AFC Championship: Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots Preview & Picks

Andrew LuckIt may not be your typical Brady-Manning matchup, but when the Indianapolis Colts travel to Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship, you can still expect these two teams are going to be leaving it all on the field (6:40pm EST, Sunday).

The Patriots, believe it or not, have had quite a lot to prove this year. Sure New England played in the AFC Championship just two years ago and the Super Bowl the year before that. Still it didn’t stop doubters from proclaiming it the end of the Tom Brady-Bill Bellichick dynasty. But the team never fell prey to the media’s criticisms and Brady seemed to get better as the year went on. Perhaps it is surprising to most, but the Patriots are back in a place that really is nothing but familiar territory.

The Colts are back there too, but this time with a new coach, a new quarterback and a brand new team. Most of the holdovers from the Manning days are gone and replacing them has been a new crop of young stars ready to make a name for themselves. And now, just three years into the Andrew Luck (pictured) tenure, the Colts have gotten farther in the playoffs each time. They are back playing for a conference championship for the first time since 2009, but this time it’s different.

Was the Rivalry really Brady-Manning or was it New England-Indianapolis?

There has been so much allure over the years to the epic rivalry between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and it made sense. The media ate up the story of two guys at the prime of their games, going head-to-head for AFC dominance. The narrative played out over the course of two decades and 16 thrilling games. And while the excitement was clearly because of the two guys calling the shots, one really has to wonder, were the games themselves contested between Brady and Manning?

Technically and simply, the answer is no. Brady never stepped foot on the field the same time Manning did, with the exception of a post-game handshake. Rather it was Brady and the offense vs Indianapolis’ defense and vice versa. So the only question that remains is if the Colts’ defense has improved from the group that, time and time again, failed to stop the Patriots’ offense.

The revamped squad had a chance to test their defense against New England earlier this year but it did not exactly go how Indy would have liked. If there was a silver lining to be had in the 42-20 beatdown, it was that Brady himself only had 257 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions and an 85 passer rating. The last time a Colts’ defense held Brady to those kind of numbers was in 2006. Also on the plus side for the Colts, Jonas Gray, who ran for four touchdowns and over 200 yards in this year’s contest, hasn’t touched the football since before Christmas.

Since that Patriots game, the Colts defense as a whole has really played some of its best football. The team has allowed over 30 points just once including in both playoff games. Of course, with the exception of facing a very banged-up Manning in the AFC divisional round, the defense didn’t have an offensive challenge in those games.

The Rob Gronkowski Factor

The Colts’ defense will have their hands full with Brady and the much-improved running game, but even more than that, they will have to deal with a 100% healthy Rob Gronkowski, who, spoiler-alert, has been unstoppable this year.

The oft-injured 25-year-old tight end entered this season just a little banged up. But that didn’t stop him from returning for the first game, once again as Brady’s favorite target. Despite the large volume of passes thrown his way, Gronkowski was a little rusty. It wasn’t until the fifth week of the season that the numbers started to pile up and non-coincidentally, so did the Patriots’ wins.

New England was 2-2 to start the season but behind Gronkowski’s resurgence, the team went 10-1 in their final 11. Gronkowski had over 90 receiving yards in six of those games and was targeted at least nine times a game in nine of those final 11. In the team’s only playoff game, he also had seven receptions on a season-high 13 targets for 108 yards and a touchdown.

Gronkowski is a powerful weapon no matter where he is on the field, but the biggest obstacle in facing him is in the end zone. Teams know that he is Brady’s favorite target once the team hits the 20-yard-line but that hasn’t made a difference in stopping his production. Gronkowski finished the year with 12 touchdowns.

Unfortunately for the Colts, their passing defense is not really equipped to stop the “Gronk.” But then again, no one this season was. So the key is not so much stopping Gronkowski, it’s limiting him. If the Colts can somehow manage to do that, then they’ll have a shot, because outside of Gronk, Brady’s offensive weapons leave much to be desired.

The TY Hilton Factor

When I previewed the Colts-Bengals playoff game a few weeks ago, I commented on the duo that is Andrew Luck and his third year receiver, TY Hilton. The pair was drafted together back in 2012 and have been dynamic on the field ever since. As I mentioned, this season was a career year for Hilton, but it was also a career year for Luck.

Essentially, everything that Gronkowski is to the Patriots, Hilton is to the Colts. In the postseason, Luck has completed 58 passes for 641 yards, 175 of these yards belong to Hilton. He has looked his way 22 times in two games and against the Patriots, this pattern should continue.

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots Preview Betting Picks

There’s Gronkowski and Brady, Luck and Hilton and of course everything else in between. With two talented rosters, it could come down to the little things. Home field advantage, experience, one play, ultimately, this game could come down to the wire.

  • That said, from what I’ve seen in the postseason so far, New England is the team to beat. As good as the Colts are, the Patriots are just better. So bet on New England -6.5pts at home @ -110 with BetOnline, to cover the spread and make a trip back to the Super Bowl for the first time in three years. 5Dimes Sportsbook is +110 for a -7pts handicap, and that extra half point deficit for better odds may appeal to you instead. We’ll play safer with the former option.
  • Also, take the over 53.5 total points in the game with 5Dimes or BetOnline sportsbooks @ -110 betting odds (Bovada’s line is over 54pts) – both of these teams can score.