Fresh off a nail-biter over the Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots host the AFC Championship against the Indianapolis Colts, who traveled to Denver and dispatched the Broncos. Can Indy pull off another postseason road upset? Reading the Colts Numbers reveals issues in the ground game, potential holes in their air attack, and lopsided defense.
After outlasting the Baltimore Ravens in an electrifying 35-31 victory, the New England Patriots advance to an AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots won their Week 11 regular season clash, 42-20, in Lucas Oil Stadium, and this time they meet in Foxborough for a berth in Super Bowl XLIX.
Will the Colts Run the Ball Effectively?
In their previous matchup on November 16, Colts running backs Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw mustered just four yards combined on 13 carries. The remaining 15 rushing yards came from quarterback Andrew Luck on three carries. Those 19 total yards marked Indy’s second-lowest rushing output this season, and the Colts went winless (0-4) when limited to 63 yards or fewer on the ground.
Bradshaw suffered a fractured fibula in the second half against the Patriots and landed on season-ending injured reserve. Richardson has struggled since then, accumulating just 128 yards on 45 carries (2.8 YPC), down from 391 yards on 108 carries (3.6 YPC), and was benched in the playoffs against Cincinnati and Denver. The Colts passed the baton for the Colts’ rushing attack to Dan Herron, who has responded with 396 yards on 91 carries (4.4 YPC) since taking over for Bradshaw. Zurlon Tipton, a rookie who started the season on the Colts’ practice squad, has provided a boost of late, rushing for 75 yards on 22 carries (3.4 YPC) over the last three games. Tipton and Herron combined for 77 yards on 25 carries against the Broncos, giving Luck some much needed run support to balance their offense.
New England’s defense has struggled against the better ground offenses in the league, including losses to Miami, Kansas City, and Green Bay teams that ranked 12th, 10th, and 11th respectively in rushing yards per game. Baltimore (8th) managed to keep close, as did the Jets (3rd) in their 27-25 Week 7 loss, while the Bengals (6th) were undone by three fumbles. The Patriots are 4-4 when they allow over 100 rushing yards, and in three of their victories they needed a fourth-quarter touchdown to come out ahead. New England’s other nine wins have come by an average margin of 19.7 points. For the Colts to have any shot of winning in Foxborough, they need to amass 100 or more yards on the ground.
How Much Air Time Will They Use?
The Colts’ passing game potently combines an up-and-coming quarterback with an array of competent receivers. They finished the regular season leading the league in net passing yards, including 301 yards from backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck while finishing up their last two games. While Luck’s 96.5 passer rating places seventh in the NFL among qualified quarterbacks, his completion percentage of 61.7% ranks 23rd, just below the Ravens’ Joe Flacco. His interception rate, at 2.6%, is tied for 18th with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Drew Brees, while the other three quarterbacks still in the playoffs rank in the top six. With two interceptions in the divisional round against the Broncos, Luck is still vulnerable to picks.
Luck effectively uses all receivers at his disposal, making it difficult for opponents to key in on one or two primary targets:
Ten of Luck’s 16 regular season interceptions came when throwing toward a wide receiver, lowering his passer rating to 88.8. Both his interceptions against Denver last weekend were on deep throws to Moncrief.
Luck threw only four interceptions when targeting tight ends. Coupled with a higher TD rate, his passer rating with tight ends stands at 111.0. The relative success bears similarities to the way the Patriots score touchdowns with Rob Gronkowski (12 TD receptions) and Tim Wright (6).
Completing 81.4% of his passes with just one interception, Luck has a rating of 112.0 when targeting RBs. In the playoffs against Cincinnati and Denver, Herron caught 18 of 19 for 117 yards, making him another effective weapon in the Colts’ aerial arsenal. During their earlier matchup with the Patriots, Richardson caught one pass for 21 yards. but Bradshaw gained just seven yards on four catches. It remains to be seen whether Indianapolis and Herron achieve success in the passing game against New England.
Do the Colts Have Enough Defense?
According to Football Outsiders, Indianapolis ranks 13th in defensive DVOA, 10th against the pass, but 19th against the run. The Patriots played a big role in their low ground game ranking; their 246 rushing yards on November 16 were enough to raise the Colts’ rushing yards allowed per game from 104.5 (10th-best) to 113.4 (18th).
Indianapolis fared better when defending the pass:
The pass completion and sack rates indicate a better-than-average pass rush, and the lower-ranked TD%, INT% and yards per catch allowed seem to reveal a below-average secondary. If Brady gets enough time to throw, he could have a big game.
With just 12 interceptions during the regular season, the Colts were the only team that made the playoffs with a negative turnover differential. They had 26 takeaways against 31 giveaways for a -5 margin. In contrast, the Patriots had 25 takeaways versus 13 giveaways, netting a +12 difference that tied for second-best in the NFL. With the Packers (+14) and Seahawks (+9) also advancing to the conference championship round, three of the teams still standing finished in the top four league-wide in turnover differential. Here, the Colts appear to have a sizeable disadvantage going forward.
One last point: Indianapolis is 0-5 when allowing 30 points or more, and in those five losses they allowed at least 250 yards passing and 100 yards rushing. New England is 9-0 when scoring at least 30 points. For the Colts’ defense, it’s hold them under 30 or bust.
This game features two of the league’s highest-scoring offenses facing defenses that rate slightly better than league average. A few numbers seem to favor the Patriots, particularly if they win the turnover battle. The ticket to the Super Bowl may go to the team that makes the fewer mistakes.
All statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise cited.
Follow Douglas Storms on Twitter @stormsorama.