(4) INDIANAPOLIS (12-5) at (2) NEW ENGLAND (12-4): 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS
Call it whatever you’d like. Determination. Momentum. Skill.
Or maybe it was just Luck.
Down 28 points in the third quarter to the Kansas City Chiefs, who gave up an average of 19.1 points per game throughout the regular season, QB Andrew Luck led the Indianapolis Colts to a thrilling 45-44 wild-card victory.
But the comfy confines of Lucas Oil Stadium will give way to the cooler and expected to be rainy conditions in Foxboro, Mass., on Saturday night, where Indy will be dealing with a team that’s every bit as resilient.
QB Tom Brady and the Patriots found themselves in a 24-0 halftime hole at home against the Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football in Week 12 before clawing back and winning in overtime, 34-31.
Even with New England coming off a bye week, however, neither the Pats nor the Colts are playing with a healthy group of their top guys. Earlier this week, for instance, the Patriots placed LB Brandon Spikes (knee) on Injured Reserve. And both teams’ best receivers — WR Reggie Wayne for Indy and TE Rob Gronkowski for NE — have been shut down for the season as well.
“It's a long year. It's something that you have to deal with, unfortunately, during the season,” Pats head coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “But it pretty much happens to everybody. That's why depth's important and developing young players is important, because you have to be ready to adjust to those circumstances when they occur."
Both teams have made those adjustments, but only one will advance to the AFC Championship Game.
Statistically, these teams have an abundance of similarities.
The passer ratings for Brady and Luck this season were almost identical — 87.3 and 87.0 respectively.
Both defenses ranked just inside the top ten for points allowed per game (21.0 for Indianapolis, ninth, and 21.1 for New England, 10th).
Neither team defended the run particularly well. Only two teams were worse than the Pats’ 134.1 rushing yards allowed per game, while the Colts ranked 26th with 125.1 yards given up on the ground.
New England’s K Stephen Gostkowski tied for the league lead with 38 field goals. Indy K Adam Vinatieri’s 35 were good enough for third place.
As far as some individual players with impressive stats, how about a league-leading 19.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles by Indy DE Robert Mathis or 105 receptions for New England WR Julian Edelman?
But the most important figure of them all is 0. That’s the number of times that the Patriots have lost at Gillette Stadium this season.
There have been a few chinks in the armor, however. The Brady-Belichick era began a perfect 8-0 at home in the postseason, but they’re only 3-3 in Foxboro since the ’09 playoffs. Also, half of their eight home wins this season have been by three points or fewer.
Including the postseason, the Patriots are 47-29 all-time vs. the Colts. Since 2001 in the series, the Pats have won 10 of 15, including two of three in the playoffs and all three games since 2010.
“We've seen a lot of the Colts through the years,” Belichick said. “It's been a good rivalry. There have been a lot of real competitive games. But none of that really matters, it's all in the past. Right now it's just the game Saturday night. We both have a good football team. They've played well all year. They're tough, they're resilient, strong in all three phases of the game. So we know it will be a big challenge for us."
There was no shortage of memorable matchups between Brady’s Patriots and Peyton Manning’s Colts over the past decade-plus, but Manning is two years removed from his Indianapolis playing days and it’s Luck’s squad now.
In the first Colts-Pats game with Luck at the helm in 2012, a 14-7 Indianapolis first-quarter lead quickly turned into a distant memory as Brady’s three TDs and no INTs helped vault our division rivals to a 59-24 victory.
If the Colts are to beat the Patriots, they’ll be wise to take a page out of head coach Rex Ryan’s book. In two games vs. New England this season, the Jets won one and lost one, each by a field goal.
Of course, a player who could play a crucial role in stopping Brady will be former Jet and current Colt LaRon Landry. Brother of Dawan, LaRon went to a Pro Bowl in his only season with the Green & White last year, but his status for this Saturday night’s game is unsure after he sustained a concussion last week. LaRon, however, was cleared and participated fully in Wednesday's practice.
Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton was on the Baltimore Ravens staff with Rex Ryan in 2002, then made a formative stop in his coaching career with the pre-Rex Jets from 2003-05.
On the staff of Belichick, who was the New York Jets' head coach for a day in 2000, are linebackers coach Pepper Johnson, former Jets MLB who joined the Pats staff in 2001, and offensive assistant Brian Daboll, Jets QBs coach in 2007-08.