There's always something a little ominous about playing against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots at night in Foxboro, Mass., and that'll be true tonight for the Indianapolis Colts.
But the Colts can still win. Anyone who has paid attention to the Colts over the course of this season knows they tend to play to the level of competition. It doesn't get any more challenging than winning in New England.
If the Colts are to win in the AFC Divisional Round playoff game that kicks off at 8:15 tonight, they'll have to at least do these five things:
Limit long Patriots drives
New England well knows that Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's knack for comebacks requires he have enough time on the clock. If the Patriots get a lead tonight, they'll want to make sure they control the tempo as well. Three of the Colts' five losses came in games in which they were dominated in time of possession: San Diego, Cincinnati and Arizona. Brady has an offense that, built around running backs Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount, could eat clock while sustaining drives. The Colts defense needs to be efficient at getting off the field on third down.
Robert Mathis makes noise
How many times has Mathis' sack or sack/strip ended up turning a game in the Colts' favor? Two big ones come immediately to mind: Denver vs. Peyton Manning and Kansas City last week vs. Alex Smith. Brady has been sacked 40 times. He's capable of escaping or getting rid of the football a split-second before a sack, but his mobility is not his biggest asset. Of course, the Patriots will have installed a game plan to deal with Mathis, no matter where he lines up as an outside linebacker. The problem for the Patriots, and the plus for the Colts, is that this season Mathis has overridden all sorts of double-teams and game plans and delivered the big-moment hits.
Find an impact player other than T.Y. Hilton
It's conventional wisdom that Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his defense will devise ways to limit the touches and impact of Hilton, who turned in one of the greatest receiving performances in history against the Chiefs. How that shakes out remains to be seen. The Colts will move Hilton around enough to get some touches, but it will be imperative that someone else step up, too. The best candidates are running back Donald Brown and tight end Coby Fleener. They have to deliver some key plays for first downs and more.
Strong secondary play
Whether or not the Colts have safety LaRon Landry (concussion) available, the secondary will have to have a strong performance. While the Patriots don't have superstar receivers, they have the type in Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola who are capable of eating up chunks of yardage as they move down the field. Brady is adept, of course, of finding the weaknesses in the defense and he could end up picking on Josh Gordy or Cassius Vaughn, assuming one of those players steps into the Greg Toler spot. Darius Butler played for the Patriots, so they know his skills. A Butler pick would be huge for the Colts.
Andrew Luck plays his sharpest
Quarterback play always makes a difference in the NFL and Luck will get his second taste of dealing with Patriots defense. He didn't fare so well in a 59-24 regular-season loss last season. But the Colts are a better team and New England's defense has been injury-depleted this time around. It'll be fascinating to see if the Colts come out in a no-huddle offense. Luck was 7-for-7 in his first drive against the Chiefs, with the Colts eschewing the run. Rainy weather could play a factor, and it could be Luck's precision on shorter passes and on-the-run moves that swing momentum.
The pick: Colts 27, Patriots 24