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January 15. 2014 7:23PM

Patriots' secret weapon

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) throws a pass while being hit by New England Patriots outside linebacker Jamie Collins (91) during the third quarter of the 2013 AFC divisional playoff football game at Gillette Stadium. (Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports)

Jamie Collins was a major pain in Andrew Luck's side Saturday night in the Patriots AFC divisional-round win over the Indianapolis Colts. Everywhere Luck turned, Collins was there, haunting the quarterback.

Luck is still having nightmares of No. 91.

Whether it was stuffing runs, stuffing Luck or stuffing tight end Coby Fleener, Collins put his stamp all over that game.

Now comes Denver.

A freakish athlete like Collins is just what the Patriots need against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Maybe Collins can also drive Manning a little nuts, especially if he can contain Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas. That would certainly go a long way toward the Pats pulling off the upset on Sunday in Denver in the AFC Championship Game.

Former Patriots linebacker/defensive end Willie McGinest, for one, is sold on the rookie, who was the team's first pick in the draft (second round, 52nd overall). McGinest, now an NFL Network analyst, believes Collins has the ability to take on Thomas and do a good job of bottling up one of Manning's go-to guys.

"Absolutely," McGinest said, when reached by phone yesterday. "I've seen him cover tight ends. I've seen him cover running backs. He can run. He's athletic. That's the option he gives you from a coverage standpoint, putting him on a guy like Julius Thomas, and being able to cover him one-on-one, and help you out that way. He's been making plays all year long when he's had the opportunity."

In Sunday's Broncos win against the San Diego Chargers, it was interesting to watch where Manning went with the football with the game on the line. With the clock running late in the fourth quarter of a one-score game, Manning was faced with a pair of third-and-longs.

Manning didn't go to any member of his dynamic wide receiver trio of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker on third-and-17 with 3:00 to go. Instead, he opted for the tight end. Three plays later, on third-and-6, he went to Julius Thomas again.

Given that an injured Thomas was out for the regular-season meeting between the Pats and Broncos, he adds another element to this playoff matchup.

"He's been a big target for them in the red area with his size and his catching ability, his athleticism," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said yesterday. "He's a hard guy to match up with."

While it's possible Belichick might stick shutdown cornerback Aqib Talib on the tight end and take him out that way, it might make more sense to give Collins the first crack. With all of the wideout threats, Talib will be needed there, especially on leading receiver Demaryius Thomas.

Collins did a good job Saturday containing Fleener, and he came up with an interception. But Julius Thomas is better than Fleener.

McGinest spent a little time with Collins prior to the Colts game and came away impressed.

"Talking to him before the game, it seems like he's up for the challenge," McGinest said. "And there's so many things I saw from watching him in coverage, being on the field, and being able to get after the quarterback. There's not a lot of linebackers that are physical enough to stay in there and play the run, and stay on the field for pass coverage."

McGinest certainly performed both roles in his day en route to three Super Bowl championships. Not everyone has the capability.

Brandon Spikes was a great run-stopper, but the linebacker usually was taken off during passing downs and couldn't stay with tight ends. After Spikes went on injured reserve with a knee injury, Collins filled in for the playoff opener and showed exactly what he is capable of doing on the field.

McGinest sees Collins as a Belichick-type player, in a new-wave sense for the defense.

"I think people need to start recognizing this young talent," McGinest said. "It's going to be the future of the New England Patriots and the direction they're heading in."

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