NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Peyton Manning has feasted off New England's secondary in his last two games against them. He's finally started to get that Bill Belichick monkey off his back after throwing for 647 yards and five touchdowns in the Colts' last two wins over New England. Now comes the postseason.
Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison have taken turns abusing the Patriots defensive backs. The Pro Bowl receivers have combined for 181 receptions, 2,676 yards and 21 touchdowns on the year. The last time the teams met, it was Harrison who lit up the Patriots secondary. He caught eight passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Harrison did most of his damage when Asante Samuel wasn't covering him, so expect to see New England's best cornerback matched up with Harrison more in this game.
The Patriots defensive front must put heat on Manning and make him get rid of the ball before he wants to. If Manning gets comfortable in the pocket early, the Patriots are in trouble. Tully Banta-Cain and Rosevelt Colvin need to get pressure off the edge and get Manning out of his comfort zone.
What's hurt New England recently is it has given up the big play to the Colts, something it didn't do in the past. The Patriots need to go back to keeping everything in front of them and making Manning work for touchdowns. They will also need to get some pressure on him and not allow the Pro Bowl quarterback to get in a groove. If they don't, it will be another big offensive outing for the Colts.
The Patriots have found their identity on offense over the last month of the season, and it's Tom Brady spreading the football around. While that strategy has worked in the past against the Colts, New England can't forget about its ground game this Sunday. Indianapolis gave up 173 rushing yards per game during the regular season, the worst in the NFL. Its defense has improved during the playoffs, but it's hard to believe a rush defense that was so bad is all of a sudden impenetrable. Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney kind of took the week off against the Chargers, but they should get many more carries against the Colts. Expect to see a balanced Patriots offense on Sunday, utilizing both the run and pass.
Patriots CB Asante Samuel vs. Colts WR Marvin Harrison -- This matchup pits one of the NFL's best corners against one of its premier receivers. Harrison torched the Patriots back in November, recording eight receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Samuel wasn't on him often in that game, but he should be all over Harrison on Sunday.
Patriots RB Laurence Maroney vs. Colts S Bob Sanders -- The Colts rush defense is much better when Sanders is on the field. After the last meeting, Tony Dungy said Sanders made two or three touchdown-saving tackles on Maroney in the open field. Sanders is a physical, aggressive safety, and he'll need to have a big game if the Colts plan on stopping Maroney and Corey Dillon.
The only significant injury the Patriots have at this point in the season remains S Rodney Harrison. Harrison is listed as doubtful on New England's injury report, although James Sanders has done a solid job replacing the veteran. Sanders doesn't have the experience and leadership that Harrison provides, but he's been decent in coverage, physical with receivers and a sure tackler since entering the starting lineup.
Player News and Notes:
--S Rodney Harrison, OT Ryan O'Callaghan, WR Troy Brown, and DL Mike Wright weren't present for the media-access portion of Wednesday's practice. Brown, Wright and O'Callaghan are all listed as questionable with the flu and appeared to be recovering from the symptoms a day later.
Harrison has been upgraded from out to doubtful on the Patriots injury report. However, it's still unlikely that Harrison will play this week against the Colts.
--DL Ty Warren missed two days of practice this week after being exscussed for personal reasons. He did not appear on the injury list.
--TE David Thomas wore a black jersey, meaning he was the team's practice player of the week leading into the Chargers game.
--QB Tom Brady is listed as probable due to a right shoulder ailment. Brady's right arm would have to fall off for him to not play in this game.
Rhodes had 68 yards on 13 carries in Indianapolis' AFC wild-card win over Kansas City and added 56 yards on 14 carries against the Ravens last week. In fact, if it were not for Rhodes' hard-nosed runs in the fourth quarter of the Baltimore game, the Colts may not have been able to keep control of the football as well as they did.
"Dom was outstanding (against the Ravens) and made some good power runs, ran in our short-yardage offense and did a great job," Dungy said, adding that Rhodes has handled the switch in responsibilities better than anyone could have hoped for.
"Really like a professional. The big thing, I thought (running backs coach) Gene Huey did a great job of explaining to him what we were doing. It wasn't a demotion, and he understood that. We were just going to start the game with Joseph, and Dom has ended up finishing the last two games and making some big fourth-quarter runs. But he knew he was going to still be involved. He knew he was going to get a lot of carries and be in in critical times. So it really hasn't been that much different. They both still split the carries relatively evenly."
Keep playing hard. Force turnovers. Play fast on both sides of the ball.
The Colts offense needs to have its best performance of the postseason. Indianapolis has been sluggish over the first two weeks of the playoffs but has been able to come up with key plays when necessary. That may not be enough this week. A complete performance is necessary against a team like the Patriots.
Defensively, Indianapolis has to keep the pressure on the New England offense. The Colts have done a better job in the postseason of slowing down the run and forcing turnovers. Those will be the keys again this week against an experienced Patriots team.
Colts QB Peyton Manning vs. Patriots defense -- Manning has not compiled huge personal statistics in this year's playoffs, but he is due to have a breakout game. He has just one touchdown pass and five interceptions through the first two rounds. New England's defense has played well against Manning in the past, but he has been able to have good regular-season performances the past two years.
Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. Colts pass rush -- If given enough time in the pocket, Brady is as tough as they come in the NFL. The key for Indianapolis' defense this week is to keep the pressure on the Patriots quarterback. He was picked off four times by the Colts in this year's regular-season meeting and had three passes picked off in last week's AFC divisional playoff win over San Diego.
Colts run defense vs. Patriots RBs Corey Dillon/Laurence Maroney/Kevin Faulk -- Indianapolis' run defense has shown marked improvement in the first two weeks of the playoffs. But can the Colts do it three weeks in a row against a team that is expected to commit early to the run?
WR Ricky Proehl returned to practice Wednesday, but his status for Sunday's game with New England won't be determined until later this week. Proehl has been bothered by a sore hamstring for the past four weeks.
Player News and Notes:
--RB Joseph Addai practiced Wednesday and is expected to start against the Patriots on Sunday. Addai suffered a shoulder injury against Baltimore last week and saw limited work in the fourth quarter.
--WR Marvin Harrison went through a full workout on Wednesday and will start against New England this week. Harrison has been bothered by a sore wrist for most of the season.
--LB Cato June practiced Wednesday despite suffering a concussion in Saturday's AFC divisional playoff win over Baltimore. He is expected to play Sunday against New England.
--CB Nick Harper was able to go through Wednesday's workout but is still nursing a sore ankle. He has been bothered by the ankle injury for the past three weeks but has been able to play.
--OT Ryan Diem is still nursing a sore shoulder, but he is expected to start Sunday against the Patriots. Diem has been experiencing some tenderness in the shoulder for the past two weeks but has been able to start.
--OG Ryan Lilja returned to the starting lineup in last week's game at Baltimore. He is expected to start Sunday against the Patriots. Lilja suffered a sprained right knee against Houston in the next-to-last game of the regular season. He did not play against Miami in the regular-season finale or against Kansas City in the first round of the playoffs.
--S Bob Sanders has been able to play the last two games after missing 12 regular-season games this year. Sanders underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in late September. He practiced Wednesday and will start against the Patriots this week.