The Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots playoff showdown will hinge on a handful of plays. That's what Patriots defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich believes, and he's probably right.
“There are always three to five plays in games that are going to go either way,” Ninkovich said. “So, you either make them and you win or they go the other way and you lose.”
Ninkovich is an eighth-year veteran out of Purdue, and even more important for the Patriots now that they've lost linebacker Brandon Spikes to injury. It's fair to assume Ninkovich views most of those three to five plays coming in the matchup of the Patriots defense vs. the Colts offense.
So let's consider today which Colts offensive players are most likely to have a hand in those three to five plays in the AFC divisional-round game at 8:15 p.m. Saturday at New England:
Quarterback Andrew Luck
The Patriots will seek to pressure Luck and force him into turnovers. In their regular-season meeting a year ago, New England intercepted three Luck passes in a 59-24 win in Foxboro, Mass.
Luck has improved as a quarterback in his second season, cutting his interceptions in half and making fewer careless throws. Ninkovich and defensive end Chandler Jones (both with eight sacks this season) want to bring some pressure again and present opportunities for the secondary of Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard.
“This year, I think (Luck) is playing with more confidence,” Ninkovich said, pointing out that Luck is better at checking into strong plays at the line of scrimmage. “When you play against a strong quarterback – every single day on the field we're up against a smart quarterback – you have to have the understanding that if you show something early, they're going to try and check to the best possible play.”
Luck's intelligence is matched by his skills, Talib said.
“He throws the deep ball exceptionally (well),” Talib said. “He puts a lot of touch on it and he can throw it about as far as he wants to. Besides that, he's smart. I know he's prepared throughout the week because he's smart. He'll make adjustments and he just runs the whole show.”
Wide receiver TY Hilton
The Patriots have a reputation as the type of defense that can conjure a strategy to take top opposing receivers out of a game. Years ago, New England's physical coverage of Colts star Marvin Harrison led to then-Colts general manager Bill Polian pushing for rule changes.
No receiver has been hotter lately than Hilton, who caught 13 passes for 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Saturday's win over the Chiefs.
“He's pretty dangerous on everything,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He's caught long passes, intermediate passes, short catch-and-run passes. He's very quick, fast, explosive, good with the ball in his hands. Runs good routes. Hard guy to tackle. So he can beat you in a lot of different ways.”
Translation: The Patriots will have something up their sleeves to try to toss Hilton off his game.
Running back Donald Brown
Playing in Gillette Stadium in January tends to be an adventure. Even in the best of weather, the crowd noise and atmosphere, particularly at night, can be a challenge. Teams usually need some sort of running game.
This is where Brown steps in.
He's had a tremendous season, with big play after big play (two touchdowns against the Chiefs last week) and could be a key factor in the passing game if the Patriots slow Hilton.
“He's a guy that works hard. He runs the football hard, he does a lot of things in the passing game – he does screens, different things like that,” Gregory said. “They find ways to get him the ball, and his ability to run after the catch or break tackles when they hand off to him is pretty good. So he's a guy we're going to have to be on top of.”
Wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers
There might not have been a bigger play than the deep catch Rogers hauled in against the Chiefs. It came when momentum was needed. It came on a throw that could have been knocked away with less concentration by a receiver.
It was one of the “three to five” plays that turned the game in the Colts' favor.
Rogers doesn't get a lot of opportunities to catch the ball, but his potential is glaring.
“Everyone would watch the last game and only think of T.Y. Hilton, but they have some other players that have been able to make some plays down the field,” McCourty said. “Rogers caught a deep one in that game as well, and then (LaVon) Brazill has made some plays on the catch-and-run, so I think their offense has been able to make big plays throughout the season.”
Tight end Coby Fleener
Luck loves to go to Hilton. He sometimes uses wide receiver Griff Whalen as a security blanket, too. But it could be the use of the tight end – something Belichick knows a thing or two about – that results in one of those key plays.
Fleener had a stretch where he caught three or more passes in eight straight games, including a high of eight receptions for 107 yards in a win at Tennessee. After only three catches in the final three regular-season games, Fleener caught five passes for 46 yards and a touchdown against Kansas City.
Luck has shown an ability to spread the ball to the receiver who's open, and if Hilton is a major New England priority, someone else will need to step up. It could be Fleener, especially in the red zone.
“We're going to have to do a good job for 60 minutes all the way across the board,” Belichick said. “It's going to take everybody and everything we've got.”
Somewhere, some way, in those 60 minutes will be three to five game-turning plays.