The Patriots defense must not only prevent but also make big plays against an explosive Colts offense. The secondary must play with discipline and not bite on play action passes and allow players like Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne to run open deep for quick scores.
But one of the keys in that area will be pre-snap disguises. Indy quarterback Peyton Manning's ability to read defenses allows him to make adjustments to formations, plays or protections at the line of scrimmage. So Bill Belichick's task will be to fool him with pre-snap looks and make him adjust and then re-adjust after the snap. If the Patriots are successful doing that, they can break his passing rhythm and force him to hold the ball longer than he likes. Manning has only been sacked 10 times despite a couple of rookies getting playing time on the offensive line. He gets the ball out quickly and frustrates the pass rush. The Patriots have to make him hold the ball with coverage, which will allow players like Richard Seymour and Willie McGinest time to get into the backfield and knock Manning off his game. In the running game, they need to stop the Colts stretch runs where they try to get Edgerrin James on the edge of the defense by blocking down with the tight end and pulling the tackle to block the outside linebacker. Because of Manning's ability to play action fake, the corners must stay in coverage rather than immediately react to their run force responsibilities, which could give James room on the outside.
Offensively, New England will need to establish its suspect ground attack against a smaller, inexperienced, but fast defense ranked 22nd in the league against the run. If the Patriots can do that, Tom Brady's not a bad action quarterback either, they will have chances to make some big plays down the field. If the Patriots don't set a tone early with the running game, the Colts aggressive upfield rush could make it a long day for Brady. Look for New England to try to exploit the Colts aggressiveness with counter runs, draws and screens, but they will have to sell them of Indy's speed will disrupt their plan.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
- Patriots CB Ty Law vs. Colts WR Marvin Harrison. Law has not been covering the other team's top receiver exclusively as he has done in the past, but don't be surprised to see him chasing Harrison around. Law has four interceptions and two touchdowns in 12 games against Indy while Harrison has 1,053 yards and eight touchdowns in 12 meetings against New England. He also has exceeded the 100-yard receiving mark in five of his last six games against the Patriots after failing to reach that plateau in any of his first six meetings with the Pats.
- Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel vs. Colts QB Peyton Manning. The Patriots will need to use intricate schemes to confuse Manning and make him hold the ball so that New England doesn't have to expose itself by blitzing and can use coverage and pressure from the front to get Manning off his game. Crennel will be the architect of those schemes.
- Patriots LT Matt Light vs. Colts DE Dwight Freeney. Another week, another speed rusher for Light to handle. Freeney has nine sacks on the season, but Light is having his best season in pass protection. "He's fast," Light said. "He has more moves than guys who have been in the league for a while. You wouldn't think you'd see that out of a young player." Freeney has forced three fumbles and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been prone to strip sacks at times when he's not protecting the football in the pocket.
- C Dan Koppen and G Damien Woody vs. MLB Rob Morris and WLB David Thornton. The Patriots will need to establish a physical ground attack to keep the Colts explosive offense on the bench. To do that, the interior linemen will have to win at the line of scrimmage and get a body on the linebackers. Thornton leads the Colts in tackles with 113 while Morris has 74. Patriots running back Antowain Smith will need to run with power and break some tackles beyond the line of scrimmage to give the Patriots consistent yardage on the ground.
The Patriots are relatively healthy outside of the wide receiver position, which is the latest area of the team to get hit hard by injuries. David Patten is on IR, but Troy Brown missed the last two games and Davis Givens missed the last game-and-a-half. This has left Tom Brady with a different group of receivers that lacks continuity with the quarterback and in some cases, experience. Rookie Bethel Johnson started at wideout last week opposite second-year man Deion Branch, which will likely be the starting dup again this week, assuming Branch, who is questionable, is able to play again this week. Dedric Ward, who now has a week of practice with the team under his belt, could replace Johnson as the starter. J.J. Stokes saw limited action last week and could see a few more snaps this week as he grows accustomed to the offense. With newcomers running routes, the problems might arise on blitz adjustments on which the quarterback and receivers must be on the same page.
- S Chris Akins was added to the injury report with a leg injury that forced him out of action during the Houston game. He is questionable for this week and is likely a long shot to play.
- WR Deion Branch remains questionable with a leg injury, but played through it last week. He reported no setbacks, but neither did Troy Brown after playing in Denver three weeks ago, but Brown hasn't played since.
- WR Troy Brown remains questionable and may miss his third straight game with a leg injury.
- WR David Givens also remains questionable with a leg injury. He did not travel to Houston last week.
- NT Ted Washington is still questionable despite starting the last two games after recovering from a broken leg. He should play.
- QB Tom Brady is probable with banged up elbow and shoulder.
- PK Adam Vinatieri is 11-for-11 on field goal tries and 16-for-16 on PATs at the RCA Dome in his career. He missed the first indoor kick of his career last week and then has a second attempt blocked. He was 30-for-30 indoors in his career before those two missed. Vinatieri, who was the hero of the Patriots Super Bowl Champion team, went to his first Pro Bowl last year after making 27-of-30 field goal tries for a league-high 90 percent success rate. But this season, he has made a career-low 74.1 percent of his kicks and is just 7-of-14 from 30 yards or beyond.
- S Je'Rod Cherry will need to step up in punt coverage this week if Akins
is unable to play. Cherry has been one of the team's top kick coverage
specialists since arriving in 2001, but has been slowed by injuries. He wasn't
truly missed during his injury absence because Akins has been tremendous in
his place. But with Akins ailing, Cherry will need to re-emerge. Akins 20
special teams tackles is second only to Larry Izzo's 23. Cherry has five
special teams stops but missed five games and played hurt in others.