'We're going to have to play our best game'

Coach Chuck Pagano knows from the experience of playoff games lost at New England that Sunday's AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium will require the maximum effort.

Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano acknowledges the formidable challenge ahead of taking on the New England Patriots in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

“We’re going to have to play our best game obviously in all three phases in order to give ourselves a chance to go up to Foxborough and beat a really good football team,” Pagano said Wednesday.

The Patriots defeated the Colts 42-20 on Nov. 16 at Lucas Oil Stadium. New England also sent Pagano’s team home in a 43-22 AFC Divisional playoff victory at Gillette Stadium last postseason.

Factor in the Colts’ 59-24 loss at New England during the 2012 regular season and the Patriots have won the last three meetings by an average of 26 points. The Colts’ coach didn’t need to be reminded.

“Well we certainly understand and know what happened in those prior games,” he said. “They really don’t have any relevance on this game as far as we’re concerned. (I) really feel like our team is playing as good as it’s played all season long, especially in the playoffs; especially with our win against Cincinnati and then our win last Sunday against Denver. We’re a confident bunch right now. I like where we’re at in all three phases and we’ve got to play better, like I said, in all three phases in order to give ourselves a chance to win. I think they’re a different team, we’re a different team right now.”

Pagano’s history against the Patriots in the playoffs is linked to him landing the Colts job. He was Baltimore’s defensive coordinator in 2011, when the Ravens lost 23-20 at New England in the AFC Championship Game. Had he won that game and gone to the Super Bowl, Pagano might not have been hired by the Colts.

The fourth-seeded Colts are seven-point underdogs, the same as before they knocked off the second-seeded Denver Broncos 24-13 in Sunday’s AFC Divisional playoff victory. It was the Colts’ first road playoff win since 2007.

In the previous Patriots game, the Colts allowed a season-high 246 yards rushing on 44 carries. Unknown first-year running back Jonas Gray ran for a franchise-record four touchdowns — the first time since 1921 a back scored four times without previously having a touchdown. He finished with 201 yards on 37 carries.

It would be an understatement to suggest the Colts need to be better against the run.

“The numbers speak for themselves, and if we don’t get that fixed and they’re able to run the ball the way that they’ve run it the last couple meetings, then we’re going to have a long, hard day,” Pagano said. “But having said that, I think our guys are playing with a tremendous amount of confidence right now and our run defense has been as good as it’s been. We’ve had some moments obviously this year, but again, we’ve got to go do the job. Talking about it is one thing, but we’ve got to go up there and we’ve got to do the job and stop the run.”

Pagano was asked if his team’s mentality is different from earlier in the season.

“I think we’re healthy,” he said. “We’re probably healthier than we’ve ever been.”

He acknowledged at the outset that Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis (knee) and cornerback Greg Toler (groin) missed Wednesday’s practice, but both were expected to return on Thursday.

“We are playing with a great deal of confidence right now,” Pagano said. “If you look at the offensive line, three weeks now in a row we’ll have the same lineup there, so some continuity that way. We’re playing good complementary football. All three phases are complementing one another. We had that happen during a five-game win streak earlier in the year, coming off of an 0-2 start to the season. Good situational football – third down, red area, two-minute, end of half, end of game – all of those things. We’ve had our moments as far as turnovers and things like that, but we’re playing good team football right now.”

The offensive line didn’t allow Andrew Luck to be sacked once in the Denver victory. This is the 11th different starting combination the team has used.

Luck will need that kind of protection against the Patriots. He’s thrown eight interceptions in the three previous losses.

“You give the defense credit at times,” Pagano said. “Some of them happen. Some of them are based on decisions. I think especially this time of year, he’s done a better job. I know we had a couple hiccups in the Denver game, but there are a lot of things that go into that. But he’s done better. I know the numbers are what they are, but I’m not worried about it.”

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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