Eric Hartz: These are the top two defenses in the NFL in terms of points allowed, but also two of the league's most explosive offenses. Do you see points being at a premium on Sunday night, or will it be a shootout in the mold of the 2006 AFC Championship game?
Jon Scott: When looking at this game on the schedule in the beginning of the season, I would have said that both teams' defenses would find ways to disrupt the other's ability to score. Now that I've had time to delve into the meat of the rosters, the issues both have had with injury and integrating new faces into their systems, I'm leaning heavily on this being a shootout. A look at both offenses will tell you why.
Peyton Manning is one of the best in the league at keeping the chains moving (51 percent third down conversion). The Patriots have allowed opponents to convert third down 39% of the time (20th overall). The Colts are worse, allowing opponents to convert 44% of the time (30th overall). Still, New England has the second-best defense in the league allowing just 14.4 points per game, but two of those games were against the inept Titans (59-0) and Buccaneers (35-7).
The irony here is though the Patriots defense has to find a way to keep Manning in check, their offense will help them out Brady and the New England offense is typically ranked just one or two spots behind Manning and co in offensive categories. Completion percentage (NE 6th, IND 2nd), Passing first downs (NE 3rd, IND 1st), Passing TDs (NE 6th, IND 2nd) and Passing yards/game (NE 2nd, IND 1st)
So the statistics point out that both teams can score and both teams have trouble stopping opponents on long drives. Seems to me, it's a no-brainer and we're due for a shootout.
EH: You asked me this question, so I'll ask you as well: is this game more important for the Colts or the Patriots? What are the consequences of a Patriots' loss?
JS: New England is in the middle of a dogfight for playoff positioning and they only hold a two game lead in the AFC East division ahead of the Jets. They need to find a way to win the majority of the tough 5-game stretch their in, or they'll be back in the middle of the pack. Of the five games, they won the first (Miami) and now face the Colts, Jets, Saints and Miami again. All tough games. The Colts also have a tough 5 game stretch with a win (Houston) and the Pats, Texans, Titans and Broncos. Even if Indy drops this one they still hold a big lead in the division.
There are five teams with at least six wins in the AFC (Pats, Bengals, Steelers, Colts, Broncos) and two teams just one game behind (Texans, Chargers). At 8-0, the Colts have a three game lead in the division and are two games ahead of every other team in the AFC, so winning isn't as critical.
EH: What's your prediction for the game and why?
JS: When I look at this game I see key matchups on the Colts defensive line going against injured offensive linemen for New England, I see Peyton Manning against four defensive backs who have never played for the Patriots against the Colts before and I see homefield advantage for Indy. All those signs point to a Colts victory. But, with Brady showing signs that he's getting it going now, and the Patriots defense playing much better at this point of the season and the Colts problems in their secondary, I have to say advantage Patriots. So I'm going to take the upset here, despite my concerns that Manning is a Patriot killer as of late.
Jon Scott: Do you think the Patriots have enough talent on defense to keep Peyton Manning from scoring enough points to win?
Eric Hartz: The offense has scuffled a bit the last two weeks with Brown out and Collie and Garçon learning some lessons about life in the NFL, and Bill Belichick's schemes have always given Manning trouble. The key for Manning is to not try to do too much against the Patriots' defense, and take what they give him. Clark will have to be at his best in a crowded middle of the field, as well.
JS: Is this game more important to the Patriots or the Colts? How does it impact the Colts if they dont win?
EH: As is always the case, it's a hugely important game for both teams. A Colts win means they have at least two-game lead on the rest of the AFC for home-field advantage in the playoffs, and virtually eliminates the chance they will have to play the Patriots in Foxborough in January. A loss makes the race for home-field advantage much closer, with the Colts entering the meat of their schedule in November and December.
JS: What do the Patriots have to do to slow down Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne?
EH: Honestly, I'm not sure. Watching these two receivers work with Manning this year has been remarkable, and all three have the numbers to prove it. The Colts' offense relies on timing and reading the defense, so the more physical the Patriots' defenders can be against Wayne and Clark, disrupting them from where they want to go and where Manning wants to put the ball the better.
JS: What's your prediction for the game and why?
EH: Both teams have been playing solid defense and holding teams to few points on the scoreboard, but I think that goes out the window in this one. Neither team has a great running game, so I expect a lot of passes in the air and a shootout at Lucas Oil Stadium. In the end, I think the Patriots have to settle for a couple of field goals in the red zone and come up one short.
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