Like the NFC Championship, the AFC Championship features a regular season rematch, with the Colts visiting the Patriots. The Patriots won the regular season game 42-20, but the Colts now have a different set of key players. New England will have to deal with a whole host of new players and schemes:
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
The Colts are almost a new team on the offensive side of the ball; since the 42-20 loss to New England, Boom Herron (#36) has replaced Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw at Running Back, Donte Moncrief (#10) has emerged as a go to Wide Receiver, Tight End Dwayne Allen (#83) is healthy, and future Hall of Fame WR Reggie Wayne (#87) has become severely hampered with a torn triceps and hobbled groin. Additionally, the Colts have swapped and replaced two new offensive lineman into the mix.
The Colts did an excellent job last week of protecting Andrew Luck against Von Miller and Demarcus Ware, while the Patriots pass rush was abysmal against the Ravens, recording 0 sacks on 45 pass attempts. The Colts do not have a strong running game, so look for them to spread it out in Empty formations and use QB Andrew Luck as a run threat. The Patriots can counter this and improve their pass rush by using DE/LB Akeem Ayers (#55) more often. Ayers only played one snap against the Ravens, but this is because the Patriots stayed in base defense to counter the Ravens zone run offense. The Patriots will almost certainly be in Nickel/Sub-Packages more often this week and use Ayers as pass rusher as well as a coverage linebacker.
One of the most telling signs of New England’s defensive game-plan will be how Brandon Browner is used. Browner was hobbled with a knee injury last week, and was beat several times by the Ravens’ Torrey Smith. In the Week 11 matchup against the Colts, Browner spent plenty of time covering Browner, with poor results. It could be a big mistake to have Browner cover Fleener or Moncrief, as both looked like they could easily get open against Browner (Browner is matched up on the bottom of the screen both times):
In fact, versatile Linebacker Jamie Collins (#91) may be a better cover matchup against Fleener:
Instead, it would probably be best to use Browner on Wide Receivers/Tight Ends who are less shifty in space, such as Hakeem Nicks and Dwayne Allen. Allen caught a TD last week while boxing out Denver’s Aqib Talib, and Browner is the best match up to prevent this from happening.
In the Week 11 game, Darrelle Revis almost exclusively matched up against Reggie Wayne. With Wayne hobbled, it will likely be another Patriots Defensive Back. (Probably #26 Logan Ryan). Revis will be used in two ways throughout the game: On T.Y. Hilton, or on Donte Moncrief. When Revis is not on Hilton, expect the speedy Kyle Arrington (#25) to cover Hilton with some sort of Safety help.
Finally, expect the Colts to attack the Patriots Cover 1/Cover 3 schemes and preventing press coverage by bunching Receivers and using motion & crossing routes, as the Colts had some success with this in Week 11, and the Ravens certainly had success with this strategy last week:
WHEN NEW ENGLAND HAS THE BALL
The Patriots played a whopping 37 snaps in Week 11 with a 6th offensive lineman. The results were uncanny, with Jonas Gray running for over 200 yards and 4 Touchdowns. Expect New England to run the ball with success, but not nearly as much, for a few reasons: Colts DT Arthur Jones is back from an injury, and Patriots Center Bryan Stork is out with a knee injury this week. This shuffle on the offensive and defensive lines will make it less easy for New England to run the ball all over Indy.
Instead, expect New England to attack the Colts aggressive man-to-man defense more through the air this time around. Colts Safety Laron Landry (#30) matched up with Denver’s Julius Thomas last week. Patriots Rob Gronkowski is a tougher cover than Thomas, and the Patriots can exploit the matchup like the Broncos did:
Because of the Colts affinity for man coverage and blitzing, look for Patriots RB Shane Vereen (#34) to get loose on a big gain in the passing game. The Broncos had a perfect opportunity by aligning the Tight End and Running Back together at the top of the screen, but somehow Peyton Manning misses a wide open Running Back on the wheel route:
If Gronkowski is split out wide, the Patriots love the hitch route against off coverage. However, if the Colts play press coverage with Landry like they did against Denver, the Patriots will certainly look to cash in by pairing Landry and a Linebacker in coverage against Vereen and Gronkowski.
Colts Cornerback Vontae Davis (#21) also is a key player on the Colts Defense to watch for. Davis played an excellent game last week and shut down both Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas at times. Expect him to match up against both Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell, depending on down and distance. He could also occasionally be used to cover Gronkowski, but the Colts must be careful with this matchup, as Gronkowski is a viable run blocker. Tom Brady could see this matchup and check to a run play, leaving Vontae Davis in the box against a lineman. The play below shows exactly why Shane Vereen may be the one in for a big game: He can play off how the Colts decide to treat Gronkowski and benefit in both the passing and running attack.