5 Keys to the AFC Championship Game

Tom-Brady-and-Andrew-Luck

One team is keeping New England from its sixth Super Bowl appearance in 14 seasons.

A team New England has beaten by a combined total of 144-66 in their last three meetings, once in each of the past three seasons.

A team that has lost its last four appearances against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

A team that enters as a seven-point underdog.

A team that New England could very easily overlook under these circumstances.

Such overconfidence would be a mistake.

The Colts are a much better squad now than the one that fell at home to New England, 42-20, in Week 11. Indianapolis proved it in last Sunday’s 24-13 road playoff win over Denver that was actually a more impressive overall performance than the one New England displayed during its 35-31 comeback victory over the visiting Baltimore Ravens.

Here are five keys that will determine whether New England, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will get the chance to win a fourth Lombardi Trophy together, or the Colts will make their first Super Bowl appearance since the 2009 season.

Patriots coaching staff vs. Colts coaching staff

The anti-Belichick contingent probably envisions him behind the scenes singing his own praises like Vizzini in Princess Bride by saying to himself, “Have you ever heard of Lombardi, Shula, Walsh? Morons.” But all Spygate and Beli-cheat jokes aside, the man deserves his due. New England’s 35-31 victory over Baltimore in last Saturday night’s playoff game was Belichick at his finest. His decision to use an obscure offensive formation with only four linemen and a skill-position player declared ineligible caught Baltimore so off-guard that Ravens head coach John Harbaugh drew a personal-foul penalty by coming off the sideline to scream at the officials. The Patriots also dusted off a double-pass play last used by Belichick in 2001 (!!!) that resulted in a 51-yard touchdown toss from Julian Edelman to fellow wide receiver Danny Amendola. But the brilliance of New England’s coaches goes well beyond that. Their ability to make in-game adjustments remains second to none.

Realizing their ground attack was going nowhere against a staunch Ravens front seven, the Patriots didn’t call a single running play after 1:13 of the second quarter –“ and it worked. New England overcame its second 14-point deficit of the game in the third quarter en route to victory. That’s another Patriots’ strength: maintaining composure and not panicking when falling behind.

But Chuck Pagano isn’t chopped liver as a head coach, either. Indianapolis has reached the postseason in all three of his seasons at the helm. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has done such a nice job in the development of quarterback Andrew Luck that he has drawn consideration for NFL head-coaching vacancies.

But there’s only so much time in a week for the Colts to prepare their players for what New England may unveil. Will the Patriots continue using the four-linemen formation? (Pagano called the NFL earlier this week to inquire about substitution rules.) Will New England remain so pass-happy? Will Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels revert to a running game that has brutally gashed Indianapolis in the past two matchups?

“We have to be prepared for everything, obviously,” Pagano said in his Monday news conference.

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SOURCE: Alex Marvez
Fox Sports