Finding the right 11 is a battle that both the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts will face in the AFC Championship Game.
“I think in this league, it’s pretty hard not to get mismatched somewhere along the line,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in his news conference Friday. “You’ve got to deal with some matchups, and if you can live with those matchups or you can somehow neutralize them, then great. Then you can do that. If you can’t, then somewhere along the line you’re probably going to have to substitute and change the matchup.”
Those personnel approaches were visible when the two sides last met, as New England turned to six offensive linemen and limited the deep half of the field in a 42-20 victory. And some key players within them will be visible again this Sunday.
Here is a look into six matchups heading into the 6:40 p.m. kickoff at Gillette Stadium.
Hilton vs. Arrington: In Week 11, Colts slot receiver T.Y. Hilton arrived at Lucas Oil Stadium with 56 catches for 937 yards on the season. He left it with a season-low three catches for 24 yards, as the Patriots’ secondary sent cornerback Kyle Arrington against him for 31 pass plays. Arrington went on to allow only one reception for 13 yards on four targets against Hilton, while fellow corners Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner allowed two receptions for 11 yards on three targets. But the way New England manned its fastest defensive back opposite Indianapolis’ fastest wideout resonated, as did the way the safeties and linebackers chipped in overhead and over the middle. The 5-foot-9, 178-pound seam threat was limited to catches on a flat route, a dig route and a screen in the November meeting.
Fleener vs. Browner: New England elected to cover Indianapolis tight end Coby Fleener with the 6-foot-4, 221-pound Browner two months ago. Five catches for 118 yards were netted from those encounters, while two more catches for 26 yards were netted versus linebacker Jamie Collins. But it was part of the bigger picture for the Patriots, as Fleener’s career-high 144 yards came at the expense of Hilton. Tight end Dwayne Allen left that game with an ankle injury, however, and he could prove pivotal down in the red zone against the likes of Collins and safety Patrick Chung this time. The Patriots conceded over 1,000 yards and six touchdowns to tight ends during the regular season; Colts quarterback Andrew Luck amassed 1,287 and 18 to his.
Castonzo vs. Jones: Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo caught a touchdown pass against the Patriots in Week 11, yet he also blocked. And he’ll have to do the latter versus Chandler Jones on Sunday. The Patriots right defensive end did not play in that last outing, but Akeem Ayers did. The former Tennessee Titan hurried Luck by way of Castonzo four times, according to Pro Football Focus.
Herron vs. Patriots Linebackers: Behind Luck is a backfield far different than the one New England held to four yards on 13 carries. It is Daniel ‘Boom’ Herron’s. The third-year running back out of Ohio State, who did not take a single handoff against the Patriots earlier this season, has collected 119 yards rushing, 117 yards receiving and two touchdowns for the Colts this postseason. The 5-foot-10, 212-pounder’s burst, power and versatility have been realized both inside and out. And his emergence will call upon Collins and Hightower from the second level to meet him in the first.
Redding vs. Kline: With Bryan Stork ruled out for Sunday’s game due to a knee injury suffered in the divisional round, the Patriots will have to reshuffle the deck up front. Right guard Ryan Wendell moved back to center when Stork exited, while second-year pro Josh Kline stepped in. Should Kline step in once again, he and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer will be going against a 12-year vet in Cory Redding. Redding has manned primarily the left defensive end spot in Indianapolis’ 3-4 defense, recording 35 tackles and 3.5 sacks on the season. But is the manner in which he uses his 6-foot-4, 318-pound frame to leverage tackles and guards that stands apart more than numbers. Redding’s ability to set the edge from the five- and four-technique spots has made him a problem. And when the Patriots go to the power run, that will make him Kline’s problem.
Colts Safeties vs. Gronkowski: Rob Gronkowski powered through five Colts defenders on the way to a 26-yard touchdown plunge in the fourth quarter of Week 11. And if the Colts allow the tight end to work east and west against linebackers, he’ll be able to work north and south against safeties. Gronkowski did so to the tune of four catches and 71 yards last time, yet he also was the intended target of an interception from quarterback Tom Brady late in the first half. Indianapolis may very well double the 6-foot-6, 265-pound first-team All-Pro to force Brady into looking elsewhere. But that will be up to safety Mike Adams, who picked off Brady twice on Nov. 26, as well as LaRon Landry, who played only a handful of snaps, to control.