Andrew Luck and the horseshoe are returning to Foxborough, Mass., Saturday.
The second-seeded New England Patriots (12-4) will open their post-season hosting the fourth-seeded Indianapolis Colts (12-5) in the AFC Divisional round. Kickoff is set for 8:15 p.m. (CBS) at Gillette Stadium where the Pats were 8-0 this season.
The Colts erased a 28-point second half deficit to defeat fifth seed Kansas City 45-44 in a wild card game in Indianapolis Saturday. San Diego’s 27-10 road victory against Cincinnati Sunday sent the sixth-seeded Chargers to top-seeded Denver next Sunday at 4:40 p.m. in the other AFC Divisional round.
During his rookie campaign, last season, Luck, the No. 1 pick overall in the 2012 NFL draft, and the Colts traveled to New England, losing to the Patriots, 59-24. The Colts got off to a strong start in that game, leading 14-7 after the first quarter.
But things changed in a hurry when Julian Edelman ran back a punt for a touchdown, giving the Pats a 24-17 halftime lead. In the second half New England outscored the Colts 35-7 as Luck, who was picked off three times, had two throws returned for touchdowns by Aqib Talib (59 yards) and Alfonzo Dennard (87 yards).
This Saturday, New England will face the Colts with a different cast of offensive players from last year’s game. Tight end Rob Gronkowski (injured reserve, torn MCL, ACL), Wes Welker (signed with Denver) and Brandon Lloyd (free agent), all played very well against the Colts last season. On the other side, Reggie Wayne had seven catches for 72 yards against New England, but he will miss Saturday’s game with the Colts after suffering a season-ending torn ACL.
Despite a rash of season-ending injuries to Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Sebastian Vollmer, Justin Francis, Adrian Wilson and Tyronne Green, the Patriots managed to post their 13th straight winning season. Under the circumstances of losing Welker, Lloyd, Danny Woodhead (signed with San Diego), Aaron Hernandez (facing murder charge) before the season started and working with rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, quarterback Tom Brady enjoyed perhaps his best season since the 18-1 campaign in 2007.
Brady threw for 4,343 yards this year, becoming only the fifth quarterback in NFL history to accomplish the feat at least six times. He had 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Luck ended the season with 3,822 passing yards, 23 TD passes and nine interceptions.
Indianapolis’ defense will have to respect New England’s running game, which has produced 19 rushing touchdowns, the second-most in the NFL this season. LeGarrette Blount, coming off a Patriots’ single-season record 334 all-purpose yard performance against Buffalo in the regular season finale, seems to be peaking at the right time. Blount (seven touchdowns, 772 rushing yards) has seized the starting job from Stevan Ridley (seven touchdowns, 773 rushing yard), a fumble-proned back. New England was ranked ninth in the NFL in rushing and 10th in the passing game this year.
Edelman (105 catches, 1056 catching yards, six touchdowns), not Danny Amendola (54-633-2), has solved the vacancy left behind by Welker’s departure. Throw in Dobson (37-519-4), Thompkins (32-466-4) and back Shane Vereen (47-427-3) and Brady appears to have enough weapons to lead the Patriots toward a sixth Super Bowl appearance since 2001.
Luck, with four rushing touchdowns, will be a threat passing and running the ball. He does have a major threat in receiver T.Y. Hilton (82 catches, 1,083 yards), but expect Talib to force Luck to look elsewhere Saturday.
After Tilton, the next option for Luck is Coby Fleener who had 52 catches this season for 608 yards. On the ground Donald Brown is the main cog with six rushing touchdowns and 537 totals yards.
Still Luck won’t have the luxury of sitting in the pocket. New England ranked fifth this season in sacks with 48 led by Chandler Jones with 11.5 and Rob Ninkovich with eight.
Both teams have strong field goal kickers behind future hall of famer Adam Vinatieri of Indianapolis and Stephen Gostkowski of New England. Vinatieri, who played on all three New England winning Super Bowl teams, is 35 of 40 this season, including four-of-six from 50-plus yards out.
Gostkowski set a new Patriots’ record with 158 total points this season. He also set a team record this season with five field goals made 50 or more yards and overall was 38 of 41 this year. New England ranked first this season in field goals. New England can host the AFC championship game with a win against the Colts and a loss by the Broncos to the Chargers.