Colts at Patriots: What to watch for Thursday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 09: Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 9, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest as the Indianapolis Colts face the New England Patriots Thursday night at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

Kickoff: 8:20 p.m.

Broadcast: FOX59

  • Short-handed: Listen, we’re not making excuses for whatever happens in Gillette Stadium. But as the game nears, we can’t help but recall a similar incident in week 10 of 2007. The Colts headed to San Diego for a prime-time meeting with the Chargers. They did so without a huge chuck of their roster. Injuries kept nine players out of the game, including several headliners: Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark, Anthony Gonzalez, Tony Ugoh, Raheem Brock.

Along with being outmanned from a sheer numbers standpoint, the Colts yielded kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns to Darren Sproles – in the first quarter, for cryin’ out loud – and Peyton Manning would suffer a career-high six interceptions. Yet the Colts could have won. Would have won had it not been for Adam Vinatieri shocking everyone by pushing a 29-yard field goal wide right with 1:34 remaining. That allowed the Chargers to escape with a 23-21 victory.

Manning was prolific enough to overcome his own mistakes and a shortened roster. He leaned heavily on Reggie Wayne (10 catches, 140 yards, 1 TD) and Joseph Addai (22 rushes, 56 yards) and got enough from an unheralded support staff that included Craphonso Thorpe, Aaron Moorehead, Bryan Fletcher, Ben Utecht and Kenton Keith.

We wonder if Andrew Luck can do likewise. He’s trying to break a personal 0-fer against the Patriots – 0-5, and four losses by at least 21 points – and will be without his Pro Bowl wideout (T.Y. Hilton), Pro Bowl tight end (Jack Doyle), right tackle (Denzelle Good), and starting running back (Marlon Mack). His left tackle (Anthony Castonzo) and center (Ryan Kelly) are questionable; Castonzo has yet to play this season while battling a hamstring injury.

There’s never a good time to face Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots. Being short-handed only magnifies the challenge.

  • Little bit of help?: Luck set a franchise record with 62 attempts in the overtime loss to the Texans. He delivered 53 attempts in the opener against the Bengals. In two of his five appearances against the Patriots, Luck has tossed 50 passes.

Here’s where we inform you the Colts are 11-20 when their franchise QB attempts at least 40 passes in the regular season, and 3-5 when the number exceeds 50. As is the case in so many instances, less of Luck is better for everyone. Indy is 33-10 when he chucks it fewer than 39 times.

“I have to be careful. We all have to be careful,’’ Frank Reich said after Luck set career bests with 62 attempts, 40 completions and 464 yards against Houston. “This is a team game. He is a great player and we expect him to do what he has been doing.

“We don’t want to be in the boat of, ‘Alright, we’ll let Andrew do it for us.’ That would be bad coaching. It’s a team effort (and) he is a key player on our team.’’

It’s up to Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni to find a way to keep the passing game vibrant without Hilton. Luck’s receiving options include Ryan Grant, Zach Pascal, Chester Rogers, Marcus Johnson, Eric Ebron, and Nyheim Hines. None has displayed game-breaking skills. They’re averaging a modest 8.3 yards on a combined 83 receptions. The late addition of tight end Erik Swoope helps. He’s averaged 18.6 yards on 17 career receptions.

It’s also up to Reich and Sirianni to get the running game going. It ranks 29th in the NFL (72.0 per game) and the game plan called for – or circumstances allowed – a total of 30 attempts the past two games. Rookie Jordan Wilkins leads the team with 136 yards on 38 carries. That’s tied for 39th in the league.

For what it’s worth, the Patriots have been vulnerable to the run. They rank 26th in yards per game allowed (114.8) and 21st in yards per attempt (4.7).

  •  Heads up, D: His name is Julian Edelman, and get used to hearing it Thursday night. The veteran receiver is expected to make his first appearance since 2016. Edelman missed last season with a torn ACL and the first four games this season while serving a suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs program.

There’s no question Tom Brady will be quick to reacquaint himself with his ol’ pitch-and-catch pal following kickoff.

“You know, he hasn’t changed a bit. Four weeks off, he looks good,’’ Brady said this week. “Everyone’s excited to have him back and any time you add great players, it’s going to help what we’re doing.

“He’s excited, ready to go and hopefully he can go out and play great. He gets open so quick, I think that’s the thing about Julian. It’s very comforting for a quarterback to see a guy get open really early in a route . . . I really have no doubt where he’s going to be at, what he’s capable of.’’

Edelman is the latest in New England’s long line of elite slot receivers. From 2013-16, he piled up 356 receptions, 3,826 yards and 20 TDs. He’s averaged a ho-hum 10.7 yards on 425 career catches, but is adept at beating press coverage off the line of scrimmage and getting open immediately, or finding holes in zones. The guy moves the chains.

Edelman’s return might help compensate for the possible absence of Rob Gronkowski. The unearthly tight end didn’t practice on this short week because of an ankle injury.

Even if Gronk is out, Edelman boosts a receiving corps that includes former Colt Phillip Dorsett, Chris Hogan and recently-acquired Josh Gordon. Gordon had two catches for 32 yards in his Patriots’ debut in Sunday’s blowout of Miami.

In keeping with the short-handed theme, the Colts will be without cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Kenny Moore II. Each is dealing with a concussion. Nate Hairston wore a protective boot on his left foot early because of an ankle injury and is questionable.

  •  And the winner is: Patriots 34, Colts 17. Obviously the reports of New England’s decline following back-to-back losses to Jacksonville and Detroit were greatly exaggerated. Again. We expect Reich and his staff to pull every ounce of effort out of the Colts, but games almost always come down to players. And Indy is missing too many significant players to pull off the prime-time upset.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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