Indianapolis Colts left guard Joe Reitz expects a “hostile crowd” on Sunday in New England. That's likely an understatement.
Patriots fans will not be exchanging pleasantries with Colts players. Dwight Freeney expects to see a few birds on his way in, and not the flying kind. When the Colts take the field, they'll hear booing. They'll hear jeering. They'll hear suggestions that may not be physically possible.
Hostility will be delivered free of charge.
There's a reason the Patriots are 70-14 (.833) at home in the regular season over the last decade, a record of success matched by no one.
A heavy dose of the credit belongs to coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and a wealth of other talented players. But there's something to be said about the crowd. Colts rookie Andrew Luck and friends might not be able to hear themselves think.
“The crowd can get loud,” Reitz said in an understated lineman kind of way.
In a game that has the potential to be an offensive shootout, the crowd could factor even more into the mix. The closer the game, the more ferocious the fans will become when Luck and the Colts offense are on the field.
Peyton Manning was the master of the no-huddle, hard-to-communicate offensive attack. He could glance at Marvin Harrison, make a slight gesture and deliver a touchdown pass.
Luck is learning. But none of the places that Luck has played so far (Chicago, New York, Tennessee and Jacksonville) have quite the Colts hatred and hostility of New England.
“It felt like a playoff game at home against Miami,” Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said. “This will be our first playoff atmosphere on the road.”
The Colts-Patriots rivalry, attributable to the Manning-Brady rivalry as much as anything, came about because both franchises hit their sweet spot of success in the relative same time period. At first the Patriots had the edge. Later, Manning and the Colts took some control.
Now it's rebooted with Brady vs. Luck, making home field even more important.
Because the Colts use some rookies in key spots, they have to make sure to be prepared for the ruckus and disruption.
“You have to get off to a fast start and get the crowd out of the game,” Colts rookie receiver T.Y. Hilton said. “It gets very loud in the stadium, so you have to be mistake-free and protect the ball.”
Reitz said he believes the best way for the Colts to neutralize the Gillette Stadium crowd is through a somewhat mundane task: Run the football.
When a team is playing against Brady, it's essential to reduce the chances he has to put points on the board and finish every drive.
“The two things we talk about as an offensive line is we have to be able to run the ball and we have to be able to protect the quarterback,” Reitz said. “That takes out other factors, such as the crowd noise, things like that. …From early on to the last couple games, I think we've run the ball better on the road, and that's something we need to continue to take care of.”
The Patriots lead the NFL in takeaway ratio, rarely turning the ball over (Brady has 18 touchdowns, three interceptions). They also lead in total offense and passing. They will put up points.
New England might also give up points, as it did in surrendering 31 in a win over Buffalo last week. The secondary is a far cry from the dominate one of the early part of the rivalry with the Colts.
Of course, history is no real indication of what to expect on the field in this rivalry because of the shift in personnel for the Colts, starting with the rookie quarterback. This feels like a rite of passage – Luck's first visit to New England – and as calm as he is, he acknowledges the significance.
“It's a big game, obviously, a huge game,” Luck said. “You have two teams that are up there in terms of the standings right now. It's definitely going to be exciting, a great atmosphere. But I don't think we'll make it bigger than it is or get too caught up in the excitement of it.”
The game will be won by increments, and it sure feels like a game where the best offense will emerge as the winner.
“As a rookie, I was like fourth-string and eating nachos before the game in the stands,” Brady said. “There wasn't much of me thinking of playing. I always admire those rookies who can do it because it is such a challenge, whether you're a defensive end like Chandler Jones, or Dont'a Hightower or Andrew Luck or any of these rookies who really play a big role for a certain team. It's a real credit to them and their ability to transition and focus on all these new things that have really come about and go out there and play well.”
As for the Colts defense, slowing Brady is always easier said than done, especially with his use of weapons such as Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Stevan Ridley.
It's never quarterback vs. quarterback, but beating Brady would be another step on Luck's climb to the top. Even bigger would be the Colts leaving New England's fans speechless.