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NFL Playoff Preview - Indianapolis (12-5) at New England (12-4)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - If you are going to see a marquee play on Broadway, you never want to hear the word understudy.
Unless, of course, the second-stringer has the potential to reach the heights of the original star and in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck has basically been Liev Schreiber to Hugh Jackman's Peyton Manning.
Luck might not have quite the cachet of Manning just yet but the potential is certainly there.
The Colts and the New England Patriots turned into one of the NFL's best rivalries in recent years thanks in large part to perhaps the generation's best two quarterbacks, Manning and Tom Brady.
Despite the fact that Manning has moved on and has his own business to deal with in Denver this weekend doesn't mean the show isn't going on, however, and the Colts are in line to take on Brady and the Patriots yet again with a trip to the AFC Championship Game on the line.
"The playoffs means it's a one-game season each week," said New England defensive end Rob Ninkovich. "You have to lay it all out there because if you don't win the game, you go home."
Saturday night's game will be the fourth postseason meeting in the last 11 years between the two clubs dating back to the 2003 AFC Championship Game when Brady and Co. got the best of Manning's Colts 24-14 at Gillette Stadium.
A year later "Tom Terrific" was at it again as New England downed the Colts, 20-3 in the divisional round in Foxborough before Indianapolis got a little revenge in the 2006 AFC Championship Game, earning a 38-34 comeback win in the Hoosier State.
The Colts will try to even the score this week after recording their first postseason win in the post-Manning era, a triumph that had everything to do with a little "Luck," along with a lot of T.Y. Hilton.
Luck led Indianapolis back from a 28-point third-quarter deficit by orchestrating five touchdown drives in the second half, the last ending with a 64-yard pass to Hilton that lifted the Colts to a wild 45-44 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card round of the AFC playoffs.
After throwing three interceptions that helped put his team in a 38-10 hole, Luck carved up the usually stout Kansas City defense in orchestrating the second-largest comeback in NFL playoff history. The second-year quarterback finished with four touchdown passes, ran in another score on a fumble recovery, and put up 443 yards passing while completing 29-of-45 attempts.
"It was one for the ages," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said afterward. "Incredible, incredible victory. "A great team victory and one for the ages. Our guys are unbelievable. They stuck to the process and never doubted. We did just enough to advance in the tournament."
Hilton came up huge as well, hauling in 13 of Luck's attempts for 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns, none bigger than his go-ahead score with 4:21 remaining. Donald Brown added both a rushing and receiving touchdown for the Colts.
"It was a tremendous performance coming back in the second half," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "They did a really good job in all three areas of the game. This is a team that's well coached, that's had a real good season. They beat some of the best teams in the league, in both the AFC and the NFC. They've just been impressive."
The Patriots were resting last weekend after finishing 12-4 and capturing their latest AFC East crown.
Long a model of consistency, New England is very banged-up these days, especially on defense. Already without starting defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (Achilles) and Tommy Kelly (knee) as well as middle linebacker Jerod Mayo (shoulder), fellow 'backer Brandon Spikes was the latest addition to the ranks of the walking wounded, going on season-ending injured reserve earlier this week with a knee injury.
"Everybody has to step up," LB Dane Fletcher, who is expected to replace Spikes said. "Everybody's role kind of increases on defense."
The offense, meanwhile, is without star tight end Rob Gronkowski (torn right ACL/MCL), offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (leg) and of course lost Aaron Hernandez to major legal problems before the season even began.
Through it all, though, Belichick has been able to cobble together another double-digit win season, New England's 11th straight, joining the 1983-1998 San Francisco 49ers as the only teams to accomplish that feat.
The Pats lead their all-time series with Indy by a substantial 45-28 margin.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
In just two seasons, Luck has shown an uncanny knack for late-game wins as well as rallying his team and taking close games, compiling a brilliant 14-2 mark in contests decided by a TD or less.
So maybe the key to beating the Colts is blowing their doors off, something that's easier said than done.
Kansas City looked like it was on the way to doing it last week until Luck heated up. New England, however, has actually done it, routing Indianapolis, 59-24, in the Stanford product's only previous start against the Patriots back on Nov. 18, 2012, a game in which Brady tossed for 331 yards and three TDs, including two to Gronkowski. Luck, conversely, was just 27-of-50 for 334 yards, two scores and three interceptions.
"I don't want to dwell too much on last year," Luck said. "They do a great job of forcing turnovers, getting to the quarterback. We know it's going to be a dogfight."
The Colts have been prone to poor starts since star receiver Reggie Wayne went down with a torn ACL in Week 7 against Denver but Luck has bailed the club the team out on multiple occasions.
That has to change this week. Indianapolis simply can't put itself behind the 8-ball against a Belichick-coached team. New England is far too smart and too savvy to suffer a fate similar to the Chiefs.
The strength of the Patriots' defense lies in the defensive backfield where cornerback Aqib Talib and free safety Devin McCourty are both top-tier players. You can expect Belichick to bracket Hilton, Indianapolis' lone proven threat outside the numbers, and force others to beat him.
"We're putting everything we have into this game," McCourty said. "We know it's going to be a tough game. Sixty minutes; we're going to have play good throughout this whole game to try to get a win. We feel like if we put everything into this and we come out with a win. There's no tomorrow for us, that�s how we're going to go out there and play."
Offensively, the Pats lean on Brady and a solid running game.
Brady hasn't had one of his best statistical seasons but still passed for 4,343 yards and 25 touchdowns with Julian Edelman (105 catches and 1,056 yards receiving) as his top target.
Making him uncomfortable is key and Indy can rely on the NFL's inaugural Deacon Jones Award winner, Robert Mathis, who led the league with 19 1/2 sacks in the regular season and added another against the Chiefs.
"He's a great player and been a great player for a long time," said Brady, who has been sacked 40 times in 2013. "We've played these guys a bunch over the years. We kind of know what we're up against. He's having one of the best years of his career."
The deep New England backfield features a running-back-by-committee approach. Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount combined for 1,545 rushing yards and 14 TDs, while Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden are also dangerous at times. It's basically who has the hot hand on Gameday.
"It's a heck of a challenge," Pagano said. "What LeGarrette is doing and Ridley and certainly with Shane coming in, and Bolden is no slouch. They've got a stable of guys that are more than capable."
Adding intrigue to the matchup was the fact that receiver Deion Branch, a former Super Bowl MVP with the Pats, was signed by the Colts earlier this week. Branch was brought in because Darrius Heyward-Bey injured a hamstring last weekend.
Heyward-Bey is on a Colts' injury list which also features defensive backs Greg Toler (groin) and LaRon Landry (concussion).
The Pats will be looking to become the first team since the 2001-04 Philadelphia Eagles to go to at least three straight conference championship games and the one constant through New England's remarkable run of success has been Brady, who has won 17 games in the playoffs, the most in NFL history.
"When it comes down to it, the team that plays the best is going to win," said Brady. "In the playoffs, you're playing the best teams. When you play a good team, it's hard to beat a good team when you don't play your best."
Overall Brady is 17-7 in the postseason, an amazing .708 winning percentage against the best competition the NFL has to offer.
Luck is a future superstar and will eventually have his time but Brady is already there and a constant is a constant for a reason.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots, 23, Colts 17
01/09 15:01:41 ET
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