AFC Championship Game Preview: Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots

The Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots facing off in a playoff game was commonplace in the National Football league during the 2000's. This Sunday's matchup will be the fifth between the two

The Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots facing off in a playoff game was commonplace in the National Football league during the 2000's. This Sunday's matchup will be the fifth between the two AFC powerhouses since 2003.

The first three showdowns featured two legendary rivals: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. It was what fueled the rivalry and made the matchups some of the most anticipated games in league history.

The past two seasons have had a different face, though - Andrew Luck had taken over the reigns in Indy, and is looking to get the Colts back to their first Super Bowl since 2009. Last year, Brady and the Patriots mopped the floor with the young, inexperience Colts in a 43-22 Divisional Playoff beatdown.

This year feels different. This year, we might witness something spectacular.

In the second of perhaps a few more playoff showdowns between the old and new guard, will we see the continued excellence of the ageless Tom Brady, or the first instance of the realisation of Andrew Luck's boundless potential?

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3 Why The Patriots Can Win

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

This question can be answered pretty easily with two names: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The simplest of arguments can be made by just mentioning either name - Brady will win the game with a masterful performance, or Belichick will devise a genius game-plan that will be no match for the still-young Luck.

But what factors will really spur the Patriots to victory? There are answers on both sides of the football.

On offense, the Patriots will need to get their running game going. It can't get much worse than it was last week against the Ravens, who held New England to a measly 14 yards rushing. When Tom Brady leads your team with six carries, there's a problem - and the Colts, while improved in the playoffs, don't have the Baltimore run defense. If Shane Vereen, Jonas Gray, and LeGarrette Blount can get it going on the ground, Brady becomes that much more dangerous.

Rob Gronkowski will also have to be stellar - as he usually is - in a game where Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, and Danny Amendola might be shut down by the Colts staunch secondary. Last week, the Colts secondary held Demaryius Thomas to 59 yards, Emmanuel Sanders to 46 yards and Wes Welker to 20 yards (on one catch). If the Colts were able to handle that group so effectively, there's a good chance they'll be able to contain the Patriots receiving core, thus thrusting Gronkowski into the spotlight yet again.

Defensively, the Pats can, for the most part, focus on shutting down the Colts passing attack. While the run game has picked up with Dan Herron taking over for Indianapolis, everyone and their grandmother knows that the Colts main option is to let the offense flow solely through Andrew Luck. Luck has proven to be able to handle the load - especially last week - but he was kept upright in the pocket all night, making it relatively easy for him to pick apart the Broncos secondary. If the Pats hope to slow down Luck, they'll have to get pressure on him. The Pats don't have the most fearsome of defensive lines in terms of applying a consistent pass-rush, but guys like Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower will need to have big games pressuring Luck if they hope to slow him down. Doing so might also force Luck into making some bad throws, something you don't want to do against a defense that boasts names like Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty.

2 Why the Colts Can Win

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts have etched out their place as this year's upstart playoff team - granted, they were a division winner, but they weren't heavy favorites against the Bengals and were supposed to be nothing more than a speed bump for Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Yet here they are, a team considered "average" at best by some, but propelled to "good" and even "great" thanks to their quarterback.

This is yet another career-defining game for Andrew Luck (they all are, these days), as he has his first opportunity to propel the Colts back to the Super Bowl since he was drafted first overall in 2012. Games like this are the reason he was brought into Indy, but will his supporting cast be up to the task of taking down Goliath?

If the Colts want to shock the football world yet again, they are going to need some pretty remarkable efforts from specific members and units of their roster. Chuck Pagano will be able to motivate them, but they're the ones who will need to produce at the highest level come Sunday.

The first thing they'll have to make sure doesn't happen is getting completely run over by the Patriots running game. In their first contest of the season, the Patriots beat the Colts 42-20 in Indianapolis, thanks in large part to Jonas Gray's 201-yard and four-touchdown performance. The Colts' run defense has been better in the playoffs - they held the Bengals to 110 yards and the Broncos to 88 - but the Bengals have proven to be hopelessly lost in the playoffs, and the Broncos eventually had to turn solely to the passing game to get back in the game. The Patriots three-headed monster represents a much more daunting challenge for a team who's run defense ranked 18th in run-defense during the regular season. Even though the Patriots weren't highly ranked in the run-game during the regular season, they've shown the ability to beat teams on the ground.

Offensively, it's hard to say anything bad about the Colts, especially after last week's performance against Denver. Luck was excellent, and the running game even had a bit of jump last week with Dan Herron carrying the load.

Luck will need some help from his receiving corps, of course - especially from whoever gets matched up against Darrelle Revis. Revis only has two picks this season, but that's largely because teams try to avoid throwing the football near him. Luck has shown that he likes to distribute the ball to all his targets, but if T.Y. Hilton gets shut down by Revis, the pressure on the rest of an inexperienced receiving corps ratchets up to dangerous levels.

Enter Hakeem Nicks.

Nicks did not have a great regular season, but he proved last week that he can still be relied on in crunch time - and it's not like he's gotten smaller over the years. Nicks is still a big target that Luck can rely on in big situations or down in the redzone. Nicks caught all 5 of his targets over the last two weeks for 83 yards and a score - and perhaps Nicks can recapture a bit of the magic from his glory years against a familiar foe this weekend. In the 2011 Super Bowl, Nicks was dominant, catching 10 passes for 109 yards. It was a long time ago, but there's no telling what a little added motivation can do for a player on the biggest of stages. Nicks is an upcoming free-agent, and a big game could make up for his letdown season.

Luck hasn't been very successful against the Patriots over his three years in the NFL, though. In three games against New England (including last year's playoff game), Luck has averaged a 53.9% completion percentage, a 68.7 quarterback rating and has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 6/8 (with four of the picks coming in last season's playoff tilt) - but most importantly is the 0-3 record against Brady, Belichick and Co. Luck will need to continue his strong season by overcoming the biggest obstacle that has held up the advancement of his young career. If Luck can play the way he did last week, he'll give himself and his team a chance to finally overcome the Patriots; if he reverts to his usual form against New England, though, the Colts will be in big trouble.

1 Prediction

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There's little fear that Luck will continue his trend of buckling against the Pats. He's proven that these playoffs are his coming out party, and it would be the icing on the cake if he could take down Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in back-to-back weeks on the road.

The past few weeks I've gone favorite-heavy with my picks, and it hasn't worked out too well. Bucking the trend this week will probably mean the Pats will win, but Luck has shown us all enough to legitimately believe that he can lead this team to the Super Bowl this year.

Plus, how splendidly ironic would it be for Adam Vinatieri to kick the game-winner against his former team?

Colts: 31

Patriots: 28

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AFC Championship Game Preview: Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots