By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON — After a week spent puzzling over which schemes Bill Belichick might use to slow down T.Y. Hilton, it appears Mother Nature might do the job herself.
The forecast in Foxborough, Mass., for tonight's AFC divisional playoff game calls for a high of 55 with winds at 23 m.p.h. and a 100 percent chance of rain. Far from ideal conditions for the Indianapolis Colts' hurry-up spread attack that has produced 75 total points in the past two weeks.
But Hilton, the speedy receiver who has 24 catches for 379 yards in his past two outings, won't use the weather as an excuse.
"Growing up, you play in all types of elements," he said. "Right now, you can't let that be a factor. You just got to go out there and perfect your game."
Conventional wisdom favors the home-standing New England Patriots in adverse conditions, especially with the recent rise of running back LeGarrette Blount. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneer broke free for 189 yards in the regular-season finale and has four combined touchdowns in the past two games.
New England quietly ranked ninth in rushing offense overall this season, with Blount leading a bruising stable of backs.
"The running game has been critical to the success of our team this year," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "It's really been a strength of ours. Offensive line and the way the backs have been running and how physical they've been has really contributed to what our production on offense has been."
Brady has played without many of his long-time targets for much of the season.
Wide receiver Wes Welker defected to the Denver Broncos as a free agent, and the starter opposite him — Brandon Lloyd — also was let go. Injuries have limited Danny Amendola — signed to replace Welker — to 12 games, and tight end Rob Gronkowski appeared in just seven games before being placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Julian Edelman has emerged as Brady's go-to receiver with 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. And youngsters Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have grown into their roles as the season has progressed.
But Dobson will miss tonight's game with a foot injury, leaving New England to reshuffle the deck yet again.
"For me, over the course of playing a few years, we lost certain guys at certain points in the year," Brady said. "I think the main thing is just to try to figure out what you need to do as an offense to still be productive."
Indianapolis has been through the same process — losing tight end Dwyane Allen and wide receiver Reggie Wayne to season-ending injuries. Young receivers Da'Rick Rogers, Griff Whalen and LaVon Brazill have made plays in recent weeks, but Hilton has become the focus of the Colts' attack.
That's by design, with Indianapolis making a concerted effort to get the ball into Hilton's hands more often on short and intermediate routes. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton also has moved the diminutive wide receiver around, forcing defenses to play a sort of shell game to find him before the snap.
"I think T.Y. is so dynamic that he can make plays in so many different parts of the field, outside, slot, inside," quarterback Andrew Luck said. "For him to keep moving around and keep things fresh in a sense so you don't get a read on where he's going to be exactly every play has worked and is good."
The weather could limit some of the deep strikes Luck and Hilton have made downfield, however. And the Colts might be tempted to test the interior of a New England defense that has lost nose tackle Vince Wilfork and inside linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes to injury.
Indianapolis fancies itself as a power running team but ranked 20th among the league's 32 teams with 1,743 rushing yards during the regular season. Still, fifth-year back Donald Brown has flashed game-breaking ability at times.
In last week's epic comeback victory against Kansas City, Brown became the first Colts player ever to score a touchdown rushing and receiving in a playoff game. He has a 51-yard touchdown run and a 33-yard touchdown reception to his credit this season and could be called upon often if the weather turns for the worse.
Regardless of the conditions, Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano's message has remained the same. He wants his team to limit its mistakes and give full effort for 60 minutes.
Only eight teams remain on the road to New York for Super Bowl XLVIII. And nothing less than maximum effort is acceptable.
"We're chasing perfection, trying to, every single day that we come in here," Pagano said. "And so we're going to try to play the best game that we can possibly play."