Five to Watch: Patriots at Colts

RB Donald Brown (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

There is not a more anticipated regular-season game in the NFL than the matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots. For the last decade, these games have helped decide the landscape of the playoffs in the AFC, and have developed into one of the biggest rivalries in league history.

This game pits arguably the two best quarterbacks in the NFL against one another, an east-coast team coached by a man who speaks very little and seems focused intently on winning, against a team which seems to place more emphasis on the social impacts of its players and winning the right way. One team is built almost entirely from within (and is very young) while the other has historically relied upon more learned, veteran leadership.

Ultimately, each time these teams meet and their key players have been healthy, it is a matchup between two of the very best teams in the NFL.

The following players will play important roles in this highly anticipated contest:

1. DE Dwight Freeney: Dwight Freeney is having a career year, making at least one sack in every regular season game this season. As has always been the case, a strong pass rush from the front four is key to the effectiveness of the Indianapolis defense.

Freeney will be lining up across rookie Sebastian Vollmer or veteran Matt Light, who is listed as questionable on New England's injury report. If he is able to keep pressure on Brady, he can limit the long-ball threat Randy Moss poses to the Colts secondary. Additionally, he can extend his current streak of nine straight games with a sack to 10, tying the all-time record.

The more the Colts can rattle Brady and keep him from stepping up into his throws, the more difficult it will be for the Patriots' offense to get rolling. Indy's pass rush always starts with the success or failure of its ends, so Freeney will have to lead the way.

2. CB Jacob Lacey: Undrafted rookie cornerback Jacob Lacey will be asked to start again, this time facing weapons like Randy Moss and Wes Welker, who happen to catch passes from Tom Brady. Lacey spends much of his time on the defensive left side of the field, which is often across from where Moss lines up for the Patriots.

This will be the biggest matchup of Lacey's short career and his work against Moss may well determine the outcome of the game. If he allows Moss to beat him deep, get over the top of him even a little, he will likely surrender a long pass (similar to the one to Jacoby Jones last week). If he can use his speed and fresh legs to keep Moss in front of him, he could help keep one of the Patriots biggest offensive weapons at bay.

Even more challenging is that the Patriots are not afraid of moving their formation around to exploit mismatches. This means that, should Brady and the Patriots like how Welker matches up better against Lacey, they may well bring Welker out of the slot and line him up across the rookie corner and try to abuse his lack of experience.

3. DT Eric Foster: Eric Foster has been developing into one of the Colts' best penetrating interior defensive linemen. If he can take advantage of a New England offensive line which will be placing much of its focus on Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis on the outside, he could apply pressure directly in Brady's face. This kind of pressure is not overly familiar to Brady, particularly from the Colts, and could help throw him off of his game.

Getting penetration will also help the linebackers fill running lanes or potentially breakthrough in blitz packages, generating another kind of pressure Brady and the Patriots are unfamiliar with from the Colts. While he may not start, or even play a majority of the snaps, his effectiveness while in the game may help set a disturbing tone for the Patriots offense.

4. RB Donald Brown: Donald Brown has participated fully in practice and will likely return to the Colts lineup on Sunday. This could have a profound impact on the Colts; offensive game-planning, as Brown is a weapon the Patriots have yet to see.

In fact, Brown is a weapon that few in the league have fully recognized and was just coming into his own against St. Louis when he suffered a shoulder contusion that has seen him miss the last two weeks.

While Joseph Addai played a solid football game against the Texans a week ago, including two touchdowns, and was effective both on the ground and in the air, he could use a counterpart in the backfield that brings more threat than back-up Chad Simpson.

Donald Brown may be that complement and his hard-nosed, downfield, quick cutting running style may keep the New England defense honest enough to allow Manning and Co. to move the football.

5. Colts' offensive line: While one of the keys to the game for the Colts' defense will be getting pressure on Tom Brady, one of the keys from the Colts offensive line has to be keeping pressure off of Peyton Manning. Over the last two games, the line has allowed five sacks, while allowing only two sacks in the six games prior.

Matching up against Vince Wilfork will be no easy assignment for any of the Colts offensive linemen and could help determine whether Manning stays upright, with a clear view of the field, and the ability to pick his spots as the offense moves down the field. If pressure does become an issue, Manning will be forced to release sooner, make quicker decisions, and the field will be shorter.

This is also where the running game, and inclusion of Donald Brown, could have a big impact. If the Patriots wish to sell-out for pressure, the Colts must find a way to establish a running game and punish them for gambling.

The offensive line, one way or another, will play a key part in allowing these things to happen and must find a way to be effective if the Colts hope to keep their winning streak alive.


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