Thursday, January 9, 2014

NFL Divisional Playoff Predictions 2014: Colts vs Patriots

Indianapolis Colts vs New England Patriots: IND +7.5 (Pinnacle)

Market Watch

When it comes to point spreads, no team has been more difficult to handicap than the New England Patriots. For years Vegas would inflate the line, only to see them cover it time and time again. That's something you can get away with when you have one of the best coach-quarterback combinations in the league.

Yet, this is a New England team that has been decimated by injuries. For the first time in a long time, they finished a mediocre 8-8 against the spread.

Assuming the Colts don't come out emotionally flat off their big win last week, this line should be around -6. Most sportsbooks have it at -7, but others refuse to come down from -7.5.

So far, 57 percent of the bets are on the Colts.

Keep an eye on

One thing that immediately pops out when you look at these teams on paper is how well the Colts match up with the Patriots.

Offensively, the Patriots have a slightly better passing game thanks to the play of Tom Brady, but it's not a significant difference. Everywhere else they are nearly identical in every meaningful statistical category. They both have above average run games, pass protection, red zone offenses, and drive efficiency rates. They are also both average on third down.

Defensively there isn't a lot separating them either. They are both below average against the run, and average against the pass. New England is slightly better rushing the passer and in the red zone, but the Colts are a bit better getting off the field on third down.

The one area where the Patriots have a clear advantage is on special teams, where they rank near the top of the NFL. If this game is as close as expected, that is something that could come into play.

However, once we dig deeper things get a little more unclear for New England. Both teams have lost their best offensive weapon (Gronkowski/Wayne), but the injury woes go beyond that for the Patriots. Vollmer is out for the year, and more importantly, they are without Wilfork, Spikes, and Mayo on defense.

That inside trio was vital to stopping the run and their replacements are all significant downgrades. Before Week 10, the Patriots defense was ranked in the top 10. After the bye, they slipped all the way to 26th. A bad run defense is now coupled with a poor pass defense. It's uncertain how much a week of rest has benefited Talib, but they'll need him on the top of his game if they hope to slow down Hilton.

Finally, the biggest factor for this game might be turnovers. That is always important, but given how even these teams are, it could be the difference. The Patriots were really good at forcing takeaway in the first half of the year, but that production fell off a cliff in the second half of the season. Conversely, the Colts offense actually had the lowest giveway rate in the NFL.

Of course we saw that anything can happen in one game as the Colts turned the ball over a handful of times against the Chiefs, but KC has been doing that to teams all year and it would be surprising if the same thing happened again this week.

Bottom Line

All the analysis in the world could turn out to mean nothing if the Colts come out flat on Saturday night. The Patriots might not be what they once were, but they still play well at home and Belichick is notorious for taking away the opponents best weapon. At the same time, you could argue that the Colts will enter this game on a wave of confidence with no pressure on their shoulders at all.

Opportunities will be there for both teams, and it will be fun to see if Andrew Luck can go toe to toe with Tom Brady. The interesting thing about Luck's comeback effort last week was the fact that Luck's QB rating was actually better when he was facing pressure than when he wasn't. With that kind of poise, you have to like his chances at keeping this a close game.

If you like the Colts, find a +7.5 if you can. If +7 is your only option, there is still value at that number, too.

NFL Pick: IND +7.5.