Surprising Colts breathe new life into old rivalry with the Patriots
INDIANAPOLIS -- Well, if the Colts are nervous about the showdown of 6-3 AFC teams with the big, bad Patriots on national TV Sunday, they're hiding it well. In the middle of the locker room Thursday afternoon, guard Mike McGlynn and long-snapper Matt Overton played cornhole. Dwight Freeney, who hasn't always been warm and fuzzy with the press, was an entertaining host about all topics Freeney, Colts and NFL. In general these players are still getting to know one another -- 43 of the 61 players on the active roster or practice squad were not here 10 months ago -- but still, they seemed a lively, happy group on the verge of playing a pretty important football game.
"The Patriots are in a good place, and we're in a good place,'' Freeney told me. "Now, outside the locker room, everyone's saying, 'I can't believe the Colts are 6-3.' But I can tell you there's no one in here thinking that.''
This is the 10th straight year the Patriots and Colts have met, and it's the first time Tom Brady will face Andrew Luck. Next year, unless they finish in parallel positions in their division standings (unlikely, given the weakness of the AFC East and how hot Houston is), will be the first time since 2002 that the Colts and Pats won't meet in the regular season. That's unfortunate, given the fact that Brady-Luck, for as long as Brady plays, would be a compelling matchup every season. So enjoy this one, because you don't know when they'll be matched again in the regular season.
As he finished final preparations on the weekend game plan in his offensive coaches' lair Thursday morning, interim coach Bruce Arians said what so many in the building feel. "We've won six games, which I can emphatically tell you means absolutely nothing right now,'' he said. "If we finish 6-10, hey, it's been a nice story. But no one in this building thinks we've done anything yet."
The nice story revolves around the Colts going 5-1 since coach Chuck Pagano took a leave of absence to undergo aggressive treatment for leukemia. Pagano is home now, with a port in his chest to receive the chemotherapy that's part of his protocol. General manager Ryan Grigson sees him a couple of times a week. Pagano leads the league in texting his players and calling players and staff about things important (he regularly texts Andrew Luck with advice on defensive pressures he'll see that week) and fatherly (commiserating by text with injured tight end Coby Fleener about his bum shoulder).
The reality of this Week 11 matchup, though, is that emotion won't be a player in it. Third-down conversions will.
The Patriots are 31st in the NFL in third-down defense, allowing 44.6 percent of third downs to be converted to firsts. Indianapolis has been improving there, and two weeks ago converted 13 of 19 third downs against, at the time, the best third-down defense in the league, Miami. That's one thing Arians has been harping on around the Colts facility this week. "The way they stop people is by making them turn it over,'' Arians said, "and they're great at that. So we have to hold onto the football, and when we get down there, we've got to score touchdowns and not kick field goals. Because you know Tom's going to get his."
The Patriots are leading the league in scoring and yards, and the Colts will probably have to score in the 30s to have a chance. But I think the Colts will be in this if they don't turn it over. Over the last three games, Luck's been a 66 percent thrower and Indy's put up 444 yards a game. This should be a fun, high-scoring game if the Colts hold onto the ball.
The Bills are starting to play defense, and Ryan Tannehill is swooning. In Buffalo's 19-14 win over Miami, Tannehill continued to struggle (two touchdowns, five picks in his last three games, all losses), and I think much of that was due to Buffalo's front-seven pressure: three sacks, four additional tackles behind the line -- including a killer pancake of Reggie Bush by Kyle Williams -- and five quarterback pressures.
Buffalo is 4-6, and I can't see them challenging seriously for the playoffs, but the Bills have a manageable schedule with no premier teams left. If the defense plays like it did Thursday night, the sixth playoff seed is remotely possible. Said Williams of the Buffalo D: "I think it's just starting to click, playing fast, getting off of blocks, guys coming downhill. Obviously, it showed up tonight."
The cornerback position in Indy has been totally made over by new GM Grigson, who dealt a Gronk (fullback Chris Gronkowski) to Denver for former undrafted free agent Cassius Vaughn, who will start alongside Butler Sunday. Grigson also acquired nickel Josh Gordy (from St. Louis for a 2014 seventh-rounder). That, ladies and gentlemen, is who Brady will facing Sunday, and I doubt he's very unhappy about it.
But Butler getting his confidence back, and returning to New England to face the team that fired him has to be a plus for a Colts secondary that hasn't had many this year.