Tim O’Sullivan: Patriots fans, keep an eye on these guys
Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles (25) runs for a 2-yard touchdown past Jacksonville Jaguars free safety John Cyprien (37) during the first half of an NFL football game in Jacksonville, Fla., Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013.(AP Photo/Stephen Morton)
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) warms up before an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) passes in the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Patriots fans can relax this weekend. They won’t have to sweat another last-gasp finish, or watch another Pro Bowler hobble off injured. Instead, they can enjoy playoff football while their team enjoys a bye.
While most of the Patriots have been focusing on themselves this past week, some in the organization are looking elsewhere.
“We have people on our staff that are always working ahead, usually one week ahead or two weeks ahead in this case,” Bill Belichick said on Wednesday. “They’re working on three teams.”
Those three would be Indianapolis, Kansas City and Cincinnati, the three possible opponents for next Saturday’s divisional playoff game in New England. If you want to do a little advance scouting yourself while relaxing in front of the playoff picture, here are some things to watch for this weekend.
The first game on the postseason slate will feature two of the possible opponents when the Chiefs and Colts kick off at 4:35 p.m. today in Indianapolis. These two met just two weeks ago, with the Colts pulling an impressive 23-7 win out of a chilly Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
The Chiefs coughed up four turnovers in that game, and they’ll have to protect the ball better if they want to flip the script in the rematch. But the key Kansas City player for Patriots fans to watch is running back Jamaal Charles. Not only is he the Chiefs’ leading rusher (259 carries, 1,287 yards, 12 touchdowns), he’s also the team’s leading receiver (70 catches, 693 yards, seven TDs). It’s easy to picture Charles running wild in Gillette Stadium next weekend, especially against New England’s 30th-ranked run defense (134.1 yards per game allowed).
And the key stat for Charles will be carries. The Chiefs sat him last week, and Charles had just 21 total carries in the previous two weeks, so he should be well rested for this game. If Kansas City has to lean too heavily on their star back today, or he gets banged up at all, it might help the Patriots slow him down. Otherwise, he’ll be fresh for a possible game in New England.
On the other side of the ball, the player to watch is Justin Houston. The Pro Bowl linebacker was a pass-rushing force for the Chiefs in the first half of the season, piling up 11 sacks as Kansas City raced out to a 9-0 start. But Houston dislocated his elbow in Week 12 and the Chiefs defense hasn’t been the same since. Houston will reportedly return against the Colts and how effective he can be off the edge may go a long way in determining not only today’s outcome, but also a potential matchup with the Patriots. The teams that have beaten New England this year – the Jets, Bengals, Panthers and Dolphins – have all been able to pressure Tom Brady.
Even though the New England pass defense has been much improved this year (there’s a reason Aqib Talib and Devin McCourty were named second-team All-Pro yesterday), it’s not hard to imagine Colts quarterback Andrew Luck taking over a playoff game in Gillette with his arm like Charles could do with his legs. Luck has made major strides this year (343-for-570 passing for 3,822 yards, 23 touchdowns, nine interceptions), but he’s been hurt by the loss of Reggie Wayne to injury and the lack of a running game. Luck has adjusted in the last month or so as the Colts have won four of their last five, but he’s been relying heavily on T.Y. Hilton (138 targets, 17th in the NFL) to do it.
If Luck can find a rhythm with other receivers, or if Donald Brown can run the ball like he has recently (in the last five weeks he’s gained 213 of his 537 total rushing yards), it will give the Patriots more to worry about if they have to prepare for the Colts offense. But if it’s all about Luck to Hilton, Belichick is the master at taking one thing away from an opponent, and he will be able to do that by simply sticking Talib on Hilton and forcing the Colts to win another way.
Defensively, Indianapolis likes to play aggressive, man defense on opposing receivers, which has been a successful tactic against New England. If the Colts can lock down the Kansas City receivers – Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery and Dexter McCluster – they might be able to do the same against the Patriots, who have comparable talent at the position.
The Bengals host San Diego tomorrow at 1 p.m., and if they win that game, as expected, they will be traveling to Foxobro next weekend, regardless of what happens today. Cincinnati already beat the Patriots, 13-6, on Oct. 6, but remember, that game was in Cincinnati, where the Bengals went 8-0 this season, scoring 34.4 points per game and giving up 16.8 ppg. On the road, however, they were 3-5, scored 19.4 ppg and gave up 21.4 ppg.
The defense has paid the bills in Cincinnati this season, allowing just 305.5 yards per game (third in the league) and 19.1 ppg (fifth in the league), and that defense will be worth watching tomorrow, especially the secondary. The Bengals lost cornerback Leon Hall back in October without missing a beat, but they lost another corner in Terence Newman three weeks ago, forcing rookie Dre Kirkpatrick into the starting lineup. Kirkpatrick, a first-round pick out of Alabama, has struggled during his first pro season. Sure, he had two interceptions last week, but that was against Joe Flacco, who was picked off 22 times this season. It will be more revealing to see how Kirkpatrick fares against Philip Rivers, or to see how Newman looks playing on a gimpy knee (he’s listed as doubtful).
On the other side of the ball, there’s no doubt all eyes should be on quarterback Andy Dalton. He’s looked good at times this season and has thrown for 4,296 yards, but he’s also thrown 20 interceptions, including four last Sunday against Baltimore. More importantly, he’s been terrible in his only two playoff appearances, going a combined 41-for-72 for 384 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions. If he plays like that again tomorrow but the Bengals manage to win, it seems unlikely he would be able to turn things around and play well against the Patriots. If Dalton plays well, the playoff monkey might be off his back.
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)