INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis has moved beyond the Wild Card round for the first time since 2009 and only has three players active from when that occurred.
Last week's 45-44 home victory over Kansas City came after a 28-point deficit and with a minus-three turnover ratio, a prescription that could spell doom this Saturday if occurring.
In 2013, Indianapolis was smart with 14 turnovers and 66 penalties, and it will take proficiency in all phases to get past a New England team that has progressed to the AFC title game the last two years.
The Colts will meet the third-winningest head coach, Bill Belichick (18), and the quarterback with the most playoff starting wins, Tom Brady (17), a duo whose regular-season .775 winning percentage (148-43) is the best in the Super Bowl era.
The winner of the three previous Colts-Patriots playoff games (2003, 2004, 2006 regular seasons) has gone on to win the Super Bowl.
Winning is the quest for the Colts. It's do-or-die on Saturday, and here are SEVEN VICTORY KEYS:
RUSHING SUCCESS TO INFLUENCE TEMPO – New England has punishing running backs in Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and Shane Vereen. Ridley (773 yards, 7 TDs) and Blount (772, 7 TDs) represent one of the NFL's two tandems topping 700 rushing yards, and the club's 129.1 average is something Indianapolis must control. Kansas City ran for 150 yards last week, marking the third time in the last five games opponents have gone for 150-plus. Even though Indianapolis is 6-3 when allowing 140-plus yards, the go-home nature of the playoffs begs for a solid defensive showing. The Colts must absorb the body blows, and even allowing New England to run to third-and-short situations will hurt because that leads to Tom Brady (and key number two).
TOM TERRIFIC – There is nothing Tom Brady hasn't seen in having 165 starting wins in 215 overall games. With three SB titles and two MVPs, Brady has toyed with defenses with precision. Indianapolis must disguise looks in blitzes and coverages effectively over 60 minutes. Brady has led 41 career game-winning performances from fourth-quarter ties or deficits, including five in 2013. His cast has rotated over the years, but not his effectiveness. Brady has pulled late comebacks four times in the divisional round and three times in Super Bowls. The Colts must be technique and fundamental sound after struggling for 33 minutes last week with Alex Smith and the Chiefs. Note: New England scored 40 percent of its points (178-of-444) in the fourth quarter this year.
SLOT PRODUCTION –** While Brady has tasted success all over the field since 2001, he has feasted on production out of the slot. Wes Welker produced a Hall-of-Fame candidacy career with 672 receptions, 7,459 yards and 37 TDs largely from the slot in six seasons, including 4,000-plus yards after the catch. Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman have found success there at times, too, and Edelman and Welker combined for 13 receptions for 138 yards and a score against Indianapolis in 2012. With alignments and motion, the Patriots are deadly in getting players into routes without being impeded. Indianapolis needs to place pertinent speed bumps in this area.
VILLAGE APPROACH – Prevailing thought is New England will try to neutralize Robert Mathis and T.Y. Hilton. The Patriots cannot chance those two wrecking a game like they did last week when Hilton's 13 receptions, 224 yards and long scoring reception capped a 28-point comeback that included a huge strip-sack by Mathis. Production from receivers beyond Hilton is a must, though he is versed in every phase of the receivers' sets and should have some chances. Moving Mathis around could be a tactic but regardless of how they perform, getting contributions elsewhere could be an indicator of outcome.
NEVER FLINCH –** Players have said they have learned it from Pagano, their leader. An even-keeled, don't-quit nature has led to 23 wins in 34 games under his command. Like most road venues, there will be storms to weather. Poise is key, as is shaking off adversity. Those have been strong points in a number of regular season wins and in erasing the NFL's second-largest playoff deficit last week. If anything beyond equipment is packed, poise needs to be it. New England is 91-18 overall at home since 2002.
DON'T BEAT YOURSELF – Indianapolis allowed 17 points off turnovers and was minus-three in turnover ratio last week. Since 2000, the club had lost 17 straight regular-season games with a ratio of minus-three or worse. The Colts were plus-seven in the last three games and were very fortunate to advance with that level of play. "You can't turn the ball over, can't make mistakes, can't have mental errors, foolish penalties. You can't give up big plays. You have to do all (those) things offensively to them," said Pagano. New England has had a plus ratio for eight straight seasons (12-of-14 under Belichick), and its plus-nine this year is second behind the Colts' plus-13 among surviving AFC playoff teams. In the last 16 years, the Colts have won at a .912 clip in the regular season with a plus ratio, and they had seven turnover-free games in 2013, the most in a year during that span. Winning turnovers usually wins games. It's a truism, not a manipulated statistic.
30-FOR-30 – The Colts are 13-0 under Pagano (6-0 this year) when rushing 30 or more times, the only team to be undefeated with that number over the last two seasons. New England is 17-1, the NFL's second-best record (9-0 this year). The Colts are 7-1 this year with 30-plus minutes possession. While reaching a specific statistic cannot guarantee a win, a team achieving these two usually means the flow of the game is going its way. If the Colts get near these numbers, they've probably run effectively, had the lead or never trailed measurably, avoided turnovers and converted third downs. Given possible rain and expected temperatures in the 40s, the winning team could have the 30-for-30 blend.
QUOTE TO NOTE(Robert Mathis on if this year has been a success with one playoff win)
"New York. Anything less is not the goal, that wasn't in the plan. New York was the plan, so we have to do what we can to get there."