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Submitted by Kelso Sturgeon on Friday, January 16, 2015 at 12:00 AM

THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREVIEW —
COLTS-PATRIOTS BATTLE IT OUT SUNDAY
NIGHT IN FOXBOROUGH …
PLUS THERE’S MORE NFL COACH TALK AS
BEARS INK FOX, NINERS SELECT TOMSULA
(AND WE SAY BOO TO BOTH!)

Remember the “good ole days” in the AFC when the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots seemingly played one another come playoff time every year?

Okay, so it wasn’t quite an annual event but trek back to the early 2000s and you’ll see that the Colts and Pats collided in the 2003, ’04 and ’06 AFC Championship Games and the winner of those tilts went on to win all three of the ensuing Super Bowls.
Not bad.

Yes, those were the Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady days in NFL yesteryear, but the new version of this rivalry appeared last year when New England (- 7) slugged Indianapolis 43-22 in the AFC Divisional Playoffs and so the rivalry officially has been recharged and reheated.

The $64,000 question here is will Indianapolis — suddenly the “now” team in this year’s playoffs — get revenge and make it back to the organization’s first Super Bowl in six years (remember New Orleans 31, Indianapolis 17 in SB 44?) … or will the aforementioned Mr. Brady win a sixth AFC Championship Game in his storied and storybook career?

We’ll get into the meat-and-potatoes Jim Sez preview in just a moment but first this key reminder:
Jim Hurley and his veteran Handicappers and Bloggers get you the Side & Totals of both NFL Championship Games this Sunday — it’s Green Bay at Seattle at 3 p.m. ET followed by Indianapolis at New England at 6:40 p.m. ET — when you check in game-day morning after 10 a.m. ET either here online at www.jimhurley.com or via our toll-free telephone # of 1-800-323-4453.

Remember to get all the red-hot NBA and College Basketball Winners too each and every day … don’t get left out in the cold!

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREVIEW —
INDIANAPOLIS (13-5) at NEW ENGLAND (13-4) — 6:40 p.m. ET, CBS
Did you check out the supposed weather report for this title tilt on Sunday night?
Something about “a light, icy mix late” but temps that could reach as high as 45 degrees.

In other words, this could be a bad news/good news forecast for the climate-controlled Colts who did go into chilly but not frozen Denver last week and emasculate the Broncos 24-13 and lest anyone forget this does mark Indy’s fourth road game in five weeks as that wild card win against Cincinnati followed on the heels of back-to-back regular-season-ending road games in Dallas and Tennessee.

So, will QB Andrew Luck( 265 yards passing with two TDs last week against Denver) and Company be “running on empty” at some point here or will the sheer thrill of getting this far catapult Chuck Pagano’s team to one more glorious road win?

No question that Luck — who added a key 21 yards rushing last Sunday — really has spread the wealth around the past few weeks as eight different players caught passes in last Sunday’s playoff win and that included top target T.Y. Hilton (4 receptions worth 72 yards) but what will Hilton do here in his expected head-to-head matchup against New England CB Darrelle Revis who was — dare we say — a mere mortal in New England’s 35-31 come-from-behind-twice wild car win against Baltimore?

The Colts operated the NFL’s numero uno passing offense this year while averaging a haughty 305.9 yards per game but there’s been problems with dropped passes (Hilton included) and, let’s face it, Indianapolis doesn’t exactly have a dependable ground game (ranked 22nd in the NFL) with RB Daniel “Boom” Herron rushing for a modest 63 yards in the TD-plus win against the Broncos last weekend.

In short, can Indy — a 6 ½-point underdog here at press time — pull off the upset without a semblance of a ground game here?
The answer is “no” unless Luck can scrape together three or four drive-extending runs here and so don’t discount the “spy factor” as crafty New England head coach Bill Belichick could switch off players to eyeball Luck at all times.

On the flip side, the Patriots — who have outscored the Luck-led Colts 144-to-66 in the three meetings held between these teams the past three years — rushed the ball a mere 13 times for 14 yards in that post-season win against the Ravens last week and Brady went some 19 plays at one point where he threw it 18 times … yes, the modern-day NFL at work.

Here, Brady will look to pick apart a battered Indianapolis secondary as all-everything CB Vontae Davis (knee) and fellow CB Greg Toler (groin) both missed practice time this week and anyone that watched the Colts’ dominant win in Denver last week knows this secondary was the star of the show with perfect tackling techniques and fierce challenges of the Broncos’ receivers.

So, if either/both Davis or Toler are hurting here, than Brady — who threw for 367 yards with 3 TDs and rushed for another score last Saturday -- could have a feast with TE Rob Gronkowski (seven catches for 108 yards and one score versus Baltimore) the chief target but don’t sleep on either WR Brandon LaFell (5 catches for 62 yards and the game-winning 23-yard TD grab last week) and “little men” Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola who not only combined on that luscious 51-yard trick play score against the Ravens but teamed up for a composite total of 155 receiving yards

Finally, let’s touch on New England RB Jonas Gray who has been pretty much MIA ever since that 201-yard, four-TD performance in the Patriots’ 42-21 triumph at Indy way back on Nov. 16th.

There’s been plenty of speculation in/around greater Boston that Belichick will “unwrap” Gray here but we’re not real sure of that — expect Brady to chuck it 50 times or so (he was 33-of-50 passing with one INT against Baltimore) and expect the Gray/LeGarrette Blount backfield tandem to get no more than 15 or 16 rushes between ‘em.

Spread Notes — Indianapolis is 12-5-1 ATS (against the spread) overall this year and so that means since Luck arrived in 2012 his franchise is 33-18-2 spreadwise. The Colts are 13-10 vig-wise as underdog sides the past three years including last week’s win at 9 ½-point fav

Denver. Meanwhile, New England’s just 9-8 against the odds overall this year including last week’s non-cover triumph against Baltimore. The Patriots are 3-10 ATS in all post-season games since the last time this organization won a Super Bowl. Note that the Colts and Patriots have played one another a baker’s dozen times since 2004 and they’ve split spread verdicts at 6-6-1 and that does include this year’s aforementioned 42-20 Patriots’ win as 3-point road underdogs in a Week 11 game.

MORE NFL COACH TALK
Another day and more NFL coaching vacancies have been filled … let’s get right to ‘em:

CHICAGO — As expected, the Bears and recently exiled Denver head coach John Fox agreed to a deal but count us among the folks who give this whole thing a “thumbs down”.

Here’s why — Fox is no proverbial spring chicken and it’s gonna take a massive amount of energy to turn the beat around with this Bears’ club that went 5-11 SU (7-9 ATS) in the 2014 season plus we hear Fox was very much in the running for the still-vacant Atlanta Falcons job and we think that was a much better fit.

OAKLAND — No major problem here with the Raiders nabbing one-time Jacksonville Jaguars’ head coach Jack Del Rio for this post as he’s a Bay Area product who will bring back some toughness to this long-lost franchise but whom the silver-and-black hire as the team’s offensive coordinator is key. Trust us, it won’t be anyone named Shanahan.

SAN FRANCISCO — Loyalty is a wonderful thing and the Niners should be commended for hiring long-time defensive line coach (he’s been at that position since 2007) but breaking up the Tomsula/DC Vic Fangio tandem will hurt the Niners who figure to take a step back in the post-Jim Harbaugh Era anyway.

San Fran should have hired an offensive mind and kept the Tomsula/Fangio relationship going and our top candidate here would have been New England offensive Josh McDaniels who could see his stock elevate with another couple of wins.

NOTE: More NFC and AFC Championship Game notes plus hoops too in the next edition of Jim Sez.

 

 

 

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