After squeaking out a classic victory against Baltimore last week, capped off by an impeccably placed throw to Brandon LaFell for the game-winner, Tom Brady is ready for his ninth AFC Championship game of his career. This Patriots team, built on the principles of the early Belichick teams of defense and a solid running game, can beat and has beaten anyone in any way possible. But Brady isn’t the same surgical quarterback that he was ten years ago when he last took home the Vince Lombardi trophy. Andrew Luck, on the other hand, might just be ready to take the quarterback crown if he can complete the trifecta of beating his predecessor Peyton Manning, the ultimate quarterback of the generation, Tom Brady, and then (likely) reigning over the best defense of the past 15 years in the Super Bowl. Those are some big “ifs.”
Will these next two weeks alone define the legacy of each quarterback? No. But if Brady cannot finish this ring off in what is his best chance since the undefeated* season in 2007, he may just have to retire with only three rings and none in the final 10+ years in his career. That would effectively end any “best quarterback of all-time” discussions. Andrew Luck, only 22 years old, probably isn’t worried about his legacy just yet. But going into Foxboro and beating the all-mighty Tom Brady on his own field would place him in the elite group of quarterbacks once and for all. The stage is set for a classic.
When New England went to Indianapolis this season and won 42-20, they overwhelmed the Colts on the ground, rushing 44(!) times for 246 yards. That was the infamous Jonas Gray game that catapulted him to 15 minutes of fame, including an appearance on Sports Illustrated’s cover the next week. That lasted all of a few days until Gray’s alarm never went off one day and showed up late for practice. In a classic Belichickian move, Gray didn’t get a single carry the next week and wasn’t even active last week against Baltimore. Expect New England to have Gray active this week if only for the threat. This rushing performance was hardly a one-time occurrence; the Patriots have clearly established they like to run against Indy. In last year’s Divisional playoffs, New England, led by LeGarrette Blount, rushed 46 times for 234 yards en route to 43-22 victory. Bill Belichick isn’t the type of coach to change the gameplan just because the other team knows it’s coming. Expect another 40+ rushes from New England on Sunday.
So, the gameplan is simple for Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, right? Well, except for the fact that Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are fully capable of throwing the ball all over the Colts defense if they aren’t ready for that possiblity. Gronk slugged his way to 108 yards and a touchdown last week, while New England didn’t run the ball with a running back one time in the second half. Not once. Good luck figuring out how to guard the 6″6, 265 Gronkowski while also gearing up for the run. Not to mention, you know Gronk still harbors some ill-will toward Sergio Brown after their incident in the last game.
The Colts have a pretty clear blueprint to victory on Sunday. They simply must sell out to stop the run, first and foremost. If the Colts are going to win, Tom Brady will have thrown 35+ times and will not have his ‘A’ game (an entirely feasible possibility), Gronk will have been hit at the line of scrimmage all day, and Andrew Luck will have picked on Brandon Browner for more than a couple penalties. Trent Richardson will be a healthy scratch once again, making Dan Herron the lead back – not that it matters much. The Colts are probably going to have to abandon the running game early on, similar to the Patriots last week. With the same lack of pressure for the Patriots, Luck should have time to find his receiving corps to keep up in a shootout.
But I actually think – contrary to popular opinion – that Indianapolis’ best path to winning this game and advancing to the Super Bowl will be through a defensive struggle. They limited Peyton Manning last week by frustrating the timing of his receiving corps with physically imposing play from the defensive backs, Vontae Davis and Greg Toler. Unfortunately for them, Tom Brady isn’t playing with a torn quad and the Patriots won’t be questionably shy in feeding the running game as Denver was a week ago.