Survive the script.
Do that, and the Patriots have a shot at eight straight. Problem is, that's easier said than done against the Colts.
For many teams, the script -- a coach or coordinator's opening play-calling sequence -- may last 15 plays or so. That was the number Hall of Fame Niners coach Bill Walsh liked. Those "first 15" were laid out for his offense well before kickoff to prep them for what they'd be fed to start the game. Walsh would also test elements of an opposing defense with that opening script.
But Colts coach Frank Reich reportedly scripts out much of the first half. He's not married to it, necessarily. But he has an idea of where he wants to go, how he wants the dominos to fall. And it's working.
The Colts have scored on their first possession in each of their last six games, including four touchdown drives. They are fifth in the NFL this season in points scored in the first quarter (6.6), and they're averaging over 18 points in the first half as they've rattled off six wins in their last eight games. Last year they were second in the league in first-quarter scoring (6.5).
Reich is doing something right with those scripts, it seems.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick called the Colts "the best first quarter team in the league" earlier this week.
"They score points in the first quarter," Belichick said. "Not all of those are offensive points. Some of those came off turnovers. Again, getting a turnover, that’s good, but to be able to convert that into touchdowns and points, somebody else has to do that and they’ve done a good job of it."
Though the Colts' offensive identity is rooted in its rushing attack, it's Carson Wentz who has helped drive a great deal of Indy's early-script success. In the first quarter this year, he is 62-for-92 (67 percent) for 753 yards, six touchdowns, no picks, a yards-per-attempt figure of 8.2 and a quarterback rating of 114.1, per Sports Info Solutions. Outside of the first quarter, Wentz has posted just 6.8 yards per attempt and his quarterback rating (93.5) dips more than 20 points.
"[Reich] is meticulous about figuring out how do we want to start this game and how do we want to attack them early," Wentz told the Press-Republican. "And so Coach does a great job of that. Obviously, it’s not always successful for us. But, for the most part, he’s very meticulous with that. He has a really good feel going into most ballgames, and we all trust what he’s calling and we execute it for the most part fairly well."
The Colts are far from perfect when their offense finds early-game success. They were up two scores on the Titans in the first half back on Halloween and later lost that game. They dropped one to the Ravens when they led 22-3 in the third quarter. They fell to the Bucs despite leading in the second half of that one, 24-14.
But they are, generally, an extremely efficient offense when playing with the lead. Wentz has a 118.6 rating, an 8.1 yards-per-attempt figure and a whopping 17-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio this year when the Colts have the lead.
When they're playing from behind? Different story. Wentz has a 5-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a 6.3 yards-per-attempt figure and a 76.8 rating. But it's tough to get Wentz into those stressful spots. In their last eight games, Indy has played only 59 offensive snaps while trailing. That's easily the fewest in the league in that span. The Patriots (96) are a distant second in that category.
If the Patriots can survive the script, prevent the Colts from taking an early lead, and get Wentz into more obvious passing situations, they'll be better off. But can they?
Belichick's club has been strong of late in that regard. They've had three consecutive weeks where they've forced opposing offenses into three-and-outs on their game-opening drives. And in their last eight games, according to our guy Tom E. Curran, they've allowed just 28 first-quarter points (3.5 on average) while scoring 60 (7.5).
It's strength versus strength. Both these teams have been very good early in games over the last two months. While this one may come down to the wire, there will be a play or two in the first 15 minutes that will lay the course for the outcome.
Prediction: Patriots 28, Colts 24
X-Factor: Davon Godchaux
The Colts have taken some heat this week for saying they'd like to make the Patriots one-dimensional. But the truth of the matter is that the Patriots will likely try to do the same. If they allow Jonathan Taylor -- in the running for the most physically-gifted back in football with Tennessee's Derrick Henry hurt -- to run until he drops, they can bid their win streak adieu.
But the Colts are a potent enough passing attack -- 13th in EPA per dropback since Week 6 -- that the Patriots can't simply sell out against the run and send waves of bodies at the line of scrimmage. That means the big bodies up front for Belichick's defense will need to hold up against a talented Colts offensive line.
Despite giving up 270 yards rushing to the Titans three weeks ago, the Patriots remain the sixth-best rush defense in football, according to Football Outsiders DVOA, and they rank eighth in rush EPA allowed. (Since Week 4, the Patriots are among the best of the best at limiting running-game efficiency, checking in at second in rush EPA allowed.)
Defensive linemen Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy and Carl Davis figure to play a key role Saturday in slowing down the Indy running game. Godchaux has played more than any Patriots defensive lineman over the course of the last two weeks (54 snaps total) and could be one of New England's answers to Colts All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson on early downs.
"Davon's been a really good player for us," Belichick said Thursday. "Has a lot of strength, a lot of toughness, runs well. Has good quickness. And again, he's a very instinctive player. He understands blocking schemes and blocking patterns and so forth and does a real good job. Really protects our linebackers, like all the defensive linemen do. They do a good job on the front, which makes the linebacker's job cleaner. He's been a great addition."
Godchaux has played everywhere from directly over the center, to aligned on the shoulder of the guard, to outside across from tackles as more of a 3-4 defensive end. He told reporters Thursday he hasn't played end since high school, but he's making it work. He even dropped into coverage on the final defensive play of the game in the Patriots win over Buffalo in Week 13.
It was the cherry on top of a rare 10-tackles-from-a-nose-guard performance in prime time. According to NextGen Stats, Godchaux recorded a 56 percent run tackle rate in Buffalo, the highest for a nose tackle in a single game in the last six seasons. When he was on the field, the Bills averaged just 3.1 yards per carry.
"Buffalo's over," Godchaux said Thursday. "It was a great game, but we're not going to win a Super Bowl beating Buffalo two weeks ago. It's on to Indy. That's the mindset. Really good o-line. They do a good job on their combo blocks. Good job on play-action passes. We gotta stop the run so we can keep them in long yardage."
Number to know: 5
We're going to zig when others might've zagged here. When it comes to this game, one of the major talking points this week has been turnovers. The Colts lead the NFL in turnover differential (plus-13), and they have more takeaways (29) than any team. The Patriots are third in the differential (plus-10) and takeaways (26) columns.
He who creates the timely turnover Saturday could very well end up the victor.
But let's scrap all of those numbers for this one: 5. That's Wentz's NFL ranking when it comes to play-action frequency this season.
Godchaux wasn't lying. Thanks in part to a punishing running game -- first in EPA per rush this season -- Indy has an effective play-action passing game that the Colts love to turn to. Wentz ranks fifth in play-action pass rate (32.2 percent), according to Pro Football Focus, and he's fourth in the NFL in yards on those types of throws.
Wentz averages 2.5 yards more per attempt (8.7 yards) when using play action, and his rating jumps nearly 17 points (from 91.0 to 107.9) when using play-action compared to when he doesn't.
The Patriots have generally been effective at limiting quarterbacks who use play action extensively. Among the quarterbacks they've seen who have play-action throws dialed up on more than a quarter of their attempts are Tua Tagovailoa, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Ryan Tannehill, Matt Ryan, Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold. Their only loss against that group was to Tagovailoa's Dolphins.
If Belichick's defense can limit the Colts running game, thereby forcing Wentz to give up play action in exchange for the straight dropback passing game, the Patriots could turn this into an uphill climb for their hosts in Indianapolis.