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Tangibles, intangibles point to Colts win at New England

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AFC Divisional Playoff

Kickoff: Colts at New England, 8:15 tonight in Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
Radio: WOWO, 1190-AM

For more on the Colts, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1 and listen to Reggie discuss the Colts at 5:15 p.m. Mondays on The BS Sports Show (1380-AM, 106.7-FM).

Indy has made a habit of rising to the challenge this season

Saturday, January 11, 2014 - 3:08 am

Colts vs. Patriots is a hard game to figure, what with Tom Brady's proven greatness and young Andrew Luck's comeback gene.

Will weather play a role? Can Robert Mathis bring the heat? Will LeGarrette Blount run wild?

I don't know how you look at the Indianapolis at New England showdown in an AFC divisional-round playoff at 8:15 tonight and confidently predict a winner. These aren't the loaded Patriots of old, nor are these the Colts of the Peyton Manning era. Both teams have had emotional wins over the Denver Broncos and puzzling losses to the Miami Dolphins (by identical 24-20 scores).

My brain says the Patriots' home-field advantage, Brady's experience and coach Bill Belichick's savvy gives them a slight edge.

My gut says there's something else brewing.

My gut says we've come too far not to have Colts at Broncos in next week's AFC Championship Game, with Manning's past and present colliding in the epic game to top all epic games. I'm pretty sure Twitter will break. We also keep thinking sports can't continue topping the imagination. And then it does.

Do you want tangible reasons why the Colts can pull the upset, something other than my gut feeling?

OK, start with the Colts' reputation for rising in the moment in the biggest games this season.

They were underdogs at San Francisco in September. They went in and beat the 49ers in a way that teams don't beat the 49ers – by running the ball fiercely and anticipating/slowing Colin Kaepernick. They were underdogs at home against Seattle. It was a shootout, the rising young guys Luck and Russell Wilson squaring off. The Colts delivered the clutch plays. They were underdogs against the Broncos in Indianapolis. They sprinted out to a big lead, Mathis sack/stripped Manning and the Colts prevailed.

Take, more recently, the two games against the Chiefs. The Colts were underdogs going to Kansas City and dominated in every facet of the game. Then, last week, Luck and company – with big plays from stars like Mathis and T.Y. Hilton and national unknowns like Da'Rick Rogers – staged the second-greatest comeback in NFL playoff history. The Colts were dead in that game. Then they weren't.

Do these Colts come up big in the biggest games, on the biggest stages? The honest answer is yes.

Secondly, the Colts are healthier than the Patriots entering this game. The week began with Patriots announcing linebacker Brandon Spikes is out for the season. The Patriots' defense, already vulnerable, regroups again.

The Colts, meanwhile, have some questions about safety LaRon Landry, who suffered a concussion last week, but everyone else is healthy outside of special-teams player Darrius Heyward-Bey. (The national media keeps calling DHB a receiver, but he hasn't been a real part of the offense for a month. He hasn't had a pass thrown to him since Dec. 8.)

Over the last month, the Colts' offense has settled into a groove with Luck finding a passing rhythm with Hilton, Griff Whalen, tight end Coby Fleener, Rogers and LaVon Brazill. Everyone is healthy, as are running backs Donald Brown and Trent Richardson.

Thirdly, these aren't the old Colts who get spooked by bad weather and hostile crowds in New England.

In two years' time, the Colts have faced tons of adversity, from coach Chuck Pagano's illness last season to the injury losses this year, including Reggie Wayne going down and leaving the Colts offense searching for an identity.

Is it likely a little wind in New England might deter them? Luck seems to like a bumpy ride, to thrive on emotion and comebacks and defying the odds.

The Colts defense, meanwhile, has been disparaged many times over the course of this season and last, and they've given up some huge plays at times. Yet they also seem to gain strength as games progress, and they feed off Mathis. If Mathis gets to Brady – and Brady said this week he knows he can't outrun Mathis – the lift will be tangible. Brady's a great player. He's not infallible.

Even the argument that the Colts' defense is vulnerable to the run doesn't hold weight.

The Colts are vulnerable to the run sometimes. That's true. It's not a deal-breaker. Four of the Colts' five highest rushing totals allowed this season have come in wins: Seattle (218), Oakland (171), Tennessee (162) and Kansas City (155). They also allowed 155 yards in the loss at Cincinnati.

One last bit of statistics: Better indicators are takeaway/giveaway and time of possession. The Colts 1-3 when turning the ball over more than their opponents, 3-2 when it's even. The Colts lost the three games they had the least time of possession: San Diego, Cincinnati and Arizona.

So there are some tangible reasons to pick the Colts to beat the Patriots.

But this pick is about a feeling that Colts vs. Broncos back on Oct. 20 was merely the prelude to the main event.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.