Sports

Pats, Colts meet with Super Bowl berth on the line

(SportsNetwork.com) - A funny thing happened on the way to the latest incarnation of the storied Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry, Andrew Luck decided to crash the party.

The heir apparent to the NFL's "elite quarterback club" will lead his upstart Indianapolis Colts into Foxborough on Sunday to face off against football royalty -- Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots -- in the AFC Championship Game.

The Luck-led Colts will be trying to avenge a Week 11 42-20 thumping at the hands of the Pats in the Jonas Gray game, where the little-used former Notre Dame star broke onto the national scene, rushing for 202 of New England's 246 rushing yards.

The contest will also mark the fifth time since 2003 that New England and Indy will be meeting in the postseason and the third time in which they will play in the AFC title game, a rivalry ignited by the Brady/Manning feud.

The Pats and Colts split matchups for the AFC crown, after the 2003 (New England) and 2006 seasons (Indy), in which each winner moved on to capture the Super Bowl.

"That's what you play for," Belichick said. "You play to win your division, you play to be in the postseason and then you play to be in the AFC Championship Game and then you see what happens after that. That's what it's all about. That what you work all year for, it's to get to this point."

In last year's divisional round, Luck got his first chance against Belichick and Brady and it was much like the Week 11 game, a 43-22 Pats win as New England rushed for 234 yards and six touchdowns.

Overall the Patriots have won each of their past five meetings with Indianapolis and are averaging 41.2 points per game in those contests. Luck has been at the controls for three of those affairs and the Colts have been routed each time, being outscored 144-66.

New England advanced to its 11th AFC Championship Game -- and its ninth with Belichick and Brady at the helm -- with a 35-31 win over the Baltimore Ravens last Saturday when Brady threw for 367 three touchdown passes, the last of which was a go-ahead 23-yard strike to Brandon LaFell with 5:13 remaining.

Brady's yardage total and 33 completions in 50 attempts each shattered his own franchise records for a playoff game, while the three-time Super Bowl champ's connection with LaFell gave him 46 career postseason touchdown passes to break the league's all-time record held by Brady's boyhood idol, Joe Montana. He also ran for a touchdown.

"He's a pretty good quarterback," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs admitted when talking about Brady. "He sat in there and made the plays they needed him to make."

Belichick, meanwhile, moved into a tie with Hall of Fame mentor Tom Landry for the most postseason wins by a head coach with 20.

Rob Gronkowski caught one of Brady's touchdown throws in a 7-reception, 108- yard effort. Danny Amendola finished with a pair of touchdown grabs for New England, including a 51-yard catch from wide receiver Julian Edelman on a trick play in the third quarter, the longest in postseason history by a non- quarterback.

"Thankfully we'll be playing next week," Belichick said. "It's great to have Tom (Brady) and his ability and his poise and presence as our quarterback. Obviously he's done a tremendous job throughout the years. There's no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady."

Luck, meanwhile, led the Colts to a 24-13 win at Denver last Sunday and has now won three of his past four postseason starts. He threw for 265 yards and two touchdown passes against the Broncos and now has 1,703 passing yards in the postseason, the most by any player in his first five career playoff games, surpassing the previous mark set by Kurt Warner (1,644).

"We're playing good team ball," said Luck, who has guided Indianapolis to the postseason in each of his first three NFL seasons. "We're feeding off each other. I'm so proud to be a part of it."

Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, is supposed to be good, though. The Colts' defense was the big surprise, limiting the high-powered Broncos to 288 total yards, including just 200 net passing yards. During the regular season, Denver averaged 402.9 total yards per game and 291.3 passing yards.

"The defense did a heck of a job and it's fun watching them making plays," said Luck. "I know we feed off their energy and I'd like to think they feed off of us and special teams. It was truly three phases working together, but, what a great job we did defensively."

The Colts will be appearing in their fourth AFC Championship Game since 2003 and won the past two with Manning at the controls. The club knows winning in Foxborough won't be easy, however.

"The Patriots are a great, great team," said Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano. "Hall of Fame coach. Hall of Fame quarterback. We all know how hard it is to win there. We know it will be a tall order but it's going to be a great opportunity for our guys. We'll continue to embrace this opportunity and prepare accordingly."

New England leads its all-time series with the Colts by a significant 49-29 margin, including a 3-1 mark in postseason.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

The Patriots are as playoff-tested as it gets. Brady will be making his NFL record ninth conference championship appearance and Belichick is on the verge of surpassing Landry for the most postseason triumphs.

A victory over Indy here would be New England's eighth Super Bowl berth, matching Pittsburgh and Dallas for the most ever.

"We're very fortunate to be in this position to have a chance to play in (the title game)," Brady said. "I think more than anything, you're just excited for the opportunity to be able to do it. It's hard to do and our team found a way to get there this year so hopefully we can take advantage of the opportunity."

The Indy offense is obviously the team's strength and finished third in the NFL with 406.6 ypg but was No. 1 overall in passing with 305.9 of those yards coming through the air thanks to Luck, who is just the eighth QB in NFL history to toss 40 TDs in a season.

The Stanford product has 12,957 passing yards since entering the league in 2012, the most of any player in their first three seasons. In the playoffs, Luck is the first player in NFL history to pass for 250-or-more yards in each of his first five postseason games.

Luck has a plethora of weapons starting with the speedy T.Y. Hilton, who amassed a career-high 1,345 receiving yards with 1,159 of them coming after the first month. He also excels in the playoffs as Hilton has 568 career receiving yards in five postseason contests. Meanwhile tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener each had eight TD receptions in the regular season.

The Pats are expected to try to slow down Hilton by shadowing him with All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, who is itching for a bounce back game after a rare down performance against the Ravens. You never know what Belichick is thinking, though, and the innovative mentor could use Revis to completely shut down veteran Reggie Wayne or Hakeem Nicks and use bracket coverage to stunt Hilton.

Belichick's plans have worked well in the past against Luck, who has completed just 53.8 percent of his passes and amassed a dismal 67.7 passer rating in his previous three games against New England.

"I'd like to think I am a better quarterback and would like to think we're a better team," Luck said when asked about his prior difficulties against the Pats."We are well equipped to handle the unknown, the unforeseen."

Belichick rarely rests on his past laurels, however, aware with the notion that what worked yesterday will not necessarily be sufficient for everything that is thrown at you tomorrow.

"If (Luck) extends the play, then he has the ability to create big plays," Belichick said. "We've seen him do that multiple times throughout his career already. It's another guy you have to defend in the running game, the passing game in terms of his ability to scramble and make first-down yardage on possession-type downs. And he makes good decisions, so all those things are a problem."

What Luck doesn't have, though, is a consistent running game and the disappointing Trent Richardson has been benched in favor of the nondescript Daniel Herron, who has been an upgrade at least.

Herron isn't going to remind you of Edgerrin James, though. He rushed 23 times for 63 yards and a TD against Denver, along with a team-high eight receptions for an additional 32 yards, In two playoff games, he is averaging 118 yards from scrimmage per game.

"They run the ball, they stay out of long-yardage, they get better production out of the running game, more play-action, those kind of things," Belichick said.

The Colts defense has lacked consistency this season, especially on the pass rush where the club has missed Robert Mathis, who sat the entire campaign, first on a suspension and then with an Achilles' injury. The group has picked things up in the playoffs, however.

Veteran linebacker D'Qwell Jackson is the leader of the unit in his first season since coming over from Cleveland, pacing the AFC with 140 total tackles.

The defensive backfield is highlighted by Vontae Davis, one of football's best man-to-man coverage corners as well as veteran safety Mike Adams, who led the team with a career-high five INTs this season.

Stopping the run has to be in the forefront of Pagano's mind because the last two times he has faced the Pats, they've averaged 240 yards per game on the ground with LeGarrette Blount and Gray taking turns as the torturer.

Last weekend Brandon Bolden started for New England at running back and the team didn't have one rushing attempt in the second half so you never know what Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are going to dial up.

"What happened in the regular season is what happened and we're a much better team for that," Indianapolis defensive lineman Cory Redding said. "So we learned from those mistakes and we're moving on."

On the injury front, the Colts are hurting in the defensive backfield as Davis is dealing with a knee injury and fellow corner Greg Toler has a groin issue. For New England, starting center Bryan Stork has been ruled out with a knee injury.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

There is a reason that Belichick is the best coach in professional football and everyone else is fighting for second place best evidenced by the wrinkle he unveiled on the Pats' second drive of the third quarter against the Ravens after Stork was forced to leave with the knee injury.

New England kicked Ryan Wendell inside to the pivot and lined up just four natural offensive linemen, declaring a normally eligible receiver like blocking tight end Michael Hoomanawanui or running back Shane Vereen as ineligible, all in an effort to keep Baltimore off balance.

The strategy worked as Baltimore defenders were often confused when trying to substitute and match up, causing John Harbaugh to blow his stack and draw an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

Belichick is the Nolan Ryan of football, a pure power pitcher who has developed impeccable control over the years and is able to pull the string on you at any time, leaving you in the batter's box unable to react.

One week it's Brady throwing for 300 and the next it's Blount or Gray or Bolden killing you on the ground. Defensively, he uses Revis to lock down one side of the field but you never know which receiver he wants to shadow and New England remains the one NFL team most likely to use multiple fronts from one week to the next.

This is likely going to be Luck's league in two or three years but to win in this spot at this stage of his development is asking a little too much.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 30, Colts 21