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January 06. 2014 10:58PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Colts have played their best against the best

AROUND the NFL, five teams finished the latest regular season with at least a dozen victories — and only one team went unbeaten when forced to play more than one game against that elite quintet.

That would be the Colts, who beat the 49ers (27-7) in Week 3, beat the Seahawks (34-28) two weeks later, then they beat the Broncos (39-33) two weeks after that, and who now come to Foxborough looking to fell another of the league’s giants on Saturday night, when they take on the Patriots in a divisional round playoff tilt made possible by the 28-point comeback Indianapolis used to stun Kansas City in eliminating the Chiefs during wild-card weekend.

That 45-44 win was the second in three weeks against an 11-5 squad that was beaten by only two other teams this season, so clearly the Colts are a team that can rise to the type of challenge that awaits them in a prime time road game against a coach and a quarterback combination that’s headed for the hall of fame. That’s a credit to Chuck Pagano and Andrew Luck, Indianapolis’ answers at those two critical positions.

But what specifically worked for Indianapolis in San Francisco, and against Seattle and Denver, en route to their three most impressive victories? Let’s look at a few common themes:

•Indy’s defense was tough on third down.

Over the course of the season, the Colts ranked in the middle of the pack by allowing opponents to convert 37.6 percent of its opportunities on third down — but they elevated their ability to get off the field in those three contests. Totaled up, the three foes moved the chains just 10 times in 40 chances, a 25-percent clip that includes 2-for-12 from the Seahawks, 3-for-12 from the 49ers and 5-for-16 (31.3 percent) from a Broncos offense that was the league’s second-best this season at 46.3 percent.

Robert Mathis was a beast.

That was true of a lot of games this season, given the veteran edge rusher’s league-high 19.5 sacks and nearly-as-impressive nine forced fumbles. But he was particularly disruptive during this sample, starting with 1.5 sacks and two hits on Colin Kaepernick against the 49ers. He followed that with two sacks, another hit, and a forced fumble against the Seahawks. And then he hit Peyton Manning four times, dropped him twice, and scored a safety by knocking the ball loose on one of them. Keep in mind that Denver allowed a league-low 20 sacks on the year.

•They made uncharacteristically big plays offensively.

Only seven teams had fewer receptions of 20-plus yards than did the Colts, however controlling the ball against the 49ers — owning a 36:25-23:35 advantage in time of possession — Indy toasted Seattle for touchdown passes of 73 and 29 yards to T.Y. Hilton, then hit on four plays of at least 25 yards against Denver. The Seahawks gave up fewer big plays than any team in football this season, but couldn’t prevent a couple from Hilton, who scored the game-winner from 64 yards out on Saturday to cap a 13-catch, 224-yard effort.

•The Colts took advantage in red zone.

Indianapolis was good in the red zone this season, ranking seventh by scoring touchdowns on 58.9 percent of trips inside the 20. It was great, though, in this three-game sample, when it reached the end zone on seven of nine chances — equating to 77.8 percent. That would’ve led the league this year, and every year dating back at least a decade.

•They ran effectively enough to maintain offensive balance.

The Colts’ running game is mediocre at best, ranking 13th in yards per carry and 20th in overall yards, but in all three games they were able to gain more yardage than the opponent allowed on average this season, including a particularly impressive 179 against the 49ers. That allowed them to maintain a near 50-50 balance between the run and the pass (51.3 percent run, 48.7 percent pass, to be precise) during those three wins. The Patriots placed their best run-stuffing linebacker on injured reserve Monday, as Brandon Spikes is done for the year with a knee injury, which should be a boon to Indy’s ground game — and thus its unpredictability.

•Indy showed an ability to hang in.

There were stages in the three contests where the Colts were in jeopardy of the game getting away from them. They managed only two field goals with seven possessions over the middle 45 minutes of the 49ers game. Their offense opened punt-punt-safety against the Seahawks. The Broncos tightened things after falling behind, 36-17. But each time Indy flexed its mental toughness and found a way to stabilize itself, and ultimately a way to seize the opportunity.

So what does it all mean for the Patriots and their pursuit of a third-straight appearance in the AFC championship game? Maybe more than anything else, those three wins say that the Colts aren’t going to be overwhelmed by the task at hand on Saturday night.

They entered each of those three games knowing they were in for a major test, and they succeeded in rising when it mattered, whether that was on third down or in the red zone or with the game hanging in the balance. Their most dangerous impact players — Mathis, Luck and Hilton — delivered as a team’s best players must at this time of year.

They showed the physical toughness it takes to run the ball well. They showed the mental toughness it takes to survive through the hiccups and hurdles. And all of that will serve them well Saturday, as it generally has since Pagano and Luck took over before last season.

They aren’t going to be intimidated by Brady, by Belichick, or by the Patriots’ gaudy record. They aren’t likely going to wilt and beat themselves. A dozen wins doesn’t scare Indy — clearly — so if the Pats are going to advance, they’re going to have to do what the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos all didn’t. They’re going to have to outplay the Colts.

Plain and simple. But not so easy to do.

Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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