SCOUTING THE MATCHUPS
When the Patriots run – Edge: Patriots
For the second straight week Rhamondre Stevenson showed flashes of his 2022 form. After a sluggish start to the season, the third-year back has been breaking tackles and piling up yards after contact, as was his trademark in previous seasons. Against Washington he consistently moved the pile before taking advantage of a huge hole opened by David Andrews and Cole Strange and ripped off a 64-yard touchdown run, the longest of his career. Although he finished with just 87 yards on nine carries, Stevenson again showed that he remains a talented back, and one that should have some success against a leaky Colts front in Germany. Indy ranks 24th in the league, allowing 125.6 yards per game on the ground. That number improves a bit when it comes to yards per carry as the Colts give up just a shade over 4 yards per rush and rank 16th. Indy’s personnel up front is solid, led by standout defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. But he’s next to the undersized Taven Bryan with ends Kwity Paye and Samson Ebukam flanking that pair. The linebackers are an active group with Shaquille Leonard, Zaire Franklin, who missed the first game of his seven-year career against Carolina with a knee injury, and EJ Speed, so the personnel has the ability to perform better against the run. But given Stevenson’s recent upswing, expect the Patriots to feed him early and as often as the score allows.
When the Patriots pass – Edge: Colts
After a stirring comeback late in the fourth quarter of the upset win over the Bills in Week 7, Mac Jones and the Patriots passing game’s struggles have returned. Jones was erratic in the loss to the Commanders, misfiring on a handful of potential big plays – one early to Tyquan Thornton and another late to Stevenson. The problems weren’t all on Jones, however, as he dropped a nice deep ball over the shoulder to Jalen Reagor, who dropped what could have been a big completion in the second half. Still, Jones hasn’t been able to consistently mount any offense, and with injuries depleting his receiving corps (Kendrick Bourne, DeVante Parker) things don’t figure to turn around quickly. The Colts have been average in the secondary, allowing 235 yards per game (23rd) and 6.6 yards per pass, which ranks 20th. But Indy has nine interceptions on the season with former Patriot Kenny Moore leading the way with three. Moore is joined at corner by JuJu Brents and Jaylon Jones, along with safeties Julian Blackmon and Rodney Thomas. Brents missed the Panthers game and was replaced by Darrell Baker, which put the Colts secondary in a state of flux. Despite the injuries, the Colts have shown the ability to compete on the back end, and given the struggles of Jones and the Patriots receivers that should continue.
When the Colts ran – Edge: Patriots
The Colts have the ability to run the ball and this could wind up being the key matchup in the game. Zack Moss and Jonathan Taylor give Indy a formidable one-two punch in the backfield with both averaging north of 4 yards per carry. Moss carried the load early while Taylor worked his way back from the physically unable to perform list. He leads the way with 615 yards on 132 carries and five touchdowns. Taylor has been effective since returning, adding 254 yards on 62 carries and another touchdown. Indy wants to be a physical team behind a solid offensive line that includes Bernhard Raimann, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Will Fries and Blake Freeland, who has taken over for the injured Braden Smith at right tackle the last four games. It’s a formula that has been effective for the most part as Indy averages 123.3 yards per game on the ground (10th) and 4.3 yards per carry (11th). On the flip side, the Patriots have been quite stout against the run most of the season. They currently rank second in the NFL, allowing just 3.5 yards per carry and 11th in yards per game at 100.8. Christian Barmore’s recent upswing has been a boost on the inside, along with Lawrence Guy and Davin Godchaux. Rookie Keion White has been a physical presence inside as well. The Colts will try to make life easy on backup quarterback Gardner Minshew by getting Moss and Taylor going, but the Patriots have been stingy.
When the Colts pass – Edge: Colts
Minshew is the prototypical old-school backup gunslinger who is capable of getting hot but just as capable of making mistakes and turning it over. Since replacing rookie Anthony Richardson, he’s completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,527 yards with eight touchdowns and five interceptions. His play has allowed Indy to remain on the periphery of the playoff race at 4-5, and he has also done his part in a couple of the losses, putting up 38 against Cleveland and 27 against New Orleans in defeat. The Colts rank 16th in the league, averaging 221 yards per game passing and 19th with a 6.4-yard average per pass. Meanwhile the Patriots secondary is taking on water. After losing rookie Christian Gonzalez, the group has slowly declined. Jonathan Jones is battling a knee injury but hasn’t gotten much help from Jack Jones or JC Jackson. Those two were on the bench to start the Washington game as Shaun Wade was in the lineup for the first two series. When they entered the game things got worse, particularly when Jones was involved. Sam Howell racked up 325 yards passing and frankly it could have been worse had the Commanders receivers been able to hold onto a few catchable passes. The Colts will use the physical Michael Pittman (58 catches, 593 yards, three TDs) as their top target with impressive rookie Josh Downs (41-483-2) the clear second option. Downs is dealing with a knee injury so his status is uncertain. From there it’s a sizable drop down to Alec Pierce (17-243-0) and tight ends Kylen Granson, Drew Ogletree and Mo Allie-Cox, as well as Moss and Taylor out of the backfield. This isn’t the most explosive passing attack in the league, but the Patriots secondary has been on its heels the last few weeks.
Special Teams – Edge: Patriots
Both teams have struggled on special teams at times this season. The Patriots have been undisciplined, committing several penalties at inopportune times – most recently when Mack Wilson was called for being offside while the Commanders were set to punt the ball back to the Patriots in the final minutes. Brenden Schooler also had a pair of penalties late on punt returns, backing the Patriots up inside their 10 each time. Chad Ryland shook off a slow start and has been excellent since. He connected on a 43-yarder and has now made his last six straight. Bryce Baringer continues to be uneven but for the most part has been effective. Indy counters with Matt Gay, who has been outstanding. Gay is 16 of 18 on field goals and is perfect on his 24 PATs. He also provides a long-range threat, connecting on 6 of 7 from 50-plus including a 57-yarder at Carolina on Sunday. Rigoberto Sanchez handles the punting and has yet to record a touchback in 40 attempts, but the Colts coverage has been less than stellar as his net average of 41 indicates. Opponents are averaging almost 11 yards on 24 punt returns this season. Isaiah McKenzie is the Colts primary return man on both punts and kicks. If the Patriots can regain their focus and eliminate the penalties, they should be able to shake Demario Douglas loose on a punt return for a potential big play.