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(Yahoo!) Beating Peyton Manning in Denver was a supreme feat for Andrew Luck, so it's hard for a lot of people to imagine following that up with a victory against Tom Brady in New England.

The rapidly ascending Colts quarterback might have a fairly simple way to do it, though.

Hand off to Daniel "Boom" Herron eight times.

Too simplistic? Maybe, but each team's ground game has changed since the Patriots' win in Indianapolis. Jonas Gray, who trampled a sieve-like Colts' defense for 201 yards and four touchdowns, wasn't even active against the Baltimore Ravens last Saturday. The Patriots had 14 rushing yards against Baltimore, with Tom Brady taking the lion's share of rushing attempts with six.

The Colts, on the other hand, have found the power back they hoped to get in Trent Richardson. The week after the loss to the Pats, Herron got a season-high 12 attempts in a win over Jacksonville in Week 12, and the Colts never looked back. They turned a reclamation project from the Bengals' practice squad into a second gear for the playoff run.

"Boom" – the nickname Herron won by running over people as a kid in Cleveland instead of dancing around them – now gave Indy another layer of meaning. Herron isn't Marshawn Lynch or even Eddie Lacy; it's not like he's the centerpiece of the Colts' attack with Luck around. But he's clearly made an impact.

One of the key moments of the season came when Herron got the ball on a fourth-and-inches with less than a minute to go in the Colts' game against Cleveland, and he plowed ahead relentlessly for a first down that broke the Browns' backs. The only loss Indianapolis has suffered since that drubbing by the Patriots came when Herron got only seven rushing attempts against Dallas. And then last week, with Richardson left inactive in Denver, Herron rushed 23 times for 63 yards. It was Herron who ate the clock (and the yardage) when all of Denver waited for Manning to return to the field and save the day.

Indianapolis is 8-0 this season, including two playoff victories, when Herron has eight rushing attempts or more. In all five of the Colts' losses, Herron had seven attempts or fewer. That includes New England's 42-20 maiming of the Colts on Nov. 16, in which Herron had no carries at all.

And rushing might not even be the most valuable asset Herron brings to Luck. He is a solid receiver in an offense with deep threats, forcing defenses to stretch more than they did before. Up to and including the New England loss, Herron had two targets for the season. Since then, he's had at least two targets in each game. He's had 19 receiving targets in two postseason games, for a total of 117 yards to go with his 119 rushing yards.

Meanwhile, the Colts' opponent on Sunday has gone in the opposite direction. After gaining 246 yards on the ground against Indianapolis, New England has broken 100 yards in only two games since. The Pats had only 14 yards rushing against the Ravens, forcing Brady to win completely through the air (and through his rushing touchdown). Because of Herron, and the virtual disappearance of the Patriots' run game, Indianapolis is now the more dynamic offensive team.

Luck can strain any defense with his arm, and everyone knows he's a strong runner, but Herron (or at least the threat of a dump-off pass to Herron) might allow his quarterback more room than he had before.

Does this mean the outcome of the AFC championship will be much different than the November result? Not necessarily. Patriots coach Bill Belichick could go back to the run, with Gray, or Shane Vereen, or LeGarrette Blount. Or he could dare Luck to try to outscore Brady and favorite target Rob Gronkowski. The Pats have been to this stage many times, and it's the first trip for most of the Colts.

But the first overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft has some sudden help from the 191st pick that year. And just when people start to think this game is only a showdown between two quarterbacks …

Boom.

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