Courtesy of SB Nation:
The New England Patriots‘ DeflateGate Revenge Tour comes full circle onSunday Night Football when the defending Super Bowl champs travel to Indianapolis to battle the Colts, the team that sparked the league’s investigation and kickstarted this summer’s endless legal saga.
When the NFL released its schedule in April, this Week 6 matchup between the Patriots and Colts loomed large and was one of the most anticipated games of the first half of the season — and not just because of the obvious storylines about deflated footballs. This was a supposed to be a rematch of last season’s AFC Championship, a marquee midseason contest between two of the conference’s very best teams and legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Fast-forward to Sunday night’s matchup on NBC. Things haven’t gone exactly as planned.
There is only one bona fide Super Bowl contender that will be playing at Lucas Oil Stadium. The 4-0 Patriots have steamrolled through the first quarter of the season and have established themselves as the clear-cut favorite to win the AFC. The Colts are 3-2 and — although they lead their division and should make the playoffs — haven’t looked anything like a team that could make a deep postseason run in January.
The Colts started the season 0-2 but have managed to claw their way back above .500 thanks to three straight wins against divisional opponents, and now sit in first place in the AFC South with a commanding two-game lead. The Colts will remain a playoff team as long as they play in the league’s weakest division, but they really need a win on Sunday night to prove that they can beat the elite teams and erase any doubts they can compete with the Patriots.
Competing with the Patriots is something that the Colts have failed miserably in trying to do over the past three seasons. This rivalry has been a one-sided matchup since Andrew Luck took over as the Colts’ starting quarterback in 2012. New England has won all four head-to-head meetings in dominant fashion, outscoring Indy by an average of 29 points per game, and have put up at least 40 points in each contest. Even ignoring the DeflateGate revenge factor, the Patriots would still like nothing better than to hand the Colts another embarrassing loss on Sunday.
In winning their first four games, the Patriots high-powered offense is once again destroying opposing defenses and re-writing the record books. They lead the league in total yards, rank second in points per game and are first in Football Outsiders’ offensive efficiency rankings. The 149 points scored through four games are the most in franchise history at this point in the season, and the seventh-most by any team since the 1970 merger.
One concern going forward is the loss of Nate Solder, Tom Brady’s blindside protector, who is done for the season with a torn right biceps. He has been a stalwart on New England’s line since being drafted in 2011: the only Patriots player who has played more snaps than Solder since his rookie season is Brady. Even with Solder, the offensive line has struggled to protect Brady — he was sacked five times in the first half versus Dallas — and the Patriots rank 20th in sack rate this season.
While everyone expected the Patriots to dominate on offense this season, few anticipated that the defense would be this good. Despite considerable roster turnover this winter, the Pats’ defense has blossomed into one of the league’s better units with back-to-back dominant performances the last two weeks. After holding the Jaguars and Cowboys to a combined 23 points and fewer than 300 yards in each game, the Patriots rank 12th in total defense and are tied for seventh in scoring defense this season.
One of the recurring themes from the past three matchups has been the Patriots’ complete and utter dominance in the ground game. The numbers are staggering: New England has rushed for 657 yards with 13 (!) touchdowns in three games. In its 38 games against other opponents since the start of 2013, the Patriots are averaging 107 rushing yards and fewer than one rushing touchdown per game.
The good news for the Colts is that their defensive line has been their strong suit and their rushing defense has improved since last season. They are allowing 3.8 yards per rush, a half-yard better than in 2014 (4.3), and have jumped from 19th to 12th in Football Outsiders’ run defense rankings. The Colts are also coming off a game where they heldArian Foster to just 41 yards on 19 carries, and Chuck Pagano recently told reportersthat this is the best he’s felt about his run defense during his time as coach in Indy.
Who to Watch
Dion Lewis – The 25-year-old running back — who a year ago was out of professional football — has emerged as one of this season’s breakout performers with 418 yards from scrimmage (180 yards rushing, 238 yards receiving) and three touchdowns. He makes the Patriots offense nearly impossible to stop because of his dual-threat, game-changing ability as a runner and receiver, and looks like he could be the perfect back for the Patriots offensive system.
Andre Johnson – The veteran wide receiver had barely been involved during the first few weeks as he saw his role and playing time dwindle. But he finally showed up last Sunday against the Texans, catching six passes for 77 yards and scored his first two touchdowns as a Colt. Was that just a one-time blip motivated by facing his former team, or is Johnson ready to be a reliable target and offensive playmaker on a weekly basis for the Colts?
How to watch
When: 8:30 p.m. ET Sunday
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
Announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
Online streaming: NBCSports.com
The experts don’t have much confidence in the Colts upsetting the Patriots on Sunday. Seven of the eight guys on the CBS Sports panel have New England, while both the ESPN team and our crew here at SB Nation have the Patriots in a clean sweep across the board.
The Patriots are an 8-point favorite and the over/under is 55 points, per OddsShark.com.