Pats at Colts.

Keys to the game, mountain time edition.

Reruns (No. 18)

The Patriots get another chance to personally remind Colts' wide receiver Ricky Proehl of his prophetic birth announcement (unfortantely unspecific) for a dynasty moments before the kickoff of Superbowl XXXVI in 2001. (He once played for the Rams and then two years later for the Panthers.) To do it, they'll need to make this game feel like a rerun for the Colts, most particularly for #18, Payton Manning. The Pats know he's capable of greatness, but also capable of melting down in dramatic fashion and passing the game directly to the opposition.

To accomplish this, the Patriots will need to do the following:

Find money in their pocket

At his press conference on Wednesday, Brady addressed the media in a medium gray suit. Putting his hands in the pants he exclaimed, "I just found money in my pocket!" He pulled up a twenty dollar bill. It's a great example of the luck fabrication that the Patriots have executed under Belichick. They play the game with the right kind of emotion and would seem to invest the right way in practice and gameplan to enjoy dividends on the field.

Brady's apparently carefree perspective on the game is a huge advantage. Emotion will be a powerful force in this game, and it's one category where I think the Pats have an obvious advantage. The Patriots have been here before, won here before, moved on to the Superbowl before. The emotion fueling them has to be the nearness of a win that will escalate the team and their coach even higher in the rankings of all-time great teams. This is a fuel we've seen burn brightly before, most certainly during their statistically unprecedented defeat of the league's best offense and best defense in successive weeks in 2004.

For the Colts, the emotion is a less predictable thing. No doubt they'll be confident, but the Patriots can to take away the Colts' hard-earned homefield calm. If the Pats can radiate doubt early in the game, they'll benefit mightily with a quieter crowd and louder voices in #18 head.

This means scoring first. Then it means scoring off a Manning pass early. To do that, Asante Samuel or Ellis Hobbs will need to win the battle on the outside against Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne and score off an errant pass. It will be interesting to see how much Belichick gambles to pick up passes by pressing these receivers.

Keep an open playbook

When Belichick has had the pleasure of a rematch following a loss in the same season, the Patriots are 7-1 (since 2001). In that same period, the Pats only lost the rematch to the same team in a season once: to the Denver Broncos last year.

So Belichick doesn't often lose twice. Why? He's a quantitative coach on Mondays and Tuesdays when players have days off and the staff is running film, reading scouting reports and evaluating matchups. When evaluating a playoff contender, he has sixteen more games to assess. It's a huge corpus of information for his staff to comb through for threads that can be woven into an unexpected and impactful gameplan. When Belichick has a loss against that team to work from, he seems to have even more raw data to crunch.

When the Pats faced Indianapolis earlier in the year, the playbook was curiously narrow; screen passes and slant routes were almost never used. Belichick needs to use these—perhaps October can show him how best to do so.

Let Brady be himself

When Brady is uncharacteristic ally inefficient in one game, he's predictably better in the next. In all the games Brady has played in the pros, he's bounced back from games where he's thrown two or more interceptions.

In his career, his quarterback rating increased an average of 63% (and increased all but three times). This is statistically significant. For comparison purposes, when Payton Manning has performed similarly (almost the same number of instances as Brady) his quarterback rating decreases by 6%.

Brady has history behind him in rising to the occasion as an underdog in a hostile stadium. If Brady is consistent—he doesn't have to be stellar—the Pats have a good shot.

Score on Defense

The way the Patriots exited the playoffs last year illustrates the importance of interceptions--especially when the games are between teams executing at a high level.

Interceptions by Brady are a strong bellweather:

Record by Brady interceptions, since 2001.
48-8no picks.
25-6one pick.
8-5two picks.
1-2three picks.
0-5four picks.

So Brady can't afford more than one pick on Sunday. He lofted four against Indy in their last meeting. Two were freak tips that had more to do with Brady's inexperienced receiving core than Tom's arm. After the last pick, Payton connected with Harrison in a pained, low-percentage feat of acrobatics to score the game winning touchdown.

As they did in October, the Pats will likely blitz the middle to neutralize power runs and pressure Manning. This should produce bad throws. That occurred regularly in their last meeting. But Manning bad passes were still soaked up by the acrobatics of Harrison, Wayne, and Proehl. Further, Manning was uncharacteristically mobile, escaping several near-sacks and connecting with check-down receivers late in plays.

I didn't see that loss as a huge endorsement of Indianapolis. It was a close game until the second half of the fourth quarter and the game's fulcrum was Marvin Harrison's amazing play. Getting one or two picks on Manning will cover the seven point difference in October.

Posted January 19, 2007.