After dispatching the Indianapolis Colts by the score of 43-22 on Saturday night, the New England Patriots are moving on to the AFC Championship game and are now one win away from advancing to the Super Bowl. As the final score attests, there was very little drama in the contest between the Patriots and the Colts with drama in this instance being defined by the Colts seriously challenging the Patriots' win probability. From the opening moments of the game, the Patriots seized control, and really, all that was left for the Colts to do over the four quarters was to accept their fate and submit.
In establishing their dominance over the Colts, the Patriots employed a tried-and-true winning strategy as they out-performed the Colts in myriad ways from winning the turnover battle, which in turn aided them in winning the field position battle, to being more efficient than the Colts on both defense and offense.
Although heading into the game the Patriots were expected to win, with the betting line having established them as seven-point favorites, the exact ways in which the Patriots performed exceptionally no doubt came as a surprise, especially the exploits of their defense. After establishing a season-long trend of struggling to force opposing offenses into three-and-outs or turnovers, the cobbled-together, mostly no-name Patriots defense reversed that trend in a big way to keep the Colts offense in check.
During the regular season, the Patriots defense had ranked just 24th out of 32 teams in percentage of defensive drives that ended with a three-and-out (20.4 percent) and were only slightly above average in the percentage of drives during which they forced a turnover, turning over opposing offenses on 13.6 percent of possessions, which ranked 13th in the league.
On Saturday, they were a completely different unit. The Patriots defense forced the Colts into three-and-outs on four of the Colts' 13 meaningful possessions in the game; what the Colts' decision makers were hoping to accomplish by handing the ball over to running back Donald Brown with 37 seconds left in the first half and the ball on their own 16-yard line only they know. With the Colts only managing to convert six of their 15 third-down opportunities into first downs, the Patriots defense did a masterful job of preventing the Colts from experienced sustained success.
For another four possessions, the Patriots ended Colts' drives by intercepting Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, with two of the interceptions coming deep in Colts' territory; the Patriots offense would score touchdowns on both of those possessions.
With the four possessions left during which the Colts offense was not completely shut down by the Patriots, the Colts were really not able to put together a significant amount of scoring; actually, had they scored touchdowns on each of the four remaining drives after their three-and-outs and interceptions had been factored out, the Colts still would have lost by double-digits.
But they only scored touchdowns on two of those drives and had to settle for field goals on the other two; further encapsulating the Colts' frustrating inability to sustain any sort of meaningful level of consistent success, the two field goals came after reaching the red zone.
The Colts might have had a few more big plays on offense than did the Patriots, averaging 5.9 yards per play to the Patriots' 5.7 yards per play, but they could not match the Patriots when it came to maintaining their efficiency across a few more drives. Five of the Patriots' 13 meaningful possessions were of the three-and-out variety, but they avoided any turnovers and also scored touchdowns on five of their six red zone trips in addition to having running back LeGarrette Blount rumble his way to a 73-yard touchdown run.
That 73-yard touchdown run was one of four by Blount in the game as he ran for 166 yards on 24 carries, with 54.2 percent of his runs qualifying as successful ones, according to Advanced NFL Stats. When the Patriots needed to run the ball, and do it effectively, handing off to Blount, who is becoming more and more entrenched as the Patriots' workhouse running back, proved to be an incredibly effective strategy.
What was a less effective strategy, but still efficient enough to provide some balance to the offense, was when the Patriots had quarterback Tom Brady drop back to pass. Twenty-seven times Brady dropped back to pass during the game and only had middling success as he completed just 13 of his passes while being off-target on 12 of them and getting sacked on two others for a loss of 13 yards, but he was able to make sure that most of his 13 completions counted for something significant.
Overall, his 13 completions netted him 198 yards, an average of 15.2 yards per completion, well above his season average of 11.4 yards per completion, and nine of his 13 completions were good enough for first downs. The other four gained 20 of the 28 yards needed for a first down (71.4 percent) so they were also beneficial in extending drives. While he has had better playoff performances, Brady's production on Saturday was proficient enough to help the Patriots advance.
Whether or not the Patriots actually make it to the Super Bowl will depend in large part on if the defense can put together an equally suffocating performance next week. The Patriots offense is mostly a known entity; we know they can run the ball effectively and that Brady can be efficient enough with his passing to keep drives moving. It is the defense that will more than likely determine how much longer the Patriots can extend their postseason run.