This championship game pits the past and future of quarterbacking against one another and Andy Luck might just have a surprise or two in store for the Pats, according to Romilly Evans...
"Hakeem Nicks is finally channeling the spirit of his former incarnation at the New York Giants."
Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots
Start-time: Sunday, 23:40
TV: Live on Sky Sports 1
Ostensibly, the planets have already aligned for this AFC Championship Game. And they're all circling and pulling for the New England Patriots. The Pats have hammered the Colts the last thrice (by an average scorleline of 48-22) since Andrew Luck started under center in Indy. They are also super strong when defending their home fortress of Foxborough.
Tom Brady's record here as starter is an astonishing 60 wins for just seven losses, while his stellar strike-rate only stabilises slightly at 86.5% when the mercury dips beneath 40 degrees. Similar temperatures are forecast for this Sunday spectacular. Further, Brady has been to the championship round eight times previously. Luck, however, is on the threshold of the Super Bowl for the first time.
Throw in a couple more key personnel advantages - coach Bill Belichick is arguably the game's best strategist, while Rob Gronkowski, truly fit for a play-off push for the first time since 2010, is surely the league's greater ever tight end - and it seems impossible to look past the Pats.
Contrarian by nature, though, I just might. Especially when those kind odds-makers in Vegas are throwing in a touchdown head-start. Any explanation for the Colts turning the tables on their Week 11 whipping must begin and end with Luck. A genuine contender in the MVP discussion (although Aaron Rodgers and JJ Watt would shade it for me), he continues to rack up the air miles but is also demonstrating a growing wisdom to defer the deep downfield strike in favour of the aggregated gains of short-field gifts from opposing Ds.
In short, he's showing that discretion can be the better part of valour and refusing to force it. Luck employed this progressive gameplan to good effect during last week's upset win against the Denver Broncos and can do it again here, all the while keeping an eyeout downtown for the flying TY Hilton (whose 113.6 receiving yards per play-off game ranks as an all-time, albeit fledgling, high).
Hilton's stellar performances this year have made up for the inevitable decline of fellow wideout Reggie Wayne (slowed by repeated knocks to his knee and groin). Yet even the Pats' leaky secondary can stop this predictable Luck-Hilton, one-two punch with double-coverage. So while Wayne's last legs may still have something to offer, look to Hakeem Nicks as Luck's surprise go-to guy. After persistent injury, Nicks is finally channeling the spirit of his former incarnation in New York and we all know what problems Big Blue's wide men have caused the Patriots in the postseason.
On the other side of the ball, Indy must stop both Brady and the rush. Cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler, who missed midweek practice but have been given the green light since, are the ones to bear the burden of Gronk, although it was New England's running backs who sliced and diced them earlier in the campaign. LeGarrette Blount rushed for four touchdowns and nearly 200 yards and must be shut down this time.
That said, the Colts found a way to halt Denver's white-hot CJ Anderson last Sunday and Chuck Pagano's defensive co-ordination appears to be improving by the game. Plus, Luck will always give him a shot at keeping pace with any rival offense.
Brady's play-off pre-eminence may suggest otherwise, but he's stumbled at this stage before and in truth hasn't looked great for much of the current campaign, including recently. Buffalo turned him over in the first half along the way to snapping the Pats' perfect home record in their final regular season match. Then Baltimore confused him before Belichick dug deep into his bag of tricks in the Divisional Round.
So don't be fooled by New England's supposed superiority and reputation. Revered stats website footballoutsiders.com (who track deep probability for teams' respective statistical efforts across the park) have been scratching their heads all year as to how the Pats compiled a 12-4 record. According to the boffins, it should've been closer to 8-8. Belichick is the confounding variable in all this, it seems. Plus ça change.
However, perhaps with Luck's blossoming maturity, something just might this weekend. He's lost eight career picks to New England, but if he can keep alive in the pocket (he was hurried and harried 16 times by Denver yet never sacked) his precision passing can pick the Patriots apart. Luck reacts well to pressure and is a far better athlete than Brady. Belichick even calls Lucky the Colts' sixth receiver, due to his scrambling ability. So a changing of the guard might just be in the offing here.
The king is dead, long live the king?
Back Indy Colts (+7) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 2.111/10 or better
Back Indy Colts (+3.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread @ 1.9620/21 or better
Back Under 30.5 New England Pats Total Points @ 1.9420/21 or better
Back H. Nicks to be First/Anytime TD Scorer 14.013/1 or better