The rain pounded New England on Saturday night, just as it had on the opposite coast earlier in the day in the New Orleans-Seattle NFL playoff game. And the Patriots showed they could bring some muscle, running over the Indianapolis Colts and pulling away to a 43-22 win. Here’s the Notebook Nine takeaways on the Indianapolis-New England divisional playoff game…
- *Turnovers are again pre-eminent in deciding who wins NFL playoff games. By “again”, I mean they took a one-week hiatus for the first round, when three of four winners overcame losing the turnover battle by at least two. New England joined Seattle as a home team that took perfect care of a wet football and let the opponent implode, as Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck threw four interceptions.
- *New England has been slowly evolving into more of a running team for two years and the ultimate payoff came Saturday night. LeGarrette Blount ran for 166 yards and looked mostly unstoppable. Don’t overlook the play of Stevan Ridley, carried 13 times for 52 yards and a big third-and-goal touchdown run from the three-yard line when the score was still 21-15.
- *I’ve often praised the Indianapolis supporting cast this year, but as I watched this game, I realized that I was implicitly using my own team, the Washington Redskins, as the standard. By that standard, the Colts’ supporting personnel is better, if only because they actually try hard and don’t do stupid things. Reality check time—Luck’s supporting cast is nowhere near ready to win big playoff games, in spite of beating good teams in the regular season. The defensive front seven needs a lot of help for Robert Mathis.
- *The Indy offensive line has done a good job this year, but that was not at all evident on Saturday night. The Colts were unable to establish the run and Luck was under constant pressure. Even the big plays the quarterback made were often as he was chased from the pocket and threw on the run. You aren’t going to beat anybody when you get whipped in the trenches on both sides of the ball and that’s what happened to Indy.
- *Luck is really a throwback kind of quarterback, to the day when QBs were expected to challenge defenses down the field and not play everything safe. It’s anybody’s preference as to which style is better, but it has to be taken into account before ripping into him for his four interceptions. That’s obviously too many, but one was not his fault and two more came after his team trailed 36-22 with nine minutes to go. For the record, Tom Brady threw two interceptions in that same difficult circumstance in last year’s AFC Championship Game.
- *Speaking of throwbacks—the Patriots are a throwback to their 2001-04 Dynasty Years, when they won three Super Bowls. Those teams were built on defense, they could run the ball and then you added Brady’s passing and competitiveness as the finishing component. I consider Tom Brady to be the best quarterback of my lifetime, but this is the latest evidence that quarterbacks can’t carry teams to Super Bowl trophies, they need a running game and a defense. Other Patriot teams of recent years have been more spectacular, but this one is starting look in the mold of a champion.
- *Brady’s numbers on Saturday night were pedestrian—13/25 for 198 yards, but it seemed that most every time New England needed a big completion, he rifled one in. He had a perfect play-action pass for 53 yards when the Colts had cut the lead to 21-15, had the momentum and pinned the Patriots to their own 10-yard line. You can see the problems with New England’s receivers—unless it was play action you never really saw them get open, but their legendary quarterback found them on the plays it mattered most.
- *One area New England must clean up this week is the pass protection. The problems at receiver are bad enough, but Brady was consistently harassed by the Colts’ pass rush, which got ten QB hits. Whether it’s Denver or San Diego in the AFC Championship Game, the Pats won’t have to deal with someone like Mathis, and they have to get Brady more time.
- *Patriot corner Aqib Talib is showing himself to be one of the game’s top cover corners. He took out Indy receiver T.Y. Hilton virtually singlehandedly. Hilton got pretty good numbers—four catches for 103 yards, but other than one misread, where Talib let Hilton get behind him for a long gain, the Patriot corner was in control of the situation. It vindicates NBC studio analyst Rodney Harrison who ripped Kansas City last week for not just taking away Hilton and daring the rest of the receivers to beat them. Indy tight end Coby Fleener had a nice night, but it was never going to be enough.