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    New England Patriots vs. Indianapolis Colts: Matchups, prediction for potential Divisional Round preview

    The New England Patriots vs. Indianapolis Colts rivalry returns on Saturday night -- we break down the matchups to keep an eye on.

    It’s a fun game for NFL Network on a Saturday night. The New England Patriots (9-4) go for their eighth consecutive win against an Indianapolis Colts (7-6) team that has won six of its last eight. We break down the matchups and provide a prediction for a Patriots vs. Colts game rife with playoff implications.

    The Patriots have a clear path to the No. 1 seed — win out, and the first-round bye is theirs. Indianapolis, meanwhile, would have roughly a 90% chance to make the playoffs with a win. This is the 82nd meeting between these former divisional foes, and it’s been a one-sided affair. The Colts haven’t beaten New England since 2009 and trail the all-time series 52-29. Both teams are coming off their bye.

    New England Patriots offense vs. Indianapolis Colts defense

    Josh McDaniels deserves a lifetime contract for his game plan in the Patriots’ Week 13 tilt with the Buffalo Bills. With wind speeds topping 50 miles per hour in Western New York, McDaniels ran the ball on 46 of 49 snaps — the highest run rate this millennium. And it worked, with the Pats winning 14-10. But that was with running back Damien Harris, who has been ruled out with  a hamstring injury.

    Expect McDaniels to air it out more in a climate-controlled setting, but that’s fine too. The Patriots are among the most balanced offenses in football. They’re 16th in yards per play (5.7), but the Pats are seventh in third downs (43.3%) and 10th in both scoring (26.9) and expected points added per play (0.06).

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    As the Colts’ defense goes, so does the team as a whole. In its seven wins, Indianapolis has allowed 14.3 points per game. In Indy’s six losses, opposing teams have averaged 30.3. The Colts had their first shutout since 2018 in Week 13, holding the Texans to 141 yards and keeping them out of the red zone the entire afternoon.

    Since Week 6 — the start of Indianapolis’ season turnaround — they’re sixth in defensive EPA per play. Overall, the Colts are 21st in yards per play allowed (5.6) but ninth in scoring defense (21.8) because they’ve forced an NFL-leading 29 turnovers, including 14 recovered fumbles.

    Mac Jones vs. Colts defense

    Mac Jones’ arm should be rested. The rookie quarterback has thrown just 3 passes in the month of December. The Patriots’ punishing ground attack and a friendly passing scheme have helped make Jones the odds-on favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

    But the narrative that he’s all dink-and-dunk is misguided. Jones’ intended air yards average (7.5) doesn’t exactly sizzle, but it’s more than what Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Ryan Tannehill, and Tua Tagovailoa had managed through Week 14. Since the Pats’ winning streak began, only Aaron Rodgers has a better EPA + CPOE composite among passers with at least 200 offensive snaps.

    The Colts’ pass defense has a bit of boom-or-bust to it. Indy has the fourth-best interception rate in the NFL (3.4%), but that’s needed to counteract the 26 passing touchdowns they’ve allowed this year (second-most). Put it together and it’s a middle-of-the-pack defense, which gibes with the team’s defensive passer rating (91.6, ranking 16th). The Colts’ last outing was marvelous, limiting Davis Mills and Tyrod Taylor to a combined 11-of-27 passing for 94 yards and an interception.

    Advantage: Push

    Patriots weapons vs. Colts defensive backs

    An underappreciated aspect of the Patriots’ offense is their receivers catch EVERYTHING. Of New England’s 386 non-spike targets, Patriots skill-position players have caught 72.3% of them. New England’s drop rate (2.9%) is second to only the Green Bay Packers. Certainly, it helps that Jones throws a catchable ball.

    But there’s a reason Bill Belichick acquired players like Hunter Henry and Kendrick Bourne in the offseason. They catch the ball. And their catches are impactful. 36% of New England’s pass attempts have gone for first downs; more than one-sixth of their completions have gone for 20+ yards.

    The Patriots cut Kenny Moore late in the 2017 preseason — a decision New England could regret based on how well he’s played in Year 5. Moore leads the Colts in interceptions (4) and passes defensed (11). Opposing quarterbacks have averaged just 6.2 yards per target on Moore with a passer rating of 76.0. He’s been great. So has Rock Ya-Sin, who has allowed just 54.3% of passes thrown in his target area to be completed.

    The weakest link of the cornerback group, strangely, has been Xavier Rhodes. He’s giving up 13.9 yards per completion. Four different Colts safeties — Khari Willis, George Odum, Andrew Sendejo, and Julian Blackmon — have started at least four games.

    Advantage: Patriots

    Patriots offensive line vs. Colts defensive front

    New England’s line is dependable but not spectacular. Not elite, but also not a liability. In other words, they’re right in line with how they’re compensated. The Patriots have the 10th-highest-paid line in football and probably are somewhere between 10th and 15th in performance.

    The Patriots are 18th in yards per carry (4.2), 16th in sack rate (6.1%), 15th in pass-block win rate (60%), and 23rd in run-block win rate (69%). It helps that Jones gets the ball out of his hands fast (2.6 seconds on average) and Damien Harris gains nearly a yard per carry over expectations.

    The Colts’ defense is one stud pass rusher away from being dangerous. They do a solid job as a team getting pressure on the quarterback — Indy averages 5.5 quarterback hits per game — but DeForest Buckner’s 5.5 sacks are the most of any Colts defender. Indianapolis ranks 17th in sack rate (6.5%) but the bottom third of the league in pass-rush win rate (37%).

    The run defense needs work. Indy surrenders the eighth-most yards per carry (4.5), but that’s somehow inflated by the eight runs of 20+ yards (seventh-most). The Colts’ run-stop win rate (31%) is solid.

    Advantage: Push

    Indianapolis Colts offense vs. New England Patriots defense

    The Colts are a true throwback team. They don’t do much fancy. They just line up, punch you in the mouth, and hand the ball to Jonathan Taylor. Week 13 was Indy’s offense distilled down to its purest essence: 71 plays, 48 rushes for 238 yards, with Taylor going for 143 and 2 touchdowns.

    We’ll discuss the run game more in a bit, but the Colts’ ability to consistently stay out of third-and-long is a big reason why they rank third in points (28.5 per game), fourth in time of possession (32:09), and eighth in third-down efficiency (42.6%).

    Certainly, the conditions in Buffalo made it difficult to come to too many sweeping conclusions about the Patriots’ defense, but what they did in Week 13 — holding Buffalo to 230 yards, 10 points, and 4-of-13 on third downs — was in line with what they’ve done much of the season.

    New England leads the NFL in points allowed (15.4 per game) and is third in both yards per game (310.0) and per play (5.0). The Patriots are great on third downs (35.8%) and in the red zone (45.7%). During their seven-game winning streak, the Pats have allowed a total of 73 points. There are no holes on any of the three levels.

    Carson Wentz vs. Patriots defense

    Among the many benefits of the Colts’ punishing ground game is they don’t ask Carson Wentz to do all that much. The Colts’ 32.7 passing attempts per game are 12th-fewest in football. Wentz has done an excellent job of protecting the football (his interception rate is just 1.2%), a big reason why his QBR is a more-than-solid 58.2.

    But he doesn’t really push the ball downfield a ton, and his completion rate (63.3%) could use improvement. However, he’s played worlds better with the Colts than he did in his final season in Philadelphia, when he led the NFL in interceptions (15) and sacks (50).

    This is just the second time Wentz has faced Belichick’s defense. The first time didn’t go particularly well. He completed just 20 of 40 passes for 214 and a touchdown in a 17-10 loss in 2019. But that wasn’t with Frank Reich as his coach.

    The reunion between Wentz and Reich has gone about as well as either could have hoped. In his first year with the Colts, Wentz ranks sixth in QBR, 12th in passer rating (95.6), and 14th in EPA per play (0.12), although his completion percentage over expectation (-1.2) ranks 26th. Good luck against a Patriots defense that’s third in EPA per dropback (-0.07).

    Advantage: Patriots

    Colts weapons vs. Patriots defensive backs

    Taylor has a real chance to be the first running back in NFL history to eclipse 1,700 yards, score 20 touchdowns, and average at least 5.5 yards per carry in the same year. If he can, it would be one of the most productive seasons by a ball carrier ever and would deserve real MVP consideration. He’s also the Colts’ second-leading receiver, behind only Michael Pittman Jr. (67-882-5). The rest of the Colts’ skill-position players aren’t particularly impressive. T.Y. Hilton (15-177-1) is having the quietest season of his excellent career.

    A few more ridiculous Patriots pass defense stats — they lead the league in interception rate (4.4%), are second in yards per pass (5.9) and passer rating against (70.9), and third in passing yards per game (195.5). They had a bit of a scare in Week 13 when Adrian Phillips went down with what at first appeared to be a serious knee injury, but he was back at practice Tuesday and met with reporters like normal. One more note on the Patriots’ secondary: J.C. Jackson is really, really good. Quarterbacks have completed just 51.3% of their passes for a rating of 38.9 against him this year.

    Advantage: Patriots

    Colts offensive line vs. Patriots front seven

    Taylor owes his offensive line a bunch of Rolexes for Christmas. He’s been incredible, but so have they. The Colts’ starting five — Eric Fisher, Quenton Nelson, Danny Pinter, Mark Glowinski, and Braden Smith — have paved the way for the NFL’s most efficient running attack. Pick a stat and Indy’s O-line screams elite. The Colts’ 5.2 yards per carry lead the league, and their 151.7 yards per game are second to only Philadelphia. They’re in the top 10 in run-block win rate (72%), and only six teams have a better sack rate (5.2%).

    If there is a weakness on the Patriots’ defense, it’s against the run. It gets memory-holed because they won that week, but New England allowed 270 yards and 6.9 yards per carry to the Derrick Henry-less Titans. The Pats on the year are 19th in yards per carry (4.4) but second in run-stop win rate (33%). Don’t ask us to explain that. We can’t. Meanwhile, the Pats are ninth in sack rate (7.4%), or as we like to call it, the Matthew Judon bump. Judon has accounted for 12.5 of the team’s 32 sacks and 25 of New England’s 77 quarterback hits.

    Advantage: Colts

    Betting line and game prediction

    • Spread: Colts -2.5 (courtesy of DraftKings sportsbook)
    • Moneyline: Colts -140, Patriots +120
    • Total: 45.5

    Colts vs. Patriots Prediction: Colts 24, Patriots 23

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