Matchups for the AFC championship game Sunday between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium:
When the Colts (13-5) have the ball:
Andrew Luck (12) led the NFL in TD passes with 40, and he's proven himself as a real force in his three pro seasons. Except, that is, against New England. Luck stands 0-3 vs. the Patriots - the only team he's played more than once and not beaten. The Colts have been outscored 144-66 in those games.
Luck needs to be as calculating yet fearless on offense as New England figures to be on a defense led by NT Vince Wilfork (75), DE Rob Ninkovich (50), LB Jamie Collins (91), CB Darrelle Revis (24) and S Devin McCourty (32). The Patriots have had success confusing Luck, who then has forced passes. He's a good runner and might need to take off a lot on Sunday.
RB Boom Herron (36) has been a find and the Colts need some early production from him to avoid getting one-dimensional. That means a developing offensive line must seize control; a decent running game will keep New England's dangerous offense on the sideline. Key confrontations will include two rookies, LG Jack Mewhort (72) and C Jonotthan Harrison (75) against Wilfork and LB Dont'a Hightower (54).
Eventually, though, Indy has to win some of the matchups in the passing game. Luck certainly is capable, so can WRs T.Y. Hilton (13) and Hakeem Nicks (14), long-time star Reggie Wayne (87) and a slew of tight ends produce?
When the Patriots (13-4) have the ball:
Bother Brady with the pass rush and someone tame Gronk.
One of the game's all-time great winners, QB Tom Brady (12) will pick apart any defense that gives him time. Brady has had better corps of targets in his 15 seasons, but the one unmatchable weapon is All-Pro TE Rob Gronkowski (87). Gronk is more than a security blanket for Brady, he's a game breaker, and the Colts will be hard-pressed to find anyone to slow him. LB Jerrell Freeman (50) and safety Mike Adams (29) will get the call at times, and everyone will get a shot at - or get run over by - Gronk at some point.
The best way to slow Gronkowski and the other receivers - Julian Edelman (11), Danny Amendola (80), Brandon LaFell (19) - is to make Brady hurry his throws. That means producing a pass rush, which will fall on a variety of defenders: rookie DE Jonathan Newsome (91), veteran LBs Erik Walden (93) and Q'Qwell Jackson (52) and DE Cory Redding (90).
New England's blockers have been inconsistent, one reason the Patriots ranked 11th in offense. The onus on protecting Brady falls mostly on tackles Sebastian Vollmer (76) and Nate Solder (77).
Even if the Colts are winning that trench battle in the passing game, they could get overwhelmed by the Patriots on the ground. Yes, they rushed for a mere 14 yards against Baltimore, but in the past two games vs. the Colts, RB LeGarrette Blount (29) gained 166 yards and scored four TDs in last year's divisional game, then RB Jonas Gray (35) ran for 201 yards and four TDs this season.
If New England can pound it on the ground, Indy must move CBs Vontae Davis (21) and Greg Toler (28), Adams and fellow S Sergio Brown (38) in tight. Then, Brady's eyes will light up as he searches for his receivers.
One slight edge in Indianapolis' favor is here, where the Colts have All-Pros in placekicker Adam Vinatieri (4) and punter Pat McAfee (1). Vinatieri won three Super Bowls as a Patriot and one as Colt. He will break Jerry Rice's record for most postseason games played when he competes in No. 30 on Sunday. Vinatieri also can break a tie with Tony Fritsch for most consecutive postseason games with a field goal (13).
McAfee's 42.8-yard average was second in the conference, and Indy's kick coverage is solid. New England's Ryan Allen (6) had a net of 39.9 yards per punt.
The Patriots have a strong field goal guy in Stephen Gostkowski (3), who missed only two and led the NFL with 156 points. Edelman topped the AFC with a 12.0-yard average on punt runbacks and scored once.
Bill Belichick just tied Tom Landry for postseason victories (20) and is seeking a sixth trip to the Super Bowl. Belichick keeps things fresh by finding new ways to exploit the opposition. Last week, it was at times putting eligible receivers at ineligible positions, perfectly legal if devious. His staff's best coaching work this season has been done on both lines.
Chuck Pagano's Colts have gone 11-5 in each of his three seasons in Indy; he missed a huge chunk of 2012 battling leukemia. A defense-minded coach and former coordinator in Baltimore, his squads have been marked by their offense with Luck, and excellent special teams. In a matchup with Belichick, Pagano is not likely to get cute.
The Patriots are tired of hearing they haven't won a title in a decade after taking three Super Bowls in four seasons (2001-04). They also get reminded they lost their last two trips against an underdog.
New England is 8-0 in home games that meant anything, and has that 42-20 romp at Indianapolis in its pocket.
The Colts have played an extra playoff game, which might be good for momentum with victories over Cincinnati and Denver. It also can't be too good for freshness.
Luck's poor record against the Patriots can't be ignored, and New England has a big edge in conference championship experience.