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Patriots deflated by loss of LT Solder

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots’ Sunday night AFC Championship game rematch in Indianapolis has been circled on the calendar by a lot of football fans since the schedule was announced last April.

To the members of Patriots Nation it’s much more than a big road game against a longtime rival and another possible Super Bowl contender.

Whether they say so aloud or not, this is a chance for the Patriots (4-0) to get some vindication against the Colts (3-2), the team that ignited the Deflategate controversy that engulfed the NFL during the entire off-season.

But according to the two guys at the center of criticism — head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady — there is no extra motivation this week.

Of course not, right?

Never mind that Brady’s left side — blind side — tackle, Nate Solder, is apparently out for the season.

The Patriots media was as misguided in its focus Wednesday as commissioner Roger Goodell was throughout the off-season when he made a mountain out of a few allegedly deflated footballs

In an issue that may be of real concern to the Patriots, Solder, a former first round draft choice and fifth-year starter, apparently tore his right biceps.

The Patriots have a couple options to fill Solder’s important spot. They could either move former All-Pro right tackle Sebastian Vollmer from the right the left side, which is what they did in 2009.

Or, the Patriots would install backup Marcus Cannon at the spot, which is what they did during the game in Dallas when Solder went out.

Although Belichick will never tip his hand, the coach seemed pleased with Cannon’s work, both recently and historically in his four-plus seasons.

“Marcus has always played well for us,” Belichick said before the news was received of Solder being out for the season. “Two years ago when he was in for (Sebastian) Vollmer, last year the opportunities that he had early in the year, particularly at tackle, and then this year he’s played in every game, played a number of snaps in all of our games, so he’s always done a good job for us when he’s been in there. I’m glad we have him.”

OK, let’s return this press conference to those matters deemed important by the media, such as the residue of Deflategate.

A local New England TV reporter asked Belichick on Wednesday if he is approached at the grocery store by any by Patriots fans telling him they would like to see the team “kick Indy’s butt.”

In a country where billionaire politician Mitt Romney shops at Costco, that would seem to be a fair question.

Not.

“I haven’t been to the grocery store in a couple years,” Belichick responded dryly.

Of course Belichick has a better winning record than Romney lately, so that may explain the difference. Anyway, nobody has described Belichick as being diplomatic.

“Look, it’s the same questions every week,” the coach said. “We are getting ready to play a game on Sunday. We’re going to do the best we can to prepare for it and be ready to go and perform well on Sunday night. That’s what we do.”

Belichick focused instead on such facts as the Colts winning their last three games, their “explosive” offense and that they lead the NFL in negative plays on run defense.

Brady took a similar approach in his very short press conference later in the day.

“I’m always pretty motivated regardless of the opponent, regardless of the team or the week, whether it’s a preseason game, whether it’s a regular season game,” Brady said.

“They’re all important because there are so few of those where you get an opportunity in your life, so I don’t take it for granted. I think it’s exciting to go out there and do something that I love to do, to go out there and do it with teammates who I love to play with. We all put a lot of effort in, the coaches, players, so it’s another opportunity for us to go out there and see if we can be a good football team.”

Told that he sounded like a robot and that he must have some “human” part of him with extra fire this week, Brady did little to expand on his previous comment.

“I’m a human, there’s no doubt,” Brady said. “I’m definitely human.”

Of course there is likely something extra brewing this week inside one of the most competitive, fiery players in the NFL. But it’s not something he, his coach or his teammates are going to talk about this week.

In true Patriots fashion they will make their statement on the field Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

SERIES HISTORY: 75th regular season meeting. Patriots lead the series, 46-28. Although no longer the division rivals they were in the AFC East before the 2002 realignment, the teams still meet with great regularity given their success as regular division winners and postseason contenders. The Patriots and Colts have met every season but one since 2003 and five times in the postseason alone, most recently in last January’s 45-7 New England blowout in the AFC title game that ignited the Deflategate controversy. The Patriots have dominated the rivalry since No. 1 pick Andrew Luck took over for Peyton Manning in 2012, New England having scored 59, 43, 42 and 45 points in four meetings, with an average margin of victory of 26-plus points.

GAME PLAN: New England ran the ball at least 40 times in each of its last three meetings with the Colts. The now-departed Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount each had huge days in those games. While the Colts are statistically better against the run, this could be the first time this season the Patriots try to establish the running attack early on with LeGarrette Blount getting the call rather than using the spread sets with Dion Lewis in the backfield.

Even if Blount gets his chances to churn out big numbers again, Tom Brady will use that success to set up the play-action game for tight end Rob Gronkowski and the rest of the Patriots proven pass catchers. Brady and his weapons have been on a tear this season, with only line issues at various points in protection doing anything to derail the New England attack. That unit may get a rare chance to run the ball and impose its will in Indy, which should only help the pass protection.

Defensively the Patriots are likely to be challenged early and often in the back end. The Colts have a deep core of dangerous weapons in the passing game, regardless of whether it’s Andrew Luck or veteran backup Matt Hasselbeck under center.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler vs. Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton.

Butler is entrenched as New England’s No. 1 cornerback, even with only a handful of games under his belt as a second-year player who entered the league as a free agent rookie. But he did make perhaps the biggest defensive play of the Super Bowl by intercepting a pass thrown toward the end zone by Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. Hilton is a dangerous weapon as the Colts leading receiver who, according to Bill Belichick, can challenge a defense at all three levels.

–Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount vs. Colts rookie defensive lineman Henry Anderson/David Parry.

Blount has more than 300 yards rushing and seven touchdowns in his last two games against Indy. He is averaging 4.7 yards per carry this season. The two rookie defensive linemen have earned starting jobs for a Colts run defense that’s shown improvement in the early going. Still, the two Stanford youngsters are likely to be tested by the Patriots running game that’s dominated Indy so often in the recent past.


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