Last week, the Colts stomped the Texans with one arm tied behind their back. This week, they have a tough road test against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Colts are being held together with chewing gum and bailing wire, but still have a real shot at finishing the first half on pace for 12 wins. This week, be on the watch for:
1. Watch the polar opposites. It's hard to find to more different quarterbacks in terms of style and career arc. Manning is the cerebral pocket passer descended from football royalty. Vick is the athletic scrambler pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Manning plays every down, every game; Vick battles injuries constantly. Manning gives money to a children's hospital; Vick, well, you know. What they have in common is that both have been careful with the ball in 2010. Manning has league best 15-2 TD:INT ratio, and Vick, who doesn't qualify thanks to a lack of attempts, has yet to throw a pick in 2010.
2. Watch the juggling act. With rumors flying that Clint Session has a broken arm, the Colts might be forced to mix up the starting linebackers again. Session was finally playing at the Pro Bowl level we had seen last year, so his injury comes as a real blow. Though the word is that Session might try to play through the broken arm, the Colts have to have a contingency plan ready if the pain is too great or his effectiveness is reduced. They could move Angerer over to the strong side and give Wheeler back his job. Kavell Conner did practice this week, or the Colts could bring back Tyjuan Hagler. For a linebacking corps finally starting to play within themselves, the solution bears keeping an eye on.
3. Watch for fuzzy routes. DeSean Jackson is averaging over 20 yards a catch for the Eagles, but has battled injuries, most recently a concussion. He's been cleared to play, and is expected to suit up, but his health and awareness has to be a concern for Philadelphia. Indy has struggled with secondary health all season, and Vick to Jackson deep will need to be a big part of the Eagles attack.
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4. Watch contain. Vick loves to get outside the defense and create plays with his legs. This puts pressure on the defense to be disciplined and not over-pursue (something the Colts have struggled with this year), but also exposes Vick to big hits. Vick averages over 7 yards a carry, and will likely have to elude Dwight Freeney more than once on Sunday. If the Colts can keep Vick in the pocket and prevent him from getting to the outside, they'll force him to throw in to zone coverage and test his accuracy.
5. Watch the last man standing. Don Brown took a lot of heat for not being as productive as Mike Hart on Monday. He struggled to get going as the offensive line collapsed in front of him and appeared to lack drive off a gimpy hamstring. As we wait for news on Mike Hart's injury, there's a good chance Brown will be the healthiest option the Colts have. Javarris James is waiting in the wings, but the Colts don't want to have to depend heavily on the rookie. If Brown is less than 100%, it's not fair to expect things from him his body can't deliver. Brown is still on his feet, but it's tough to expect too much from him.
6. Watch for history to repeat itself. In 2002, the Colts had a rookie DE making his first NFL start. That morning the Indy Star ran an article wondering aloud if he was a bust. Freeney came up large with a sack and multiple forced fumbles. This year, with Robert Mathis ailing, Jerry Hughes might just get a similar opportunity. Hughes played well in limited action on Monday night against Houston. The Colts have been able to get by without any contribution from Hughes, but this is exactly the reason why he was drafted. Mathis finished the game on Monday, but if he's gimpy on Sunday, Hughes must produce. He's a 'rainy day' player for the Colts this year, and it's storming out.
7. Watch the fourth quarter. It's not just that the Eagles are coming off a bye, but that Indy has to play on short rest having played on Monday night. That hasn't bothered the Colts much recently. They are 7-3 since 2002 coming off a Monday night game (6-1 since '04), but with all the injuries they are facing, an extra day to heal up a little would be nice about now. Indy has made a living out of winning the fourth quarter in recent years, but as exhausted as this team must be, it could be a tough road to hoe. FO pointed out this week that Indy is 7th on D in first half DVOA and 25th in second half.
8. Watch for the thumb. Austin Collie is expected to go out and give it a go this weekend. With Gonzo ailing again, the Colts desperately need Collie's presence, especially on third down. Despite recent hand surgery to reattach a ligament, Collie is trying to give it a go. He'll have an excuse to drop a pass or two, but somehow, I'm not expecting him to need it.
9. Watch the force. Trent Cole may be the best pass rusher in football and is at least in the top 3. His numbers have been Freeney-esque for several years now, and the Colts line will have their hands full dealing with him. Both Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem struggled at end, and with Brody Eldrige's status unknown, and Javarris James potentially getting carries, pass protecting Manning could be a nightmare on on Sunday.
10. Watch the safety. While Tamme did his best to look like Dallas Clark on Monday night, it was easy to see how the Colts might have missed 44. On a couple of balls to Garcon, the safety came down over the top to break up the pass. Normally, Indy could count on Clark running a mirror route to hold the safety in the middle of the field and give Garcon single coverage. Pete (how's that for a new nickname?) has been quiet this year, and double coverage deep could really keep a lid on his production.
11. Watch the almost nemesis. Asante Samuel was ever so close to being a Patriots hero. His pick six of Peyton in the 2006 AFC Championship would have stood as a monument to the greatness of Tom Brady (don't ask me how that works), but instead Manning lead an amazing comeback to topple the Pats and send them on a dynasty ending spree of odd decisions. Samuel has played well since joining the Eagles, and the Pats have never found a corner to replace him.
12. Watch the clock. If you do, Andy Reid would like to hire you. Apparently, the intricacies of time management escape Reid who routinely burns timeouts and challenges leaving his team hamstrung in the two minute drill. Some have suggested that Reid needs a coach of clock management. Honestly, I can't figure out why these things are so hard to grasp. It's football, not rocket science. So if you have a functioning Mickey Mouse wrist watch, apply at Eagles HQ and maybe you too can break into the NFL.
13. Watch the mobile quarterback. The truth is that for his speed and moves, Michael Vick has always been an easy QB to sack. He's already taken 11 in just 107 drop backs this year. Compare that with Manning who has been sacked just 7 times in 306 attempts. Sacks are function of the pocket presence and footwork of the quarterback first. No one thinks of Manning as a mobile quarterback, but Monday he showed just how good he is at avoiding pressure and creating plays where none exist. A good part of that is the ability to make quick decisions and slide in the pocket while still maintaining a throwing posture.
14. Watch for relief. After getting saddled with a horrible Dallas/Jacksonville game last week, Simms and Nantz get to return to watching real football teams play this week. Nantz is thrilled, but Simms doesn't really notice. He still can't figure out why Tony Romo played so bad last week or why he shaved his head. That's not fair, really. Truth is that he's super pumped to see the matchup between Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb.
15. Watch the ground. Between Vick and LeSean McCoy, the Eagles may never have to pass. McCoy is averaging a robust 4.5 ypc this season and is in the top five of DVOA. This is impressive because the Philly line isn't great. They are mediocre in adjusted line yards (15th, one spot ahead of Indy) and 25th in pass protection. The less Philly goes to the air, the better. Their strength is on the ground, and they'll have to take it right at the heart of the Colts line to win this game.
16. Watch for Sasquatch. A Philly game raises the possibility of a Marvin Harrison sighting. We predicted long ago that when 88 retired he'd vanish, and so far it's been true. I'd love to hear that Marv dropped by the locker room to say hi to his old boys, but considering he barely talked to them when he was on the team, I'm doubting he shows. I still miss him, and I hope he knows how much we all still love him. I'm afraid all we'll ever hear from him from now on will be grainy photographs and urban legends. Yes, I always sound this gay when I talk about Marv. So what? What's it to you? He's awesome.
17. Watch the IR. None of us really want to hope that Bob Sanders comes back, but this week will be the test. With so many players ailing, the Colts inactive list will likely be full. They have no more room to play hoping games with hurt players. I full expect at least one big name (maybe Gonzo?) to go on IR in the next three days. You have to have enough bodies to fill the active roster, so anyone who isn't PROBABLY coming back has to go on IR just to field a team. If Bob is still not on IR come Monday, we'll believe he's really coming back.
18. Watch for the man and the myth. My head tells me Indy won't win this game. Then my head remembers that as long as Manning and Freeney are standing, Indy has a chance. At the end of the day, if I have to bet on Manning or Vick, I'll take Manning every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Indy wins 27-24 and 31-27.