Patriots: Week 15 preview and prediction

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Patriots @ Colts: Saturday, December 18th, 2021. 8:20 PM

Line: Colts -2.5, O/U 45

It has been almost two full weeks since we have seen the Patriots. We saw an instant classic and one of the weirdest games in modern NFL history when the Patriots beat the Bills on Monday night in week 13. This week brings another challenge and another tough as nails football team in the Indianapolis Colts.

Lets check out our matchups.

New England offense vs Indianapolis defense

Passing game matchup

There was not much passing to be heard of in New England’s last game, so we’ll focus on what we will see Saturday night. It is to be seen how much the Patriots will put on Mac’s plate, since the last time he was able to let loose in a game was in November against the Titans. One thing is for certain, the Patriots will try and pound the ball and the Colts will be keying on the run game. I don’t think New England will deviate much from late December Bill Belichick football, but I do think McDaniels is a savvy enough coach that he knows how to take advantage of self scouting. The Colts rightfully will be trying to stuff the Patriots’ run game, but New England won’t be emulating the gameplan they had against Buffalo in a snow storm. They will play off the Colts’ aggressiveness and throw the ball right over their head. McDaniels is a big pre-snap motion fan to both draw defenders up toward the line and to give them one more factor to think about. Using motion to condense a big receiver like N’Keal Harry inside to give him an angle on a crack toss can also be used to fool a defense into overplaying the run. I don’t expect much of Mac Jones sitting back in shot gun surveying the field with 3 or 4 receivers. I see them running 12 and 22 personnel and leaning heavy into play action. For example, I can see them lining up in 21 personnel later on in the game, faking a crack toss to one side and slipping a tight end into the flat with some lead blockers. The Patriots are great at play action and it is the perfect formula for an overly aggressive defense which I expect Indy to be in order to stop the stampede that is the Patriots’ run game.

Indianapolis has made it clear what they want to do to the Patriots’ offense on Saturday night. Linebacker Bobby Okereke had this to say about their plans, “We’re really gonna try to make the game one dimensional and see what (Mac Jones) can do.” That is hardly surprising but it is a lot easier said than done. That has been the goal of teams all season, but the Patriots’ offense has been looking like a well oiled machine as of late and it is miles away from being one dimensional. McDaniels constantly sets up Mac and the offense in favorable situations to gain chunk plays without having him sit back in the pocket for a long time. The Colts defense is built to stop the run and they have been moderately successful at doing so this year, ranking toward the middle of the pack in regards to yards per game given up. They run a base 4-3 under defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus and traditionally utilize a lot of cover 2. They’ve adjusted based on their opponent a few times this year and I am curious to see if they switch anything up for the Patriots, a team that does not traditionally take a lot of downfield shots compared to the rest of the league. They generate pressure by using a lot of stunts up front and running unique blitzes. They also lead the NFL in takeaways and turnover differential, a few very important metrics.

The Colts’ success on defense will all depend on their discipline in regard to play action. They’ll be selling out to stop the run, but if they can’t stay discipline in coverage, Mac Jones will pick them apart with crossing routes and screen passes. I see an advantage here for the creative Patriots’ offense and Josh McDaniels.

Advantage: New England

Running game matchup

The Patriots game in Buffalo on Monday night was an old school football coaches’ dream. The Patriots’ offensive line was rolling all night and you could tell they were loving the game plan from the start. You don’t see fullbacks being used much at all anymore but Bill recognized the conditions and adapted accordingly. Belichick and the Patriots also used 21 personnel on over half of their offensive snaps. Jakob Johnson was fantastic as a blocker, creating small creases and using advantageous angles to clear the way for his running backs. The Patriots ran a lot of crack toss, G lead, counter, trap and wham against the Bills and they didn’t let up because it kept working. Much maligned receiver N’Keal Harry was vital in the ruin game as well, using his big frame to destroy defender’s contain assignments and clearing lanes for the backs all night. That is not going to be exactly what the Patriots’ gameplan looks like going into Saturday night, though they will still certainly take advantage of what worked again and try to run play action off of it. Damien Harris’ status is still up in the air with a hamstring injury but I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to see more of Rhamondre Stevenson. He is proving to be a bruiser and while he was not overly efficient against Buffalo, he showed his punishing run style can hold up with 24 carries on a cold, bitter night. The Colts have the dudes up front to stop the run, it is up to the Patriots again to impose their will like they did against a Buffalo D that knew what was coming.

The Colts’ have not been shy about their plans on defense going into Saturday night. From cornerback Kenny Moore III, “I feel like to win a ball game, you have to be able to run the ball and to win a ball game on defense, you have to be able to stop the ball…….we’re going to see who’s more physical this week. We’re all telling each other to bring the pads. I can’t wait to see this.” It is not the wrong attitude to have either, the Patriots are top 10 in rushing offense and are showing no signs of slowing down. However, the Colts defense is not full of slouches. They’re led by all-pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner in the middle and all-pro linebacker Darius Leonard behind him. These are two absolute studs, Buckner is good in the run and pass game and is a nightmare to deal with due to his combination of length, strength, quickness and hands. Darius Leonard is pretty close to a perfect linebacker in today’s NFL. His pass coverage is admittedly not as good as say a Fred Warner, but Leonard is fearless in the run game. He takes on offensive linemen with violent hands and reckless abandon. He has multiple examples just this year of taking on fullbacks in the hole and blowing up a play. He’s perfect for this Colts’ 4-3 defense and is an invaluable asset against a team like the Patriots. His teammate Bobby Okereke plays the middle and is also an important piece defending the run as he leads the Colts in tackles. My curiosity comes in due to what the Colts will do with their safeties. Do they play one high to add a guy to the box to stop the run? Or do they stay two high due to familiarity and to take away deep shots? They’ve rotated safeties before, but what Eberflus decides to do Saturday night will be fascinating.

This is a close one. The Patriots in December are scary. They run the ball effectively and can impose their will on seemingly anybody, as they showed against Buffalo. But this Indy front 7 is one of the best they’ve faced all year. I also don’t know how much the Patriots will try to lean on the run Saturday other than to set up some open passing lanes for Mac. I’m going to be lame here and make it a draw.

Advantage: DRAW

Indianapolis offense vs New England defense

Passing game matchup

The Colts offense has been solid this year with Carson Wentz at the helm. Their last win against the Houston Texans came very easily in a 31-0 blowout and really didn’t tell us much we don’t already know about this team. Wentz is having a nice bounce back year reunited with his old offensive coordinator Frank Reich. On the year, Wentz is throwing for 226 yards per game at a 63.3% completion percentage to go along with 22 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Not numbers that will absolutely blow you away, but considering the discourse around Wentz last year was about him being broken beyond repair, that is an encouraging statline so far. It also compliments their main weapon Jonathan Taylor very nicely. But we’ll get to Taylor later on. Wentz’s favorite target by far has been Michael Pittman Jr., the second year man out of USC. Pittman looked great last year in limited time, but failed to consistently put together big performances. This year he is putting it together more consistently, showing why a lot of scouts had him ranked higher than where he ended up being drafted. Other than Pittman, the ball gets spread around pretty evenly to Jonathan Taylor, Zach Pascal and Mo Alie-Cox. The Colts are a run first team but Wentz still has the arm talent to hurt teams that overplay the run. He has a few deep touchdowns this year that remind you why he was the second overall pick in 2016. Their gameplan will look similar to the Patriots, pound the football to set up play action opportunities. The team who is more successful on the ground will make their QB’s job a whole lot easier.

Just like I said for the Patriots’ passing offense, there is not much to take from the Buffalo game. Josh Allen did throw the ball a lot more than Mac did and the Patriots made some big red zone stands, but the weather dictated a lot of the game flow. They’ll be coming into Saturday’s game with a lot of extra rest which is nice considering the long grind of the NFL season was taking a toll on them. Christian Barmore, Adrian Phillips and Ja’Whuan Bentley are all dealing with ailments this week and are listed as limited participants in practice according to Thursday’s injury report. The return of Kyle Dugger will be huge and will take some pressure off of New England’s depth and allow them to do what they do best, show multiple looks out of multiple personnel groupings to disorient the offense. The Colts like to run the ball, that is no secret. I think you’ll see some of the same looks that we saw when the Patriots played the Falcons a few weeks ago. Bring up a guy like Dugger or Adrian Phillips into the box, leave one high safety over the top and put pressure on the offense to break big plays. This puts 7/8 men in the box to stop the run while allowing the Patriots to run cover 3 zone, rotate to cover 2 or play man free with one safety over the top, assigning the extra DB in the box to a receiver/tight end.

Bill loves chess matches and it will be a good one against the Colts and Frank Reich. The advantage here lies in Belichick as the signal caller on defense and the playmakers in the Patriots’ secondary. Wentz can be rattled and erratic with his decision making. JC Jackson smells blood.

Advantage: New England

Running game matchup

This is where the boys are separated from the men. The Patriots’ run defense has been solidly in the middle of the pack in relation to the rest of the league and we really did not learn much at all from last week. The Patriots did what they had to, but the Bills are not a team that is built to play the type of game the Patriots did. More telling is their last game where they faced a tough rushing offense, the week 12 matchup with Tennessee when they gave up 270 total rushing yards. The Titans pounded the ball because they had guys off the street playing wide receiver, but that is a startling number for a Patriots defense. And that was WITHOUT Derrick Henry, they were torn up by Dontrell Hilliard and D’Onta Foreman. The Patriots’ hope is that they have enough rest and guys returning from injury that they can hold off this powerful Colts’ rushing attack, but it is far from a sure thing. Having the style of defense they ran against Atlanta should help, sticking one more guy in the box and being physical at the line of scrimmage. This game will hinge on the ability of the Patriots’ big men in the middle to clog up running lanes and the backers’ ability to pursue and take down Taylor. Keep an eye out for Goodchaux, Wise, Guy and Barmore to play vital roles.

Two words for the Colts’ rushing attack. Jonathan Taylor. This guy is having such a fantastic season, some people around the league have mentioned his name in the MVP conversation. That is a pipe dream, as we know the MVP is just the most valuable QB, but Jonathan Taylor has been unbelievable this year. Through 13 games, he is averaging 103.7 yards per game and has 16 touchdowns. According to PFF, he has 39 runs that have gone for 10+ yards this year and 17 that have gone for 15+. He is averaging almost 6 yards per carry which is an insanely impressive number on its own, however he is also averaging 3.7 yards per carry AFTER CONTACT. He has speed, power and vision like you dream about. His abilities as a pure rusher are rivaled only by Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry in my opinion. He is just that good. It will be imperative that the Colts get Taylor rolling as early as possible to loosen up a rock solid Patriots’ defense. If they force Carson Wentz to sit in the pocket and win the game for them, it will be a long night. This game rests on the shoulders of Jonathan Taylor and the Colts offensive line, which has some dudes. Quenton Nelson is debatably the best guard in the NFL and Eric Fisher, Mark Glowinski and Braden Smith can move dudes up front with the best of them.

This is going to be a bloodbath in the trenches and I have my popcorn ready. The 2021 Colts are an old school pound the football type of team like the Patriots. Belichick knows schematically how to stop anything, but can the big dudes for New England hold up? Can the backers and secondary contain Taylor and not let him get any breakaways? I doubt it.

Advantage: Indianapolis

This is going to be a hard fought, painful game for all involved. Coming off a BYE week is an interesting dynamic for the Patriots, they get extra rest and have time to heal up for a big matchup. However, before the BYE week they were probably the hottest team in the NFL. A layoff like that could have some unintended negative consequences, but I expect them to be ready to play.

The Colts are a dangerous team that have a reliable rushing attack and a superhero of a running back. The Patriots are a team that has a clear winning strategy and a stout, playoff-ready defense. This is gonna be a close one.

Give me Belichick to step up to the moment and keep the #1 seed in the AFC.

Prediction: Patriots-23 Colts-20