Here is it, the world's most important football game, and who better to break it down nerd-style, than my good buddy The Sidler. I introduced him a bit here, and here he breaks it down:
It is the game of the century...until the media declares some other game as the game of the century in a few years. But this is the latest meeting of undefeated teams in the modern NFL era and features the two teams that have clearly put themselves head and shoulders above the rest of the league.
Before I dive into my preview, know a few things:
1. I have been a Colts fan since the Mayflower landed in Indianapolis in 1984
2. The Patriots are like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Nick Punto wrapped into one--I hate them
3. I'm going to use FootballOutsiders.com 's statistics, primarily DVOA (defensive value over average), which is similar to Baseball Prospectus' VORP that WWWWWW has used before.
Check this out for more information: Football Outsiders.
The Patriots, simply put, have been a juggernaut through the first half of their schedule.
How good have they been? Looking at DVOA in the last 10 years, only 10 teams have posted a +40% rating through the first eight weeks. The top two are facing off Sunday, but the Patriots 70.6% rating is 13.6 POINTS(!) better than the Colts. The key to their rating is the offense, which has essentially been twice as good as the third-best offense in the league (Dallas) and provided about 70% of the Patriots' overall value. Of course, their defense is the third best in the league, according to DVOA, putting them merely in the "great" category instead of "otherworldly." And they've done it without Richard Seymour. Great. Almost forgot special teams—thanks to Gostkowski's booming kickoffs, they have the 5th best so far.
Colts DVOA rankings: Offense: 1; Defense: 6; Special Teams: 13
It is worth pointing out that the Colts rankings are impacted by their 4th quarter performance, which has included kneel-downs, a lot of running, and even Jim Sorgi. Great article by the Boston Herald pointing some key differences, including the Pats outscoring the Colts 86-57 and attempting 25 more passes than the Colts. Which leads me to…
One final category that the Patriots are completely dominating—the all-important douchebag rating. Belichick has cranked it to 11 in his personal quest to give the entire league the middle finger for enforcing its rules. And that's not even taking the general douchebaggery of their fans (led by ultimate Pats apologist Bill Simmons) into account. When they went for it on 4th and 2 last week against the Redskins, New England crossed that imaginary line in many people's heads. Unfortunately the Redskins simply bent over and grabbed their ankles, otherwise I'd be writing about how awesome it was that Marcus Washington and Sean Taylor combined to tear the ACL of either Tom Brady or Randy Moss.
As a Colts fan that had to endure numerous articles calling the Patriots a classy, dreamy franchise over the past 5 years, it is at least refreshing that the Pats are making it easy for the sports media to question their sportsmanship. Of course they're a few years late; while Belichick and Brady have been great frontrunners, they instantly turn into pouty little bitches once someone has the temerity to defeat them. Witness Brady walking away from the podium or not showing up after two recent losses to the Colts and Belichick's inane barking following any loss. Manning might have thrown a teammate under the bus after a loss, but at least he's man enough to answer every question. And for f*cks sake, the NFL has a bigger problem with coaches wearing suits than they do Belichick dressing like a homeless man every week.
Enough about what is probably the best 8-game stretch ever in the NFL, it is time to talk about the game itself. I'll use the traditional "when X has the ball…" format that the Star Tribune used to love.
When the Patriots have the ball…
The passing game gets all of the attention, but did you know the Pats rank 8th in the league in rushing yards per game? F*ck me. On paper, that's the biggest mismatch—the Pats solid run game against the worst-rated unit taking the field, the Colts' 13th ranked rush defense. Maroney, if healthy, should be able to find openings around the edges and turn them into fairly big gains. Part of me wonders if Belichick is going to pull a complete 180 and play old school power football on Sunday; I think it would work.
The Colts have the best pass defense in the league, which is surprising considering how often the team has had the lead and both starting CBs from the 2006 team left via free agency. Also a surprise and major area of concern—the Colts are allowing QBs to complete over 65% of their passes while a team like the Steelers (#4) allow under 58%. This shows me that the secondary and LBs are keeping plays in front of them (giving up a league-low 7 pass plays of 20+ yards) and preventing other teams from racking up big YAC numbers.
So who wins this matchup—the best passing offense or best passing defense? Unfortunately, I don't think the Colts can stop Brady unless Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis set up shop in the New England backfield. Stallworth is the kind of WR that the Tampa 2 can neutralize, but there is simply no answer for Randy Moss or Wes Welker, unless…Marlin Jackson can be extremely physical with Moss at the line of scrimmage and Bob Sanders can get in Moss Mania's head, causing the old alligator arms to make an appearance.
But remember where you heard it first—I think there's a decent chance New England comes out and tries to grind out the game with Maroney, Faulk, et al.
When the Colts have the ball…
Here's a question—is the Patriots #5 rushing defense ranking being caused by their offense or defense? They have given up 4.2 yards/carry and are the only team in the top 10 to give up more than 3.8. If Colts' left tackle Tony Ugoh can play, the stretch play that direction could be the key to the game for the Colts offense. Ugoh is much more athletic than Tarik Glenn was, allowing him to get to the second level on the stretch play, opening up huge lanes for Joseph Addai. The Patriots LBs are slow (and getting slower) and they know it, which is why Adalius Thomas was brought in during the offseason. But I think Thomas is going to have his hands full with Dallas Clark (more on that next), so Bruschi, Seau, Colvin, and Vrabel will need to react quickly to get outside in time.
Adalius Thomas has gone from a devastating pass rushing LB in Baltimore to a do-everything LB and has the ability to neutralize Dallas Clark, the key to Colts passing game so far this year. Expect to see him glued to Clark all afternoon, taking away Manning's safety valve. Ben Utecht will need to step up from the TE2 position, but he'll probably fumble and get hurt instead.
There are two big questions about the Colts passing game:
1. Will Marvin Harrison play? The Colts have managed to be effective without him, but they haven't faced a secondary as good as the Patriots yet.
2. Can they keep the Patriots out of the backfield? Ugoh playing will be a big help, but I'm sure we'll see the usual array of blitzes and the Colts to have some problems with them in the first half.
Ultimately, I expect both offenses will prevail, but it will probably take the Colts a couple drives to get everything sorted out before they find a way to work Wayne and Harrison into the downfield passing game. Rodney Harrison has lost a step and the Colts first round pick, Anthony Gonzales, has the speed to expose him if the Colts can force that matchup.
The Colts can't afford to wait for the offense to get everything sorted out. The Patriots roll from the opening kickoff, jumping out to an early 14-3 lead that will prove to be insurmountable.
Hold on, I just threw up and need to clean up my keyboard.
OK, I'm back. If the Colts are going to win this game, a few things need to happen:
1. +2 in the turnover battle
2. Control the first half with Addai and Kenton "Hands of Stone" Keith
3. Get tons of pressure on Brady and force the passing game out of rhythm
One thing is a near certainty—if the Patriots take control of the game, they will relish running up the score on their most heated rival.
I disagree, but then again, I'm not a Wabash educated young man. Thanks Sidler. Go Colts! F the Patriots (except Randy Moss).