against both clubs, but especially the Colts. One of my worst memories is sitting in the airport in Miami in January 2005. The Colts/Pats game came on TV and the screen was filled with snow. I knew then what would happen. It was a long sad plane ride back to Argentina.
9. Watch the changes. The insertion of Jeff Linkenbach into the offensive line last week did not produce good results. Linkenbach was a mess in pass protection, and the Colts' offense struggled. Caldwell claimed that Pollack was benched for consistency, but I saw nothing from Linkenbach last week to indicate he should be starting at guard. Watch to see if the Colts don't switch back to Pollak this week. The Pats have a middle of the pack sack percentage, so the Indy line ought to be able to hold them without more than one sack this week.
10. Watch for the homeless man standing on the sideline. Oh wait, that's not a homeless man, that's Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Am I the only one who thinks that he looks like a bum on the sideline? Standing there with his cut up hoodie, warm up pants, and that stupid ear warmer thing, it all makes him look like he lives under a bridge. I'm fairly certain he has a shiv made out of an old tin can, and he will stick you for your blanket. If you talk to him, you get an incoherent string of grunts and half answers that scarcely make sense. Listen, Bill, you are a very successful coach who clearly knows his craft, but would it kill you to maybe wear a nice shirt once in a while? You dress like a blogger.
11. Watch the overreaction. While this game does matter greatly as far as this season goes, it doesn't go very far in determining who the greater of the two quarterbacks are. Invariably, the winner will be called the greatest, and the loser will be garbage...until they play again. Listen, win or lose Sunday, Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback of this generation, and on par with the greatest ever. Tom Brady is the second greatest, and a top 10 or so all time QB. This one game doesn't settle anything except which guy has the better (or just healthier) team in 2010.
12. Watch the strategy. The single biggest advantage the Pats have over every team in football is their coach. Belichick's famous '4th and 2' call last year didn't pay off, but it was the right call, and the Pats were an inch from converting to win that game. The Colts continue to punt from ridiculous spots (three punts from inside the 40 this year!), and the Pats will continue to convert on fourth and short. Belichick may not be a nice guy, but he's a brilliant coach, and I wish Caldwell would notes on when to go for it from him.
13. Watch who's not there. I get that Randy Moss is gone, but I want to mention one thing about him. The Colts and Pats played three times in the Moss era, with Indy taking two of the three games. They were separated by 4, 3, and 1 points for a net of zero. In those three games, Randy Moss had 24 catches for 389 yards and 3 scores. There's a reason Colts' fans feared Moss and not Brady. He single-handedly beat Indy in 2007, and almost did it again in 2009. Not having to play him changes the tenor of this matchup.
14. Watch a huge advantage. The Patriots have a top 10 special teams unit, while the Colts rank in the bottom five. The big difference is in kickoffs where the Colts feature the 2nd worst kick return game and the Pats have the third best. On a cold day, it will be hard for McAfee to get touchbacks, so the Colts decimated special teams squad is going to have to work extra hard to cover kicks. The Patriots have often burned Indy with huge run backs. A big special teams advantage could well swing the game.
15. Watch for confusion. I hate picking on Phil Simms, because he loves him some Peyton, but after his debacle in the booth during the Philly game, I'm already preemptively cringing. Simms has trouble understanding replay. He rarely adds anything insightful, and mostly just mutters wistfully about how much better Brady and Manning are than he was. Actually that last part is generally amusing. The odds are this will be a barnburner, so do yourself a favor and turn on Lamey. Games like this are what Hockey Bob was born for. He's our own personal Gus Johnson every week, only in a good way.
16. Watch for shrinkage. Wes Welker's knee injury and the loss of Randy Moss has turned him into one of the least effective receivers in football. He's averaging just 8.5 yards a catch and has a negative DVOA for the season. The Pats simply don't have anyone to open up the underneath routes, and Welker is catching the brunt of the attention of opposing defenses. Welker has had 21 catches against the Colts for the Pats, but only at about 8 yards a catch. Without Moss to open things up for him, watch for that number to drop even more on Sunday.
17. Watch for definition. You can't get around the fact that the winner of this game will likely host the loser in the playoffs. The winner of this game has gone to the Super Bowl 6 of 9 seasons and 5 of the past 7. Close or not, the odds are very good that the loser won't win the Super Bowl. I know that sounds crazy, but I believe it. A loss probably says more about the Pats than it does about a banged up Colts squad, but a loss also hurts the Colts a lot worse. One team is going to be very unhappy on Monday morning, because they are likely facing a long offseason.
18. Watch for the miracle. I like to be right. I hate being wrong. Everything in me says the Colts won't have enough bodies to win this game. I should pick the Pats by 20. I'm not going to. The more I look at this game, the more I like Indy. Peyton finds a way. 16-14 Colts.