Patriots at Colts: What to watch for Saturday

Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – These are the areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting with the New England Patriots Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium:

Kickoff: 8:15 p.m.

Broadcast: FOX59.

History lesson, Part I: Is it a rivalry if one team routinely beats the living daylights out of the other? In case you missed it, New England has won the last eight meetings in the series. Indy’s last victory was that memorable Fourth-and-2 game in week 10 of 2009.

Since then, it’s been all Pats, and five of the eight games in the current streak have been decided by double digits. That includes 43-22 in the second round of the 2013 playoffs and the 45-7 rout in the 2014 AFC Championship game.

It’s also worth noting the Colts are 6-16 against Bill Belichick since he took over as head coach in 2000.

What’s interesting is the only Colts QB to beat the Belichick-led Patriots is Peyton Manning (6-8). The last Colts QB not named Manning to beat the Patriots? Jim Harbaugh in the final game of the 1995 season. The 10-7 win pushed Indy to 9-7 and clinched a wild-card berth that sent Indy on its magical run to the conference championship game in Pittsburgh.

History lesson, Part II: The Patriots have tied a league record by scoring at least 30 points in nine straight games against the same opponent, which would be the Colts. It began with the Colts’ last win in the series – 35-34 in 2009 – and hasn’t missed a beat. The Patriots have averaged 39.7 points per game during that stretch.

The record is shared by the Kansas City Chiefs, who scored 30-plus in nine straight meetings with Denver from 1964-68.

Playoff update: Kansas City’s 34-28 overtime win over the Los Angeles Chargers Thursday night was the latest assist to the Colts in their pursuit of the playoffs, and at least temporarily altered the top of the AFC seedings.

Heading into the weekend, the 9-4 Patriots sit on the No. 2 rung behind the 10-4 Chiefs. And remember, only the top seed gets a first-round bye.

The Colts still are the No. 6 seed, but would move to No. 5 ahead of the 8-6 Chargers with a win over New England based on a better record against conference teams (7-3 versus 5-4).

According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the Colts have a 68% chance of reaching the postseason. That bumps to 88% with a win over New England, but dips to 50% with a loss.

So, obviously, Saturday night matters a ton.

 More from JT?: Given his druthers, Frank Reich will have Carson Wentz spend much of Saturday night handing things off to Jonathan Taylor.

“What matters to me is that our DNA . . . we’re going to run the football,’’ he said. “It’s a powerful thing to be able to run the ball.’’

Taylor has a 312-yard lead over Joe Mixon for the NFL rushing lead and has a similar cushion over Cooper Kupp in total yards from scrimmage (1,684-1,361). He’s the fuel-injector for the Colts’ offensive engine.

“JT’s still as good as it gets at that position in the league and we trust our big boys up front, no matter what the looks, to get it done,’’ Wentz said.

New England’s run defense ranks a lackluster 19th, but that’s somewhat skewed by the 270 rushing yards it allowed Tennessee in the Patriots’ 36-13 win in week 12. In the other 12 games, the Patriots have allowed averages of 101.5 yards per game and 4.1 per attempt.

And it’s a given Belichick will be creative with his defensive game plan to limit Taylor’s effectiveness. He’ll stack the line of scrimmage, dial up run blitzes from different areas, whatever it takes.

Even so, look for Reich to stick with Taylor and the run game, unless and until it simply doesn’t make sense to waste plays.

Sometimes, numbers are deceiving. Sometimes, they’re not.

The Colts are 7-0 this season when Taylor cracks the 100-yard mark, 0-6 when he doesn’t. They’re 10-0 in his career 100-yard games.

And then there’s this. In Taylor’s seven 100-yard games this season, he’s averaged 138.7 yards per game and 6.4 yards per attempt. In the other games, the averages plummet to 62.8 per game and 4.2 per attempt.

So yes, the Colts follow Taylor’s lead.

Or more from Wentz?: Again, we expect Reich to be a tad stubborn with the run game if the Patriots are able to muck things up early. But there will come a point when he won’t dial up runs for Taylor just for the sake of offensive balance.

“We don’t want him to pound his head against a wall play-in and play-out,’’ Reich said. “That goes back to that mix of how much is too much or how much isn’t enough?’’

If New England is able to limit Taylor’s effectiveness, the onus falls on Wentz.

And here’s where we revisit the How much is too much? issue.

In his career, Wentz’s success has diminished the more he’s thrown the ball. That’s the case with most quarterbacks, but is dramatic with Wentz. He’s 26-7 (.788) in games with 34 or fewer pass attempts, and 16-31-1 (.344) when he’s attempted 35 passes or more.

This year? The Colts are 7-1 when they’ve required Wentz to throw 34 or fewer times, including seven straight wins in those games. Of course, those games coincide with Taylor’s 100-yard rushing games.

The Colts didn’t acquire Wentz to be the focal point of their offense. He was viewed as an ideal complementary QB. But there are times he’ll have to carry the load.

Saturday night could be one of those occasions.

That brings us to a Patriots defense that ranks No. 3 in fewest passing yards allowed (195.5), 2nd with 19 interceptions and tied 8th with 29 sacks. Cornerback J.C. Jackson is 2nd in the league with seven interceptions – that’s 16 in the last two seasons and a league-best 24 since being signed as an undrafted rookie in 2018 – while free-agent acquisition Matthew Judon is tied-5th with 12.5 sacks. Belichick’s defensive creativity has resulted in 14 different players producing at least a half-sack.

Force the rookie to make plays: Bobby Okereke apparently provided bulletin-board material earlier this week when he offered a glimpse of the Colts’ defensive approach. In short, focus on the Patriots’ No. 10-ranked run game and force rookie quarterback Mac Jones to carry a heavy load.

“That’s a pride point for us,’’ Okereke said. “We’re just ready to attack the run and make them one-dimensional.’’

If the Patriots took exception to that, they’re scratching for motivation.

New England is one of the NFL’s most run-heavy teams – 47.6% rushing attempts – and it’s suited them well. But that ground attack will be without leading rusher Damien Harris, who’s out with a hamstring injury. The focus turns to rookie Rhamondre Stevenson (429 yards and three TDs on 100 carries) and Brandon Bolden (169 yards on 30 attempts).

The Patriots won’t disregard their run game, but the Colts hope they’re able to put more on Jones’ plate. He’s been the best of the much-hyped rookie quarterback class – 2,860 yards, 16 TDs, a 70.3% completion rate – and benefitted from that rock-solid run game and elite defense.

It only makes sense from a defensive standpoint to see how the rookie performs if he’s asked to throw more than he’d like and without a dependable run game. Having said that, Jones has a pair of quality tight ends in free-agents Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. They’ve combined for 61 catches, 665 yards and eight TDs, and we’ve seen how much trouble the Colts have had dealing with tight ends.

And the winner in: Colts 24, Patriots 20. This is the latest Game of the Season for Indy. They’re smack dab in the middle of the wild-card playoff hunt, and this is no time for a misstep. Reich and several players mentioned the Patriots offer an opportunity for the Colts to prove they belong in the discussion of serious playoff contenders, and more.

So, prove it.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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