INDIANAPOLIS – The lone player ruled OUT for Sunday's AFC Championship game, on either team, is Patriots center Bryan Stork.
New England concluded their practice for the week on Friday and met the media one final time.
Here's Bill Belichick and Patriots players talking with the media on Friday:
PATRIOTS HEAD COACH BILL BELCHICKQ: What kind of impact has Chuck Pagano brought to that secondary? He had a reputation for reviving the secondary in Baltimore. Have you seen that from him in Indianapolis?
BB: I'd say they pretty much do what they do. They have a variety of things in their scheme. They do all of them. They play some press coverage. They play off coverage. They play single high. They play split safety. They pressure; they pressure quite a bit – sometimes pressure man, pressure zone. They have a variety of things and they do that to keep you off balance. You're not going to get all one coverage or one technique or all one anything.
Q: Is it similar to what he did when he was in Baltimore?
BB: I'd say there is definitely a foundation there. There's carryover, too.
Q: Can you talk about the progression the Colts have had in the postseason since Pagano has been there? How difficult is that to accomplish?
BB: Right now, none of that really matters to me, so I don't really care what somebody did last year, two years ago, five years ago. I don't really care. We're just trying to get ready for this game. That's all. It's a one-game season. Whatever did or didn't happen in some other game or some other season, it is what it is.
Q: How much does the Colts success with field position and special teams impact this game?
BB: It's huge. The Colts do a great job of it. They're one of the best kickoff teams in the league. They get a lot of touchbacks. They cover well. They're a good kickoff return team and I think they've gotten better with [Josh] Cribbs. He's really good at that. [Pat] McAfee can control the field position with the punting game, which he did in our game. They averaged over 50 yards net punt. And Cribbs can make plays in the return game, too. And they have a great field goal kicker. Their specialists are good. Their special teams are good. They control field position. They make big plays. They cover well. They do a real good job. It'll be a big challenge for us.
Q: How much has Andrew Luck developed this season?
BB: He's been good. He was good. He is good. He does everything well.
Q: Chuck Pagano said that if they aren't able to stop the run, they'll be in for a long, hard day. Since you had success running the ball against them, we haven't seen much from the running game. Do you go back to what worked in the first game?
BB: We'll do what we think is best, same thing we do every week. We'll do what we think is best.
Q: You have twice as many players who have played at this stage compared to the Colts. How much of a factor will that be?
Q: Why is that?
BB: I think it'll be the team that plays the best. I don't think it's about how many All-Pros or how many playoff games or anything. I don't think it has anything to do with it. I've been on plenty of teams that didn't have any experience and won. We can go through the league and find just as many examples of that. So, zero.
Q: Jonas Gray played really well against the Colts in Week 11. What's changed since then?
BB: I'd say not much. Jonas was injured in the Jets game, missed a couple weeks, but I'd say not a lot's changed.
Q: They're using more check-downs now. Does that make Andrew Luck more able to play within himself, or has he gotten better?
BB: I don't really think they've changed their offense. I think it just comes down to decision making. I think Luck does a good job of getting the ball to the open guy, does a good job taking advantage of what the defense gives him. You've got guys open down the field, he's not throwing check downs, I'll tell you that right now. If anybody thinks that, I can't imagine what games they watch. He's not just throwing it to the check-down guy because that's a primary receiver. He throws it because the rest of the patterns are covered. If it's not covered, then that ball is going down the field to the receivers who are open. That's what a quarterback's job is.
Q: Are they a team that substitutes a lot during a drive, from what you've seen?
BB: They do it. They do it. Sometimes they leave guys out there, but there's a lot of substitution. They mix the personnel groups up. They basically have four receivers. Any three of them can be out there really at any time. I would say there's a lot of [T.Y.] Hilton, but the other guys, it could be [Donte] Moncrief, [Hakeem] Nicks, [Reggie] Wayne, they move them around. They've got three tight ends, they all play, and they play their backs. I don't think you can count on anything. You can't count on who's going to be out there, you can't count on who's not going to be out there. Sometimes they play at a tempo and play fast and keep the same guys out there. Most of the time they don't, but I don't think you can count on either one of those, either. You might get a no-huddle series or a no-huddle game where they're playing at a faster tempo, and you might not. But that's the way it always is on defense, you can never control who they're going to put out there. All you can do is defend what they give you. If you're on defense, if they want to play fast they can play fast. If they want to play slow, they can play slow. If they want to put four tight ends out there, then there are four tight ends out there. If they want to put four receivers out there, then you've got to defend four receivers. That's what playing defense is. You have to defend what they give you. You can't control it. Offensively, you control all those things. You control who's out there, you can control who gets the ball and who doesn't get it. They're the reverse of each other.
PATRIOTS LB DONT'A HIGHTOWERQ: What kind of challenge does a Bill Belichick defense have on a young quarterback like Andrew Luck?
DH: I feel like with this defense that we've had this year, I feel like we've used a lot of versatility and coach Belichick has always said the more you can do the better. I definitely feel like this year, on the defensive side of the ball, we've been able to use a lot of guy's versatility, whether it's me and Jamie [Collins] rushing up the middle or outside, or having [Rob] Ninkovich or Akeem [Ayers] or Chandler [Jones] drop out and give the quarterback a different look, as far as zone coverages and man coverages. And then, as well as having Patrick Chung come down and play like a linebacker and do the things he does and that he's been doing really well. I definitely feel like we're able to show different approaches and different things as opposed to some teams that lack versatility.
Q: How have the Colts changed since you saw them the first time around?
DH: I just feel like the game management is a lot better. Luck makes a lot of big plays and some things that he was trying to do is not make those mistakes, try to make a bigger play. I definitely feel like he's more comfortable now with the running back and the run-game situation. He trusts those guys, dumping the ball off and shorter down and distance and letting those guys get 20 or 30 yards. I definitely feel like Luck has really been the key as far as how well they've been playing lately on offense.
PATRIOTS DB DEVIN MCCOURTYQ: You've been a part of a lot of these Colts-Patriots match-ups. Do you consider this a rivalry in the NFL?
DM: Yeah – I think so. I think anytime that you get a team, two teams, that have won their division a good amount of times so they match up and play each other every year, in the regular season and playing each other in the playoffs, you just see each other a lot and it's usually good games and it's important games. I think that's really how rivalries are started: playing key big games. Like you said, it's no secret the Colts and Patriots have played in a lot of big ones.Q: Do you still associate Peyton Manning with any part of the Colts?
DM: I think for me obviously growing up watching, but as far as playing I've played [Andrew] Luck as a Colt more than I've played Peyton as a Colt. I really think of it as Luck's team, but growing up I definitely remember the things Peyton did in Indy.Q: To have beaten the Colts as soundly as you did twice in the 2014 calendar year, what makes them dangerous this time?
DM: I think when you go and you watch every game you can easily look at the score and see certain things. I think as football players and with our coaches when you dissect the game you see that there are certain points that usually result in what the score is. If it goes another way it can totally change the outcome of the game. I think in all of the games we've watched there are moments and there are plays that the game has turned in our favor, but it can easily go the other way. When you've got a team as dangerous as they are, as far as offensively with so many great skill players and a great quarterback, you realize that on any given day this game – it could be that game – where that goes the other way. So you've always got to be prepared.Q: You've played many mobile quarterbacks, but with Andrew Luck it seems like when he takes off to run it seems like his eyes are still downfield. What kind of challenges does that present for the defense?
DM: It's huge – for him, he's so good in the pocket that you want to keep him there, but at the same [time] he can still hurt you, but then you realize when he gets outside of the pocket he's even more dangerous because he can run. And then with his arm strength, he can throw over the top of the defense. Against Cincinnati the throw he made to [Donte] Moncrief running, he was actually kind of running through a tackle too as he threw the ball, and it was a perfect pass. I think you realize, especially in the secondary, how much harder it is to cover a guy when the play extends. We already know that and then when you've got a guy that can get the ball there perfectly it almost makes it impossible in some situations, like that throw I don't know if Cincinnati could have covered it better. It was just a great throw and catch.
Q: You've played a lot of man to man defense this year, what are the biggest challenges going up against a team like the Colts who have a lot of different weapons and have the ability to substitute in and out? How does that make it difficult?
DM: The simple answer is just covering everybody. When you're playing man, it comes down not just one guy but everybody covering their guy and doing a good job. Then it comes down to the guys up front rushing the passer. Like you said, it's hard because they have a lot of good players, they have a lot of good weapons and it's a constant rotation. You don't really know – if it's three wider receivers in, you don't know what three are going to be in. You don't know where they're going to be all the time. That makes it a little harder as far as trying to know exactly how you want to play every guy in every situation. You can't. Reggie Wayne will be inside, he'll be outside; TY Hilton will be inside or outside, Moncrief, [Hakeem] Nicks – all of those guys will be in the game. The challenge is covering them, trying to stay with them, trying to make it hard and make Luck throw into the tightest window possible.
PATRIOTS RB SHANE VEREENQ: What improvements have you seen from the Colts run defense since you've last played them?
SV: Just in the playoffs alone they've done a great job against both Cincinnati and Denver as far as stopping the run game. Just being more of a presence up front – I think the defensive line has gotten better; I think their backers are playing a lot better. I think as a whole their defense is a lot different. It's a different defense than what we saw earlier this season.Q: Do you think having been there before gives you a level of comfort that maybe the Colts don't have?
SV: I think it can play to our advantage as long as we play too it, as long as we play well – if we go out there and lay an egg then it's really null and void. It really doesn't matter if we've been here before or not. Each year is something different. Each team each year is a different animal, a different beast. We have our hands full this Sunday.
Q: Where you at Cal when Andrew Luck was at Stanford?
SV: I was. [I] played against him.
Q: Did you meet him?
SV: On the field a little bit – yeah. I'm impressed. It's hard not to be impressed. He's done well ever since he stepped foot in this league. He was a lot to handle for us in college as well – we got lucky a couple of times. Other than that, it is what it is. His play speaks for itself.
Q: They say that he compliments guys that tackle or sack him? Have you heard that dating back to your days at Cal?
SV: No – I can't so. I mean it's a huge rivalry. We didn't really like Andrew Luck too much back in college, so I'm not too sure. No, I can't say that.
LINEBACKER AKEEM AYERS(On the improvement of Andrew Luck and the challenge he presents the defense)
"He's made huge improvements. They've gotten different guys on the offensive side of the ball, their running game's picked up; I think that helps out a lot and as far as the running back catching passes out of the backfield, I think that was huge for them, too. I think he's playing better than he played before and it's just showed these past two weeks."
(On Andrew Luck's size and the challenge that presents)
"As far as guys trying to tackle him, bring him down, he makes a lot of guys miss as far as when they're coming in for sacks and those turn into big plays because he's able to shake defenders off and use his legs to get big passes down the field, so it's definitely a challenge for guys rushing him to make sure that you wrap him up and you get a good tackle on him."OFFENSIVE LINEMAN DAN CONNOLLY(On how the Colts have evolved over the past two months)
"They're playing well right now. They've obviously won the last two games and they're big wins for the team. They've got guys who were injured and are healthy and back like Arthur Jones. He adds some good size on that line."
(On whether they expect the Colts to blitz regularly)
"Yeah, I would expect that. They've shown a lot of pressures and different combinations and things like that, so I would expect that they probably will give us something."
(On whether the team plans to attack the Colts on the ground like they did in the last game)
"For us, I'm not going to discuss our scheme, but they are definitely going to prepare for us for what we did last time and we've got to prepare for what they've been doing and what they've been successful with, so it will take a lot of preparation this week."
RUNNING BACK JONAS GRAY(On if the Colts' defense is playing their best this time of the year)
"I think they're playing with a lot of momentum. I think they are playing their best football. I think they have a few guys in a few key areas [in] LaRon Landry and Arthur Jones, getting him back. They're doing a good job of just tackling the ball, doing a good job of getting a lot of hats to the ball and playing with a lot of confidence. This by far will be the best defense we've played all year."
TIGHT END MICHAEL HOOMANAWANUI(On what he's seen from their defense)
"Very improved. They've gotten some guys back on defense that are a big part of it. We have to be ready for them. They've gotten a lot better."
(On how different this Colts team is than when they first played them this year)
"They've been playing really well. They beat two good teams in the playoffs."
DEFENSIVE END ROB NINKOVICH(On if he's amazed at how quickly they were able to transition from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck and make it back to this level so quickly)
"They have a really talented quarterback. He can do a lot of great things out there. They've had tremendous quarterbacks under center for a long time now."
(On if he sees any similarities with Baltimore and their play-action and Daniel Herron)
"There's a lot of things that they're successful at, so again, we all have to do our jobs very well. And again, a really good football team. They run the ball well and they can get the ball down the field with a lot of different weapons on the field."
(On some of the challenges that Coby Fleener presents)
"Again, a big, tall guy. He can get down the field and he can go up and make some plays. Again, everyone has to do their job and he's a good football player and a big target."
(On if it gives the team an edge to have players with AFC Championship game experience)
"Obviously I've been there a few times and it's all about playing well. You can have a lot of experience but if you don't play well it doesn't mean anything. It's all about hitting the reset button and playing a good football game come Sunday."