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Tim O

Tim O’Sullivan: Patriots will have too much for pesky Colts

  • New England Patriots cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard (37) and Aqib Talib (31) celebrate an incomplete pass by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots won 23-3.(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

    New England Patriots cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard (37) and Aqib Talib (31) celebrate an incomplete pass by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots won 23-3.(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • New England Patriots cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard (37) and Aqib Talib (31) celebrate an incomplete pass by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots won 23-3.(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

    New England Patriots cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard (37) and Aqib Talib (31) celebrate an incomplete pass by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots won 23-3.(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • New England Patriots cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard (37) and Aqib Talib (31) celebrate an incomplete pass by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots won 23-3.(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
  • New England Patriots cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard (37) and Aqib Talib (31) celebrate an incomplete pass by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots won 23-3.(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The general feeling in New England is confidence, maybe even cockiness, and why not? The Patriots should have little trouble dispatching Indianapolis in tonight’s divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium, right?

Admittedly, that does feel right. The Colts might be riding high after last week’s miracle against Kansas City, but if Alex Smith and the Chiefs can torch the Indy defense for 44 points, just imagine what Tom Brady and the Patriots can do against

that hobbled unit. And yes, Andrew Luck is a special quarterback, and T.Y. Hilton is having a special season, but the rest of the Indy offense is barely recognizable, never mind dangerous.

But there’s a nagging voice that’s cautioning against cockiness. The Patriots have shown all year they have a small margin error, they’re no strangers to losing home playoff games as big favorites, the defense suffered yet another season-ending injury this week, the Colts have beaten some of the league’s best teams and they have shown a resiliency that gives them a chance no matter what the situation.

“I feel like we have that edge that when we get in the game that there’s never going to be a point in the game that we feel like we’re just down or out of it,” New England’s Devin McCourty said earlier this week. “I think that’s what’s going to make this game tough because I truly believe they feel the same way.”

Let’s first look at the reasons why the Patriots should win tonight and play in their third straight AFC championship game next week, then we’ll listen to that voice warning us about an upset.

Feeling good

Not only did the Chiefs put up 44 points and 513 yards in Indianapolis, they did it after their leading rusher and receiver, Jamaal Charles, left the game on the opening series with a concussion. Even optimistic Kansas City fans couldn’t have imagined their offense was capable of such feats without Charles, but the Colts let it happen. It just doesn’t seem possible for a team with a defense like that to beat Brady and the Patriots in New England.

Indianapolis will be missing one starting cornerback, Greg Toler, after he went down with a groin injury. Their other starting corner, Vontae Davis, is far from 100 percent healthy, and their third corner, Darius Butler, may have improved since he was released by the Patriots two years ago, but he’s still a liability in a secondary that’s full of liabilities.

Brady should have plenty of open receivers to choose from tonight, but it gets even better for the Patriots, because the Colts can’t stop the run, either. Indianapolis was 26th against the run this season, allowing 125.1 yards per game, and gave up 150 yards on 32 attempts last week to the Charles-less Chiefs. What’s more, the Colts are especially vulnerable up the middle, which is just where New England wants to run the ball with all 250 pounds of its newly minted lead back, LeGarrette Blount.

So, if the Patriots are sure to score bunches of points, Indy’s offense will once again have to bail out the defense, but how? New England is vulnerable to the ground game, but the Colts aren’t a good running team (108.9 yards per game, 20th in the NFL). And sure, Luck is quite capable of taking over a game like he did last week (29-for-45, 436 yards, four touchdowns), but if he has to put the ball in the air that much, there’s a chance he throws a few in the wrong place, like he did last week (three interceptions).

Plus, the Indianapolis passing game is a one-trick Colt – Luck to Hilton. Bill Belichick is known for being able to take away the opposition’s favorite option. Doing that against Indy seems easy enough – just stick Aqib Talib on Hilton, give him a little help over the top, and let the rest of the defense take care of Coby Fleener, LaVon Brazill, Deion Branch or whoever else Luck wants to target.

On the other hand

Somehow, the Talib vs. Hilton matchup can be viewed as both reassuring and nerve-wracking for New England fans. Talib shut down some of the league’s top threats early in the season, like Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Jimmy Graham, but that was before he injured his hip in Week 6. Since then, Talib hasn’t been as effective. He’s better against big, physical receivers, not smaller speedsters like Hilton.

Even if the Patriots take Hilton away, and the other receivers are no-names, and the Colts can’t run, Luck is still scary. He’s good enough to win games all by himself, as he showed last week, and the Patriots pass defense has gotten worse (along with Talib’s hip) as the season has progressed. New England’s defense as a whole has also declined during the year, which is to be expected with all the injuries, and maybe the latest casualty, losing linebacker Brandon Spikes, will be the final crack that breaks the defense.

The Patriots may have looked good in their last two games against the Ravens and Bills, but those are two lousy teams. Let’s not forget, New England needed two late comebacks to beat the lowly Texans and Browns in the first two weeks of December, and then lost to Miami on Dec. 15 before beating Baltimore and Buffalo. So, yes, the Pats are 12-4 and the No. 2 seed, but they’re hardly on a dominating roll.

Let’s also remember the Patriots were 9.5-point favorites against the Jets in the playoffs three years ago and lost, 28-21, they were 7.5-point favorites against the Ravens in last year’s AFC championship game and lost, 28-13, and they are 3-4 in the playoffs in the last four years. And more recent history tells us the Colts, who are 7-point underdogs tonight, are capable of pulling off upsets against the elite, like Seattle, San Francisco and Denver, all teams they’ve beaten this season.

Bottom line

The Colts won’t beat themselves – they had the fewest regular-season penalties (66) and turnovers (14) in the league this year – but they won’t beat New England, either. The Patriots will establish a running game, light up the Colts secondary with play-action passing, and score as many points as they need to win. The nagging voice of nerves may have some decent points, but it will be silenced by the end of the night.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at tosullivan@cmonitor.com or 369-3341 or on Twittter @timosullivan20.)

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