New England Patriots

New England Patriots

New England Patriots

L-R: Colts RB Jonathan Taylor, Patriots LB Matthew Judon

During the 2000’s and into the 2010’s the Patriots-Colts rivalry may have been the biggest in football. Of course, that rivalry was really fueled by the teams’ superstar quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

There hasn’t been much to the rivalry without Brady and Manning squaring off. Prior to 2001, there are few if any notable games between the two teams despite the fact they both played in the AFC East until 2001 (the Colts moved to the newly-created AFC South during the league’s 2002 realignment).

When Manning left Indianapolis for Denver and the Colts began to backslide, the rivalry became one-sided. The Patriots have won all seven games since – including playoff games in 2013 and 2014 – mostly in blowout fashion.

With the series clinging to the title of ‘rivalry’ in the late 2010’s, suddenly new juice was introduced. It was the Colts that turned a football over to the NFL during the 2014 playoffs, an act that kicked off the nearly three-year DeflateGate saga.

Then, in February 2018, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels reportedly agreed to become the next head coach of the Colts, only to withdraw his name and return to New England after it was announced. At his following press conference, Colts GM Chris Ballard closed by declaring “the rivalry is back on.” Since that comment, the Patriots and Colts have played just once – a 38-24 Patriots win on Thursday night football in Foxborough early in 2018.

The rivalry may not have truly been ‘back’ that night, but this week’s game between the two teams feels it has a chance to return some of the hype to the matchup. There’s already been trash talk through the media, with Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke telling reporters earlier this week the Colts want to make the Patriots’ offense one-dimensional and “see what [Mac Jones] can do.” (Given a chance to respond, Jones took a predictably Patriots approach.)

It’s not just between the rosters either – there’s bad blood coming from media members themselves. Veteran Colts reporter Gregg Doyel tweeted to start the week, “Bill Belichick remains smug, Josh McDaniels remains a twerp, and DeflateGate remains fresh. When Patriots visit Colts on Saturday, I hope you boo their ass – and wouldn’t mind if the Colts beat their ass.”

Beyond the history though, these are two young teams that appear to be on the rise in the AFC, which could set up more meaningful matchups down the road. Both had been reeling from cornerstone QB departures in recent years, with Brady leaving the Patriots and Andrew Luck abruptly announcing an early retirement in 2019. In fact, this will be the first game between the two sides without Brady, Manning, or Luck since 1997, when the Pete Carroll/Drew Bledsoe Patriots won 20-17 over a Colts team coached by Lindy Infante and quarterbacked by Jim Harbaugh.

Coming out of some quarterback turmoil, both teams have settled their rosters by investing heavily in defense and a strong running game. Both teams have won this season by controlling the tempo and pace of games on offense, while forcing turnovers on defense. How will those mirroring styles play off each other on Saturday? Let’s take a look in this week’s key matchups…

  • When New England has the ball: Patriots interior offensive linemen vs. DeForest Buckner

    INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – OCTOBER 31: DeForest Buckner #99 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after a sack against the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 31, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

    Nobody can give this Patriots offense fits quite like an elite defensive tackle. That was made clear during the Titans game, when Jeffery Simmons anchored a Tennessee defense that held New England to one of its worst rushing performances of the season.

    At the center of the Colts defense is six-year NFL veteran and two-time All-Pro DeForest Buckner. “Certainly, we won’t play a defensive lineman that is more disruptive than Buckner,” Josh McDaniels said earlier this week. “This guy is whatever superlative you want to use, you can use it. He’s big. He plays with a great motor. He’s long. It’s hard to keep him blocked even when you do block him. He’s got great quickness. He can win inside or outside. They will line him up and move him in different spots on third down. This guy is an extremely disruptive player up front.”

    The Colts haven’t exactly been secretive about their plan to take away the Patriots running game and force the offense to be ‘one-dimensional.’ And while the Patriots are probably more comfortable than most realize putting the ball in the air, it’s never advantageous to be limited to half the offensive playbook. If the Patriots want to run the ball, Shaq Mason, David Andrews, and Ted Karras will need to be able to get Buckner out of the way.

    Even in the passing game, Buckner can be an impactful player. Interior pressure can be especially tricky for a quick strike offense, something the Patriots themselves have capitalized on for years. If the Patriots want to move the ball, Shaq Mason, David Andrews, and Ted Karras will need to be able to get Buckner out of the way.

  • When Indianapolis has the ball: Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger vs. Jonathan Taylor

    Nov 28, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots safety Kyle Dugger (23) celebrates with safety Adrian Phillips (21) after recovering a fumble by the Tennessee Titans in the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    The Colts’ offensive philosophy centers around putting defenses in conflict. Playing base with bigger, downhill, run-stopping linebackers? They’ll get into play action and force those linebackers to cover. Try going smaller with extra defensive backs to counter? They’ll bully their way down the field with their strong offensive line and bowling ball running back Jonathan Taylor.

    While that strategy has proven to be effective this season, the Patriots have a unique counter. Actually, they have two in hybrid safeties Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger. Both are bigger than average safeties who can make plays at the line of scrimmage against the run without sacrificing coverage ability.

    If Phillips and Dugger can consistently make plays against the run on Saturday, the Patriots can keep them on the field and eliminate a mismatch or mismatches the Colts offense feasts on. In doing so, they’d significantly shrink Indianapolis’ margin for error and force Carson Wentz to be an aggressive play maker.

    If it gets to the point where Wentz has to force aggressive throws, it should favor the Patriots’ ball hawking secondary. The Colts are 1-5 when Wentz turns the ball over at least once, and 6-1 when he puts together a clean game.

  • Bonus: Patriots defensive front vs. Colts offensive line

    Nov 21, 2021; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Indianapolis Colts center Ryan Kelly (78) and quarterback Carson Wentz (2) in the second quarter against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

    We’re going full positions here, because of the star power on both sides. The Colts have some of the best interior offensive linemen in the league in center Ryan Kelly and guard Quenton Nelson. However, Patriots players and coaches have stressed all week that the Colts line doesn’t just have individually talented players, but that all five starters are have played together, play well as a group, and can quickly communicate and make adjustments when needed.

    The Colts offensive line has paved the way for 5.1 yards per carry this season, which is the best in the NFL through 14 weeks. However, they’ve been a little more hit-and-miss when it comes to pass protection. Carson Wentz has been pressured on 25.5 percent of his dropbacks this season, which is the 9th most in the NFL. He’s been hit 60 times, which is second only to Matt Ryan.

    That’s where the strengths of the Patriots’ defensive front come in. Between Matthew Judon rushing off the edge and Christian Barmore bringing pressure up the middle, they’ll have a chance to get to Wentz and create havoc. If the Patriots can get an early lead and/or force the Colts into passing situations, that advantage will be amplified.

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