Sunday, January 21, 2007

Patriots-Colts - gameday preview

So, less than 5 hours to kick-off. A couple of thoughts on the New England-Indianapolis game, so that I can later claim bragging rights, or suffer the shame and infamy of looking ridiculous.

  • If one didn't understand before now that it's possible to get "too much of a good thing," it should be obvious by now. 3 years ago, these two teams met in the AFC Championship, and it was hyped to the gills. The next year, they met in the play-offs again, and the hype level, ridiculous a year earlier, was escalated. Now, there's a lot of talk about this game, which should be the better of the two games today, and features the best two teams still playing, but there's just nowhere to go on the hype-meter, and a lot of what hype there is just falls flat. When a game is considered the be-all and end-all, and then is followed by another the following year, and then another two years later, the fact that there could easily be another next year starts to cut through the fog...

  • The national media pundits have, overwhelmingly, picked Indianapolis to win this game. The analysis that leads them to this positions seems, almost universally, to take the form "this is Peyton's/Dungy's/Polian's/Indianapolis' time/turn." Maybe it is their time, but that fact seems unlikely to beat New England if the Patriots are a better team. It would be nice if all of that analysis yielded some actual reasons for those picks.

  • When there are reasons given, they tend to boil down to two points.

    1. The Colts defense, with Bob Sanders back, is playing really well.
      That they've been better in the post-season than they were down the stretch of the regular season is indisputable. Whether that is representative of the performance of the Colts or their opposition is less so. The Chiefs came into Indianapolis bent on running the ball. When the Colts stacked 8 men in the box to stop the run, and it became obvious that KC wasn't going to be able to run, the Chiefs adapted to that by ... handing the ball off to Larry Johnson again. Herm Edwards, who has never been accused of being a master tactician, under-performed his lowest expectations. Not that things got any better when they threw it. Trent Green shouldn't have been playing, and played like it, and Herm left him in. That KC game was like a late Christmas present from Herm to his good friend Tony Dungy.

      As to Baltimore, Jamal Lewis looked old and slow and tired, and Steve McNair had possibly the worst game of his career. The Colts played well, but when an unpressured QB misses an open receiver, as happened time and time and time again, the defense should just say "thank you," and not get caught up in looking for bouquets.

    2. The Colts have beaten New England in New England the last two seasons

      This is also true, and possibly even relevant. But there are reasons to be skeptical of the predictive value of those games, too. The defense was just ravaged in 2005, and that game didn't much resemble anything that happened in 2006. As to the November loss, there are a couple of noteworthy points. One is that the Patriots had 4 turnovers to the Colts 2, and were still just 39 yards from the tying touchdown with 1:25 left in the game when Kevin Faulk let a ball go right through his hands for Brady's 4th interception, and the team's 5th turnover. If Brady throws 4 picks or the team turns it over 5 times today, they'll lose again. I don't expect it to happen.

      Furthermore, down 10 with about 6 minutes left, Faulk was open at the 3 for a touchdown, Brady hit him in the hands, and he dropped it. If he holds that, the Patriots are driving for a winning TD or tying field goal with 1:25 left.

      In addition, Rodney Harrison was anchoring the Patriots defensive backfield entering that game, and played just 3 plays before leaving with a broken shoulder-blade. While they don't have him now, they've had a chance to play 8 or 9 games without him, so they're better prepared to be without him than they were when he went down in November.

      The bottom line on the November game - the Colts couldn't run the ball, and they couldn't stop the New England offense. The Patriots stopped themselves, turned the ball over, and gave the Colts nearly 100 penalty yards. Had New England played a mediocre game that night, they'd have won. If I were the Colts, I'd not be betting too heavily on a repeat of that Patriots performance, and that's not even considering what has generally happened the 2nd time a team plays a Belichick-coached team in the same season in the past.

    So there are a couple of actual reasons to pick the Colts, but neither of them is, in my opinion, all that strong.

  • There's also a huge element of wishful thinking playing into those predictions, as the national writers are sick of writing about the Patriots, and want to canonize, and cover the canonization of, Peyton Manning at a Super Bowl.

  • As to reasons to pick the Patriots - I think that they're a better-coached and more physical team. Each team finished the season at 12-4, with the Patriots having played a tougher schedule. They've certainly played tougher competition in the play-offs. The Patriots outscored their opponents this year by 9.25 points per game (~24-15) while the Colts outscored theirs by only 4.18 (~27-23). The Colts' offense was better than New England's - the Patriots' defense was better, by a bigger margin, than Indianapolis'. The Colts have certainly got a place-kicker who's closer to automatic, but the Patriots have one who can hit from further out.

Bottom line - Indiapolis is playing at home, but the Patriots are a better team, and they love playing on the road and in domes. Indianapolis scores, aided by a couple of questionable pass interference calls, but New England scores more. New Engand wins 31-27.



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