In Sunday’s marquee game between the 6-3 Colts and 6-3 Patriots, the No. 1 pick of April’s draft will help determine if Indy can pull the upset.
Colts QB Andrew Luck vs. Patriots defense
The Colts have won four in a row, and currently hold one of the AFC’s wild-card spots heading into Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium. The Colts-Patriots rivalry used to be marked by Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, and the matchup gets a new star in Andrew Luck.
Luck, who leads all rookies with 2,631 passing yards, has lifted his play in the last month. During the Colts’ four-game win streak, Luck completed 90-of-141 passes (63.8 percent) for three touchdowns and two picks. He has rushed for four TDs in that span as well. The key is the accuracy — prior to Week Seven, Luck had completed only 53.4 percent of his passes, and the Colts were 2-3.
Indy’s own defense is banged up, without its starting cornerbacks, and the Patriots are the league’s highest-scoring offense. For the Colts, Luck needs to put up big numbers, like he did in Week Nine, throwing for a rookie-record 433 yards against Miami, to pull off the upset.
The Patriots’ 25th-ranked passing defense gave up 319 passing yards last week to Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick — the fourth time this season New England has allowed more than 300 passing yards. The secondary gets a boost on Sunday, though, as CB Aqib Talib will play his first game in a Patriots jersey. He comes in as New England’s most physical and talented corner, and could be part of the plan to contain Colts WR Reggie Wayne.
S Patrick Chung gives the Patriots another option at safety, if he is healthy enough to play. Having Chung and Talib in the lineup would keep Bill Belichick from thrusting rookies Alfonzo Dennard and Tavon Wilson onto the field. This might be the Patriots’ best look in the secondary in a few seasons.
Luck has lived up to many of his tests during his first season, but the Patriots’ defense will do its best to use disguises at the line to keep him from getting into a rhythm and diagnosing what is coming at him. DE Chandler Jones adds a pass-rush option the Patriots had been lacking and the middle of the Patriots' defense — LBs Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes — are solid against checkdowns, though they had some trouble containing Bills RBs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
The Patriots’ front seven should watch some tape of Luck’s performance against Miami. The Dolphins entered that game with the league’s best third-down defense, and, time after time, Luck eluded the rush, using Brady-like footwork in the pocket, and finding the open man. The Pats’ bend-but-don’t-break defense is susceptible to giving up those types of big plays, especially on third down. What separates New England, though, is its defense’s ability to create turnovers and keep opponents out of the endzone.
Luck has thrown nine interceptions this season, and the Patriots have picked off 10 passes this season. With FS Steve Gregory back healthy, the Pats have a good center-field option to be ready for any errant pass from Luck.
Assuming this game is high-scoring, Luck will be throwing often, which does play into the Colts’ hands. Remember, last season, with Dan Orlovsky at the helm, Indy scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to at least make things interesting in a 31-24 Patriots victory in Foxborough. This Patriots defense is better, but only slightly, and Luck is certainly better than Orlovsky.
For the Colts, the opportunities will be there for Luck to make big plays, and they need to take advantage to keep pace with the Patriots. Luck will need to avoid turnovers, as well. The Patriots’ pass defense gets a big test with Luck, who is arguably the best opposing quarterback left on their schedule. New England has been prone to upsets this season, and a strong showing by the defense against Luck could get the unit some confidence for the stretch run, and make the Patriots look like serious Super Bowl candidates.
Follow Kevin Fishbain on Twitter