|Antoine Bethea will need to have a big game for a Colts' victory|
A familiar ship will dock in the port of Foxboro today. A ship that has long been respected and admired, while also detested and rivaled for the AFC Championship crown. However, unlike in their recent visits, the ship now has a new captain at it's helm. The New England Patriots entertain the Indianapolis Colts, in Tom Brady's first face off with rookie phenom Andrew Luck.
Luck has made replacing Peyton Manning look easy so far, although it remains true that you never really replace a player of Manning's caliber. After a season in which the team went 2-14 in it's first full season without Manning on the field for over a decade, Luck has carried the roster to a 6-3 start in it's first full season without him on the roster. There is no doubt that the Colts are the surprise package of the AFC, as a team currently sat in a wildcard spot in the AFC.
While it seems lazy of even overkill to simply credit Luck and his impact, the truth is that the Colts have primarily relied on him to carry them this far. The new philosophy in the off-season was to give the defense a makeover with new head coach Chuck Pagano, while bringing in former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to develop Luck. Once Pagano was diagnosed with a treatable form of Leukemia however, the Colts had to scrap their original blueprint.
After going 1-2 with Pagano at the helm, Arians took over after the bye week and the team has gone 5-1 since then. Pagano all along has acted as an emotional figurehead, while Arians has helped to steady the ship and continue Luck's development. And my, has Lucked developed!
In a very short time, Luck has propelled himself into arguably one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. The Colts have a mediocre offensive line protecting him, but his intelligence, athleticism and quick release allows him to overcome it. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne is enjoying a renaissance this season by having one of the best seasons of any player in the whole league. Wayne is going to be a problem for the Patriots today. Recently acquired cornerback Aqib Talib will start, but whether he shadows Wayne or they double team Wayne and allow Talib to work elsewhere is another matter completely.
The Colts don't use Wayne the way he has been used throughout his career. Wayne primarily stuck to one side of the field with Manning, but now he is being used in the Hines Ward
role in the Bruce Arians offense. That means that Wayne lines up all over the field, from outside the numbers on either side, to the slot and even some looks at tight end in running formations. That will make it very difficult for the Patriots' defense to give him as much attention as they would like to.
It may be a blessing in disguise however, as the Patriots cannot afford to overlook the deep threats that the Colts have. Donnie Avery, TY Hilton and Lavon Brazil have all shown this season that they can beat defenses deep for big receptions, while the Patriots have consistently shown that their safeties cannot track receivers down the field. Devin McCourty will likely play deep this week, and the Patriots will be hoping that he is a vast improvement over those who have recently filled the position, because they need him to be.
The Colts are not a balanced offense. Their running game is mediocre and likely won't be used much today because it plays into the Patriots' strengths. Even though this offense isn't overwhelmingly talented or amongst the best in the league in efficiency, it is a horrible matchup for the Patriots' defense.
Defensively the Patriots defense is going against a quarterback who will be too good for them to contain, fortunately for the home-side, the Colts face the same problem. The Colts defense has play-makers, but lacks a consistent underlying of quality role players. Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Antoine Bethea and Tom Zbikowski are all quality starters, but Darius Butler, Vontae Davis, Kavell Corner and Jerrell Freeman will all be intimidated by the prospect of facing Tom Brady. At the very least, Butler and Davis have extended experience with/against Brady, as Butler is a former Patriot and Davis played for the Dolphins. Nonetheless, that won't be enough to stop the Patriots' offense, even without an injured Aaron Hernandez.
While it is often media hype that pits two quarterbacks against each other in head-to-head matchups between football teams, this game is the epitome of a quarterback battle as both Andrew Luck and Tom Brady will be able to take advantage of weak defenses in Foxboro. Because Luck has struggled to maintain his consistency on the road, Patriots fans will likely feel very confident entering today's game.