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5 Things To Watch: Colts vs. Patriots, Week 15

It's here: One of the biggest games at Lucas Oil Stadium in recent memory. Get inside this week's Colts-Patriots matchup with a look at the chess match between Frank Reich and Bill Belichick, the challenge for the Colts' defense against Mac Jones and a few players who could be X-Factors on Saturday night. 

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1. Setting the stage for Saturday night.

Since Week 4, no team has scored more points on offense than the Colts (228)...and no team has allowed fewer points on defense than the Patriots (96).

Those are the two of the forces that'll collide at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night.

A few other things to know ahead of one of the most fascinating matchups of this NFL season:

  • Per NFL Research, Jonathan Taylor's league-leading 1,348 rushing yards are the third most a player has had entering a game against Bill Belichick's Patriots. Saturday will be the 21st time Belichick's defense has faced a player with 1,000 rushing yards entering a game; in those previous 20 games, New England is 18-2 and has allowed those backs to gain an average of just 72.5 yards per game.
  • Saturday's game will be the first Colts-Patriots game since 1997 to not have either Peyton Manning or Tom Brady starting at quarterback.
  • The Patriots have allowed fewer than 14 points in five consecutive games.
  • The Colts have scored 30 or more points in seven of their last eight games.

2. The Frank Reich vs. Bill Belichick chess match.

The Colts – like every team in the NFL – knows what Bill Belichick's goal is: If you fight right-handed, he'll make you beat his team left-handed.

"I remember Belichick always used to say, they're going to have to beat us left-handed," longtime Patriots and Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri said on this week's Colts Official Podcast. "So I'm going to take your best players away and I you can find a way to still beat us, well, great."

The assumption, then, would be Belichick will try to take away the thing the Colts have had the most success with in 2021, which is handing the ball off to Taylor – who leads the NFL in rushing by a wide margin (he has 312 more yards than Joe Mixon, who's second in rushing).

"Really one of the top backs in the league, if not the top back," Belichick said in a video on Patriots.com this week. "He's having a great year. He's going to be a problem to stop."

But what does playing left-handed look like for the Colts' offense? Is it leaning on Carson Wentz to attack the Patriots through the air? Is it giving Nyheim Hines more touches? Is it finding different ways to get Taylor the ball?

Or could the Colts – with one of the best offenses in the NFL – still be able to play right-handed?

"I think it's a combination of always having your core stuff ready – having some things in our back pocket, knowing the different ways that he might try to attack us," head coach Frank Reich said. "That's unpredictable to some extent. It probably is helpful to us that it is later in the year so that we have a lot of accumulated reps on offense so if we need to make adjustments in the course of a game, we can go to things that we've run and have a lot of accumulated reps on."

The Colts do have 13 games of figuring out what run and pass concepts work against certain coverage looks, which should help Reich, Wentz, Taylor, etc. find answers throughout the game. But just because there's an answer in the first quarter doesn't necessarily mean that'll still work in the fourth quarter. Saturday night is shaping up to be a full-on, 60-minute slugfest.

And it's one the Colts feel well-prepared for. Remember: It's not just the Patriots that are playing well coming into this game. The Colts are, too.

"You have to be willing to consider, what are you going to do to adapt to the way they're going to play you," Reich said. "That's a big, philosophical question that you have to ask at the beginning of the week, and to what extend are you willing to change certain things. And like most times, it's we're going to change some but we're not going to change everything. We're going to mix it up, we're going to do whatever it takes. We believe we have the players that can do that and can compete on all levels. So that's the give and take during the week."

3. Can Colts' defense stop the run – and get to Mac Jones?

Let's not forget about the chess match between Matt Eberflus and Josh McDaniels (which, of course, has its own interesting – though not relevant to this game – backstory).

While the Patriots will be without leading rusher Damien Harris (hamstring), New England's offense is more than willing to lean on 227-pound rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson, who over the last four games had more carries and yards than Harris anyways. And veteran Brandon Bolden already has more yards from scrimmage in 2021 than he's had in any of his nine seasons in the NFL.

So stopping the run will be a priority for the Colts' defense, which has built itself on muting opponents' success on the ground but has allowed over 140 rushing yards in two of its last four games.

"We need to focus on playing our technique, playing fundamentals and I think that's really across the board with D-line, linebackers and the secondary," Eberflus said. "So, we just have to keep working at it and paying attention to detail as we work through this week and then going forward because it's going to be important. It's going to be important for all of us to be able to play the run the correct way."

Then there's rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who's threw three passes in the Patriots' Week 13 win over the Buffalo Bills – but don't expect a similar gameplan this week indoors at Lucas Oil Stadium.

During the Patriots' seven-game winning streak, Jones is averaging 8.1 yards per attempt, completing 69 percent of his passes, has a passer rating of 106.1 and only has two interceptions against nine touchdowns. Per NFL Research, he leads all quarterbacks in completion percentage on play-action passes (just under 80 percent) and a shade under 10 yards per attempt on those throws.

Jones' passer rating drops to 90.7 on straight drop-backs without play action, but like everything else with the Patriots, he's been trending up over the last month and a half. He hasn't been under pressure on more than 10 dropbacks in a game since Week 4, too.

So while, yes, Jones is a rookie quarterback – he's hardly playing like one, especially as of late.

4. Which players step up on the NFL's biggest stage?

With Browns-Raiders moved from Saturday to Monday, Colts-Patriots will be the only NFL game played on Saturday. The stage is set not only for players like Taylor, Wentz, Darius Leonard and Kenny Moore II, but for quite literally anyone else on this roster to step up and make big-time plays in primetime.

And that's where a roster – especially on offense – built around a collective goal and spreading the ball around can come in handy. Maybe Saturday will be Taylor's time to shine. Maybe it'll be Michael Pittman's. Maybe it'll be Jack Doyle or Nyheim Hines or T.Y. Hilton stepping up. But whoever's turn it is, the Colts have confidence in any and all of their playmakers on offense.

"We go into the game thinking we're going to spread the ball around to start," Reich said. "So, this game will be no different. The great thing about a guy for instance like Michael Pittman Jr. or T.Y., they are unselfish players. JT, unselfish player. Nyheim Hines, unselfish player. I mean our guys want to put themselves in position to make plays, trusting that we'll call the right play, we will mix up the calls and Carson will read the progressions and the ball will go where it's supposed to and we make the plays that are there for us."

5. Home field advantage can help the Colts.

In asking a few folks who've been around Indianapolis longer than me about the biggest Colts game at Lucas Oil Stadium in recent memory, most pointed to Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis with the Denver Broncos in 2013. But this game on Saturday against the Patriots will come with plenty of buzz given the opponent and the implications.

And a sold-out, juiced-up crowd on Saturday can have a positive impact on the Colts in this massive, massive game.

"Having that loud atmosphere when it's third down for the other team or a big play happens, you just love that emotion and that excitement in the stadium and being able to feed off that, or quite frankly it makes it tough on a quarterback if they can't make their calls and stuff," Vinatieri said. "It's still 11 on 11, it always has been, it always will be. But having that home field advantage when they're loud, and the key is the Colts have to play well enough to keep the crowd fired up. Everybody always talks about, you know, take the crowd out of the game by making plays — well, we have to make plays to keep the crowd excited the whole game and if they can do that, yeah, that's a huge advantage, it makes a big difference in my mind."

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