The New England Patriots (12-4) find themselves in a familiar position, needing just one win to reach the Super Bowl. In the 2015 AFC Championship game, Bill Belichick's squad will host the Indianapolis Colts (11-5), who are in the conference title game for the first time in eight years.
The No.1 seed Patriots barely got by the Baltimore Ravens in their divisional playoff matchup. New England did something that had never been done in NFL history, coming back from two 14-point deficits to win a postseason game. After trailing 14-0 in the first quarter and 28-14 in the early part of the second half, the Patriots outscored the Ravens 21-3 to advance to their fourth consecutive AFC Championship game.
While New England was expected to be here, most experts thought Indianapolis’ season would conclude in the second round of the playoffs. The Colts visited the Denver Broncos as seven-point underdogs, but found a way to beat the defending AFC champs, 24-13.
Indianapolis showed something to those that didn’t believe the team was good enough to make the Super Bowl. The team’s defense, which ranked just 19th in the regular season, shut down the NFL’s No.2 scoring offense. Manning was limited to 211 passing yards on 46 attempts, and Denver totaled just 88 rushing yards.
A large part of Manning’s ineffectiveness was likely due to a quad injury that was revealed on Monday. Credit is certainly due to the Colts’ secondary and defensive scheme, but Manning had been playing poorly in the latter part of the season, and Indianapolis isn’t likely to have the same kind of success on Sunday.
The Colts’ defense has played as well as any unit in the playoffs, allowing 13 points to Denver and 10 points to the Cincinnati Bengals in their win on Wild Card Weekend. However, the team struggled in 2014 against elite offenses. All five of Indianapolis’ losses have come against top seven scoring offenses, including the Patriots. The Colts allowed no less than 30 points in any of their defeats, surrendering an average of 39.2 points per game.
Against New England, Indianapolis won’t be able to take advantage of an injured quarterback, or a signal caller that has never won a playoff game. Tom Brady completed 66 percent of his passes for 367 yards, three touchdowns and one interception against Baltimore. In the final 12 games of the regular season, the quarterback totaled 29 scores and seven interceptions.
Brady has been especially good at home, throwing for 19 touchdowns and three interceptions, getting sacked just six times. New England’s only loss at Gillette Stadium in 2014 came in the season’s final week, when the team had already clinched the No.1 seed and many of the starters sat for much of the game. Before that loss, the Patriots hadn’t been defeated at home since the 2013 AFC Championship game.
Indianapolis might need a top flight performance from Andrew Luck, which they very well might get. In his third year, the quarterback has emerged as one of the top players at his position, throwing for 4,671 yards and leading all signal callers with 40 touchdowns. He helped the Colts score 28.6 points per game in the regular season, ranking sixth in all of football.
Despite winning two playoff games, Luck and the Colts’ offense hasn’t been nearly as impressive in recent weeks. The Colts haven’t scored more than 27 points in any of their last six games, with Luck failing to surpass the 300-yard mark in all but one of those contests. Even in the win over the Broncos, Luck threw two interceptions and posted a 76.2 passer rating.
The Patriots sport the No.4 scoring offense in the league. Discounting the Week 17 contest that saw Brady sit out the second half, New England is averaging 39.1 points in their last seven home games, including four games against defenses ranked in the top eight in total yards allowed.
New England was dominant when they visited Indianapolis in Week 11. Brady didn’t have his best game, but running back Jonas Gray led the team with 201 rushing yards and four touchdowns, helping the Patriots get a 42-20 victory. New England ran for just 14 yards in their win over Baltimore.
Prediction: New England. The Colts' defense will likely struggle to keep up with the Patriots' highly efficient offense, which is particularly effective at Gillette Stadium.