What We Learned: AFC Championship

Aside from the fact that the Colts are going to the Super Bowl, we learned a few key things on Sunday that will help determine their fate in the big game. Brad Keller breaks it down.

The confidence and efficiency of this Colts team is what separates them from the pack: This includes separating them from any other Colts team to take the field this decade, even though many of the faces have remained the same.

When Joseph Addai fumbled with 3:45 left to play in the first half and Indianapolis trailing by eight, the wheels could have come off their season and it could have ended in disappointment.  But, they stuck with the game plan, stifled Thomas Jones on first and second down, then Rex Ryan was left with a decision — make life easier for his kicker, or trust Mark Sanchez to get the first down.  He did not have confidence in his passing attack and went for the safe play and a shot at 17-6 lead.

While the Jets were trying to run the clock out, the Colts were calling timeouts in an attempt to give Peyton Manning as much time as possible in the two minute offense, because they were confident that he would convert that opportunity into a touchdown.

After Manning and Austin Collie were a little too efficient in driving 80 yards in four plays to bring the deficit to four, Ryan had another decision to make.  And he decided, once again, to play it safe.

The good news is that Ryan made the wrong call.  The bad news is that the New Orleans Saints have a ton of confidence and will not back down from a challenge, especially in the biggest game of the year. 

You can blitz Peyton Manning: Chances are that Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is looking at what allowed New York to be so successful blitzing Manning in the early going on Sunday.  He will discover that you can pressure Manning by running some type of stunt with your linemen up the middle, bringing a linebacker from that direction, then bringing a defensive back from the edge — preferably from the weak side.

You need to time it right, you need to cover the back side for hot reads, and you need to get to him quickly, but he can be pressured and sacked if you design and execute the blitz properly.  Manning is most uncomfortable when he faces pressure up the middle and doesn't have enough of a pocket to sidestep it or swing around it.

Williams doesn't have the personnel that the Jets do, but he is from the Buddy Ryan school of thought, is very creative with his blitzing schemes, and does have buy-in from a veteran group of defenders that have seen positive results this season.

The Colts can run the ball if they need to: Don't look now, but Indianapolis actually outrushed the number one run offense in the league on Sunday.  They had the edge in yards (101-86), yards per carry (4.2-3.0), and Joseph Addai had the longest run of the game, with a 17-yarder.

Addai seems to be getting stronger as the year goes on and Donald Brown seems to be getting slower and more tentative.  Brown broke off a 12 yard run in the first quarter, but finished the game with six carries for only 18 yards.  Mike Hart didn't look much better, but he is a more capable pass blocker and receiver than Brown, so he should still be able to contribute.

At this point, defenses know that when Brown is in the game, there is an excellent chance that the Colts are going to run the ball, since Brown can't contribute much to the passing game.  The key to their success running the ball on Sunday was that New York didn't give a passing thought to the fact that Indianapolis might run the ball.

When they blitzed, it was a pass blitz, not a run blitz.  When they played off, they left their linebackers and safeties far from the line of scrimmage, basically daring the Colts to try to run on them.  If the Saints deploy a similar strategy in the Super Bowl, it's encouraging to know that Manning will at least occasionally check to a run. 

Reggie Wayne did not enjoy his stay on Revis Island:  He may have fared better than most other elite wide receivers against Darrelle Revis, but three catches for 55 yards is not going to get it done against an explosive team like New Orleans.  Pierre Garcon had a record-setting day and Collie chipped in with his first 100-yard receiving performance, but big players make big plays in big games.

There's always someone who emerges from relative obscurity to make a big play, but guys like Dallas Clark and Wayne can't expect to have the same results in the Super Bowl if they have similar performances to Sunday.

Speaking of big plays, don't read too much into the ones the Jets had: On the 80-yard touchdown to Braylon Edwards, Jacob Lacey was caught out of position and didn't have help over the top because the Colts were so completely devoted to stopping the running game.  Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullitt spent almost the entire game in the box and didn't switch over to the conventional Cover 2 defense until late in the second half.

When you commit those kinds of resources to stopping the run, you leave yourself open to a big pass play off of play action.  Lacey was caught flat footed.  It was a poor decision on his part.  Bethea overcommitted and did not get back in time. 

But, it did not cost the Colts the game.  Jerraud Powers has two weeks to get healthy.  The Saints are a passing team and Indianapolis should play the entire game in their base defense or nickel package.

The Colts have had some issues on deep passes in 2009 — more issues than in the past — but, on average, they keep the play in front of them and don't give up too many long gains.  There is no need to panic at this point, but it's something that should be monitored.


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