There are any number of storylines heading into Sunday's AFC Championship matchup between the Colts and Patriots. Just about everyone outside of Indianapolis expects the Pats to win in a landslide, but the game could be closer than you think.
It will take a Herculean effort from Andrew Luck, and the Colts' defense will have to find a way to slow New England's running game AND Rob Gronkowski. If it seems improbable, it should. But that doesn't mean it's impossible. It also means that should Gronk be neutralized, Tom Brady will have to rely on other downfield options. Julian Edelman is an obvious choice, but Brandon LaFell, who joined the team this offseason, could also be critical to New England's success.
After a slow start, LaFell has improved over the last month of the season, and caught the game-tying touchdown pass against the Ravens last week.
"It's very complicated here," LaFell said of playing in the Pats' offense (via ESPN.com). "The playbook is so long.
"Plus, you had guys like [Julian] Edelman and DA [Danny Amendola] who had been here a while, and a couple of guys [Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins] who showed a lot of promise, and I'm looking at it thinking, 'I've got to figure out a way to fit in.' I had to find a way to go out and give Tom a reason to throw me the ball."
LaFell found out quickly -- like hours into his tenure in New England -- that the expectations were through the roof.
"I'm barely through the door and he's asking me, 'LaFell, what do you think about this guy? What coverage are you in? What do you have to do to shake him?'" LaFell remembered Belichick asking him. "He's tough, man. It keeps you in that playbook on Monday and Tuesday, and those are supposed to be our days off."
But even while LaFell was grasping the complicated offense, he was contributing in other ways, and that didn't go unnoticed.
"He earned our respect by being there on every play, every snap, through training camp, through OTAs," safety Devin McCourty said. "No matter what was going [on], whether he was hurting or not, he proved to be a guy we could count on.
"That's a very big thing on this team. That's what toughness is in this league."
And come Sunday, the Patriots could need LaFell to make another play to get them back to the Super Bowl.