Five years ago today Bill Belichick gambled on a fourth-and-2 in Indianapolis and the rest is history.
It’s only fitting that tomorrow night the Patriots return to Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time since that classic finish in what is a crucial game for the AFC. While much has changed in five years, the Patriots still come in with a dangerous team that has opened up leads of 17, 28, 35 and 21 points on the Colts in the last four meetings in Foxboro.
That’s why I think home-field advantage is very important here and I wrote about that specifically in our preview at Football Outsiders.
For the Colts to win they must control the game with their offense: ball security, third-down conversions and touchdowns in the red zone. Andrew Luck has done a great job of spreading the ball in a high-volume, high efficiency attack that’s helped the Colts lead the league in scoring. The Colts lead the league with six wire-to-wire wins (never trailed), so they are very pass happy this year. Yet I still think this will follow the script of so many previous Pats-Colts games in that the Patriots will jump out to a big lead while capitalizing on Indy mistakes and Luck will have to lead a second-half comeback, which he of course is very capable of doing. The Colts have had 18-point comeback wins in both games following their bye week under Luck and both teams are coming off the bye for this one, which is a scheduling quirk that needs to die right away.
Luck has to bring his A-game, because if his accuracy is off the Patriots will tip balls and create turnovers. The cornerbacks will be physical with the receivers. I think T.Y. Hilton’s speed could work against Darrelle Revis, but I think Brandon Browner may lock down the older, slower Reggie Wayne. At least one of the tight ends and Ahmad Bradshaw need to have really good games for the Colts, who I think need a minimum of 35 points to win in what should be a high-scoring game, even if it’s not a traditional shootout. Luck will have to throw for 350+ again. If the Week 2 Luck (vs. Philadelphia) shows up, the Colts are toast.
The Patriots have too many advantages on the offensive side of the ball to not have a big scoring night. When Rob Gronkowksi is on like he’s been, there’s really no stopping him. The Colts’ best defender is Vontae Davis, but if he’s locked up with Brandon LaFell, the Patriots won’t have any problem with LaFell getting three catches for 30 yards, because they’ll just feed Gronkowski and Julian Edelman over the middle of the field against the linebackers and safeties. The Colts are 29th in DVOA against tight ends and 32nd against running backs, so watch out for Shane Vereen as a receiver too. I don’t think Davis can cover Gronk. I’m not even sure he can shut down Edelman based on the 2013 AFC Divisional matchup I took a quick look at here.
To beat Tom Brady is to pressure him. The Robert Mathis-less Colts couldn’t get pressure on Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger and they were shredded in those games. The Colts have to blitz to get pressure. Brady will succeed against the blitz more often than not, but the Colts still have to try because he’ll have all day to carve them up with three and four-man rushes. If you concede the Patriots are going to score a lot and you expect to score a lot too, then maybe a blitz-happy approach isn’t the dumbest plan to have for Chuck Pagano. All it takes is a few well-timed pressures to turn a drive into a punt or field goal instead of a touchdown. The Colts will need a few of those stops, particularly on third down and in the red zone.
It’s a fun matchup. We may see it again in January. Maybe I’m just dreaming, but I can see this being a game where everyone wants to crown the Patriots at halftime, but by the end of the night it’s another Luck-led comeback. Maybe this time Belichick punts on fourth-and-2 and Luck just goes the 75 yards anyway. He’s about due for a GWD. But I know better than to pick against the Patriots when they’re on a run like this and I think Gronkowski will be the difference.
Final prediction: Patriots 35, Colts 31
The Other Big Ones
We do have three other games this week between teams with at least a 6-3 record, making this a historic week in terms of the schedule.
Seahawks (6-3) at Chiefs (6-3) – Does Seattle struggle in early starts on the road? We saw them down 21-3 in St. Louis earlier this year. The Chiefs were fantastic on MNF against the Patriots in Arrowhead and have some favorable matchups here with Brandon Mebane (IR) and Bobby Wagner out. Expect a ton of rushing from both teams and even from both quarterbacks. Russell Wilson and Alex Smith are also throwing short a lot this year, which is nothing new for Smith, but has been a change for Wilson. So this game could be low on possessions unless both defenses play really tough. Travis Kelce needs to be fed Andy. I’m feeling the Chiefs at home, which would hardly be the most surprising outcome of the season for either team so far.
Eagles (7-2) at Packers (6-3) – Another very important game with Green Bay currently not slotted for a postseason spot. Losing another head-to-head game to a team likely to be contending with them would be tough, but I think home-field again wins out with Aaron Rodgers playing great and Mark Sanchez likely to make some mistakes in trying to keep up. I’d trust the Eagles more if the running game was like last year, but even with the offensive line in better shape they’re more reliant on the passing game. Sanchez was 2-19 with the Jets when NY allowed more than 24 points. I expect that to be 2-20 this time tomorrow.
Lions (7-2) at Cardinals (8-1) – Yeah, like you saw these teams battling for first place in the NFC in Week 11. I think the Lions should win the game, but their history is really making me want to pick Bruce Arians at home. In theory, Detroit’s defense should contain the running game and force Drew Stanton to carry the offense. Stanton will want to throw deep, which takes time to set up, which means Ndamukong Suh and company should get a good pass rush on him and create mistakes. Arizona will also shut down the run, but Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate are capable of making plays against Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie. Matthew Stafford should outplay Stanton, but again, when do we see the Lions excel in these moments?
Remember this table? Stafford is 0-14 on the road against teams who finish the year with a winning record.
I think it will be low scoring and close. The Lions have pulled off three straight 4QC/GWD in the final minutes. The Cardinals are 8-0 at upholding one-score leads in the fourth quarter. Something has to break here.
I’m definitely keeping an eye on the home teams in these big games. Discarding the now 5-5 Bills, there have been 38 games played in 2014 between teams who currently have a winning record. The home team is a staggering 28-10 (.737). As the mention of Buffalo shows, what constitutes a winning team in the early stages of Week 11 is not set in stone. If we look at regular-season games between teams finishing with winning records in recent years, we find the following home winning percentages: 24-15 (.615) in 2013, 33-13 (.717) in 2012, 19-16 (.543) in 2011, 25-17 (.595) in 2010 and 29-19 (.604) in 2009. So this season with its unusually high number of teams above .500 (17 entering the weekend) could end up well above average for home dominance.
NFL Week 11 Predictions
I hesitated on TNF, but I did have Miami solving the Buffalo puzzle, which reads “NO PLAYOFFS AGAIN” when you complete it.
Winners in bold:
- Buccaneers at Redskins
- Bengals at Saints
- Falcons at Panthers
- 49ers at Giants
- Seahawks at Chiefs
- Texans at Browns
- Vikings at Bears
- Broncos at Rams
- Raiders at Chargers
- Eagles at Packers
- Lions at Cardinals
- Patriots at Colts
- Steelers at Titans
Looking for the Bears and Panthers to show some pride at home against flawed division rivals after last week’s prime-time embarrassments. I think the Rams might sack Peyton Manning a few times, but he could torch them for 400 yards and four touchdowns. Though we’ll see if Shaun Hill does anything different for the offense. Before his first start, I’m on the record as thinking Ryan Mallett sucks, so I don’t expect much from him tomorrow (or ever).
I was going to write something about the Steelers this week, but too much aggravation after last week’s loss to the Jets. There’s really nothing new to say. This is what the Steelers do on the road against inferior competition, and look what’s on the schedule this week. However, I’m sure this is the game where the lousy rookie QB (Zach Mettenberger) will make just enough mistakes to allow for an unimpressive Pittsburgh win.
- Week 1: 8-8
- Week 2: 9-7
- Week 3: 11-5
- Week 4: 8-5
- Week 5: 11-4
- Week 6: 9-5-1
- Week 7: 10-5
- Week 8: 10-5
- Week 9: 11-2
- Week 10: 10-3
- Total: 97-49-1