Early Preview, Odds, and Prediction – AFC Championship Game

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (-7, 53.5 o/u)

The Colts are the only team that failed to earn a playoff bye still standing in the NFL, and will need to win a second straight road game to advance to the Super Bowl when they face the Patriots on Sunday (6:40 p.m. Eastern).

Indianapolis is looking to avenge a playoff loss to New England last season, and a 42-20 home setback against the Patriots in week 11 this year. For Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, this marks a fourth straight appearance in the AFC Championship Game.

Let’s meet the contenders:

Indianapolis Colts:

Indianapolis went 11-5 during the regular season even though they began the year 0-2. The Colts were unbeaten in the dreadful AFC South, but went 0-4 against other division winners. Including their win at Denver in the Divisional Playoffs, Indianapolis is 6-3 on the road straight up and against the spread. Andrew Luck led the top passing team in the NFL this season, but the Colts rushing attack was a revolving door of players until Boom Herron stabilized the position late in the season. Though Herron was an improvement on the ground, he was utilized most effectively in the passing game. The Colts’ pass defense was 12th best in the league and they finished 18th against the run.

The Colts dominated Cincinnati in the Wild Card game, 26-10, covering as six-point favorites. They out-gained the Bengals 482-254 and shutout Cincinnati in the second half. Luck threw for 376 yards and Herron had 141 yards, total.

The victory at home earned Indianapolis a trip to Denver, where the Colts beat the Broncos, 24-13, this time covering as seven-point dogs. Indy out-gained Denver 364-288 and held the ball for more than 34 minutes. Luck threw for 265 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. (Both picks acted like punts, long throws on third down.) Herron totaled 95 yards in the win.

New England Patriots:

The Patriots lost road games at Miami and Kansas City during the first month of the season but then won ten of 11 before losing a meaningless week 17 match-up against Buffalo. Including a playoff win against Baltimore, the Pats are 8-1 at home this year and 5-4 against the spread.

Brady captained the ninth-best passing attack in the NFL, and a hodgepodge of backs accounted for the 18th-best running game in the league. New England had a top-ten defense against the run, but were average versus the pass. Before Saturday’s 35-31 win against the Ravens – where they failed to cover as 7.5-point favorites – New England had held their opposition to 21 points or less in eight straight games.

New England seemed to be in trouble twice against Baltimore. The Ravens jumped out to a 14-0 lead, and after the Patriots tied the game, Baltimore responded and led 28-14 midway through the third quarter. Belichick went deep in his playbook (using a formation with only four linemen on the field) to setup a touchdown that made it 28-21, and then used a similar set on a gadget play where wide receiver Danny Amendola caught a game tying TD pass from fellow wideout Julian Edelman.

The Pats passed for 408 yards in the win while the running game was non-existent (14 yards on 13 plays). New England went six for 11 on third down while Baltimore was just one for nine.

The History:

Last year, the Colts fell in a Divisional Playoff game to New England, 43-22. New England controlled the clock, rushed for 234 yards and six touchdowns, and forced four Indianapolis turnovers. During the Pats 22 point win in November, New England amassed 503 yards of offense, equally divided in the running and passing games. The Patriots were nine of 11 on third down and had the ball for over 34 minutes. Indianapolis struggled to run the ball against the Patriots in both meetings.

The Play:

The Patriots are a seven-point favorite and the over/under is 53.5. Betting against Luck has been a losing proposition over the past two years. The Colts are 20-11-1 during the regular season against the spread but just 1-2 in the playoffs. While Indy has been very impressive for most of Luck’s tenure, they are a one trick pony on offense, and have struggled against New England. Prediction: Patriots 34, Colts 21.

(Photo credit: Keith Allison (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode].)

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