Last week, the Colts suffered one of the most heartbreaking losses in recent memory. There's no time to mope, however. They have to jump right back into action this Sunday night with a big game against the Chargers. This game will determine the tenor of the rest of the Colts' season. Will they be firmly in control of the South? Will it be a mad desperate dash to fight for a playoff spot? Here's what to watch as we find out which way the wind is blowing:
1. Watch the false narrative. I reprinted an old post this week breaking down just how pathetic the story line of "Chargers own the Colts" really is. Again, under Rivers, the teams have played 4 times (3 in San Diego). The Chargers have won three times. Once by two points, once by four and once in OT. All three games were fluky weird games. Unfortunately, we'll all be subjected to nonsense stats (back in 2005...) all weekend anyway. I want the Colts to blow them out if for no other reason than to put to bed this nonsense.
2. Watch the bogus MVP candidate. I know that Rivers' numbers are amazing, but the MVP award is NOT just a statistical award. Offensive Player of the Year is about numbers. No one who watched Rivers choke away multiple games at the end this season (Seattle, Saint Louis, Kansas City) could possibly vote for him. Winning games isn't always on the QB, but when a team has five losses by less than a touchdown in 10 games and had real chances to win most of them, neither can you call the QB the MVP. Three of his four biggest passing days of the year came in losses. The MVP award is about actual games, not numbers. In baseball, that's hard to tease out. In football, it isn't.
3. Watch the thorns in the flesh. Chargers punter Mike Scifres tortured the Colts in the playoffs in consecutive years. His incredible punt at the end of the Colts 28-24 loss in 2007 might have been the single most clutch punt ever. In 2008, he played the single greatest game any punter has ever played, routinely spinning balls out of bounds inside the five yard line. If the Colts do get stops on the Chargers offense, and Scifres has time to punt, watch for heroics from him. Also, Darren Sproules is still with the Chargers. He teamed with Scifres to destroy the Colts in that overtime playoff game.
4. Watch who's not there over the middle. Both Antonio Gates and Gary Brackett are likely to miss this game. That's basically a wash. Brackett had always clamped down on Gates, but in the 2008 OT loss in the playoffs, Brackett missed the game and Gates had a big night to bounce the Colts. Pat Angerer has had some solid moments, but has had some critical coverage mistakes as well. As long as both players don't play, this is a standoff.
5. Watch the black hole of suck. The Colts have a bad special teams unit, decimated by injury. The Football Outsiders has them ranked 30th. The Chargers have perhaps the worst special teams unit in history. The Chargers have given up multiple returns for touchdowns, blocked punts, and missed field goals. Their record could actually be much better than it is if not for the worst play ever from a special teams unit. Unfortunately, the Colts have no ability to take advantage of this. Whatever happens on fourth down will probably make your eyes bleed, so you'd be best served not watching anyone kick.
6. Watch the home team. The home road splits for the Colts defense have been well documented, but the Chargers also have their own home/road thing going on. They are 1-4 on the road and 4-1 at home. If this game was played in San Diego, I might feel differently, but the Colts haven't lost a real home game since week three of 2008 (ironically, the last game I attended). The Colts need to win out at home to guarantee a double digit win season. Four more home wins for the Colts would all but assure them of a playoff spot, and a first round home game at least. If the Colts can't win this game at home, frankly they aren't as good as we thought, and there's not a lot of reason to expect much from this season.
7. Watch the no-names. The Chargers and Colts have been decimated in the receiving game. Malcom Floyd and Patrick Crayton have done the bulk of the heavy lifting for the Chargers, while the Colts have relied on obscure names like Blair White and Jacob Tamme to make up for injured pass catchers. Honestly, the Chargers cast of cast offs is a lot better than Indy's. Floyd and Crayton are not household names by any stretch, but they are veteran, competent wideouts. The Colts have been running players from the practice squad out there.
8. Watch the bowling ball. With Ryan Matthews (the Chargers top pick) ailing, watch for backup Mike Tolbert to get most of the carries. Tolbert is 5'9", 243 lbs, and built in that bowling ball style that frequently kills the Colts. Matthews is averaging over 4.5 yards a carry, and has been the key guy in Chargers' wins. If he gets under 10 carries, the Chargers are 1-3. That sounds like a bogus "win to run, not run to win" stat, but consider that they are 4-3 when Matthews gets 10 carries or fewer (including games he didn't play). The Chargers might just be a better team with Tolbert than with Matthews.
9. Watch the check down. Injuries have slowed them some, but the Colts desperately need a big game from Tamme and Brown receiving this week. The Chagers are outstanding against wideouts, but struggle against tight ends. Specifically, they are top five against #1 and #2 wideouts (so don't expect anything from Garcon), but are poor against tight ends and running backs. Watch for Peyton to find both guys often for big yards.
10. Watch the middle. The Colts had been very strong running up the middle until recent weeks. They are still terrible running wide left (gasp!), but have become very good running to the right. For some reason, perhaps instability at the guard spots, the Colts ALY up the middle has plummeted. The Chargers always used to cause huge problems for the Colts there, and this year they are 10th up the middle. Indy needs a good game from Jeff Saturday and need DeVan and Linkenbach to step up.
11. Watch the angst. I hate the Chargers game. Hate it. My father-in-law is a wonderful man, but is a Chargers fan and is exactly the opposite kind of fan that I am. I don't talk smack. I don't call my friends who root for the other team after the game (win or lose). I will get a smug consolation call from him if the Chargers win, and I want no part of it. I sweat this game every time they play. My life is made so much easier by a Colts' win.
12. Watch the late run. 12-4 is still possible for this team. Jacksonville is the only team on the schedule with a winning record, and the Chargers are the only top 20 team by DVOA left to play. Ok, so the Titans are technically 5th, but no one expects that to last with Rusty Smith taking significant snaps. Even with a loss, the Colts will likely make the playoffs, but a win over San Diego could signal a significant surge toward a top record in the AFC. A bye is still very possible for the Colts, but it's going to take a serious string of wins.
13. Watch for getting "Norved". Norv-Nor*vuh, verb, -ed 1. To call a timeout when it is completely unnecessary. 2. To favor the spike on a two minute drive 3. To challenge a spot that is clearly short 4. To attempt a field goal on fourth and inches from the 30 yard line. 5. To generate artificial losses, thus sabotaging an otherwise good team.
14. Watch for Tom Brady. He won't be playing, but you can bet that Collinsworth will bringing up so often that you'll start looking around for foppish looking dudes. In a battle between Rivers and Manning, Collinsworth will invariably make the entire discussion about Tom Brady's 'MVP' season. It's going to annoy you. You had might as well just accept that fact now.
15. Watch the protection-The Colts defense revolves around Freeney and Mathis getting to the quarterback. The Chargers like to drop deep and have a very mediocre line. We desperately need huge plays from the two big guys up front. The good news is that Freeney has 4 sacks of Rivers in his last three games. Mathis has 5 sacks of Rivers in his last 4 games against him. If the Chargers line can't keep Rivers from taking pressure, the Colts will win this game in a route
16. Watch the sync. It's one thing when wideouts can't get open, but when the quarterback doesn't read the field in the same way they do, it's death. We've seen Garcon and Manning in particular not reading defenses the same way. Some fans wonder why the Colts don't just change their offense to include fewer reads, but that shows an ignorance of just how intricate NFL offenses are. You simply can't just strip the offense down because a guy gets hurt. Changing the offense from option routes to another system would be a massive undertaking, and the results wouldn't be pretty. We are stuck with what we've got. It's up to 18 and the wideouts to figure out how to get on the same page.
17. Watch the deep ball. The Chargers entire offense is based around deep passing, and that was before Vincent Jackson comes back this week. Rivers leads the league with an insane 9 yards per pass attempt, and Malcom Floyd is averaging over 20 yards a catch. Patrick Crayton is eating up better than 18. The problem for the Colts comes in the form of safety Aaron Francisco who simply isn't a very good player. The Colts have to get pressure on Rivers to force him to throw sooner than he wants. Oh, did I mention that Vincent Jackson is coming back?
18. Watch for the right track. The Colts need this game. That doesn't happen often. You have to believe that they'll come up with a way to pull out the victory and begin a serious run toward the playoffs. The alternative is unthinkable. Colts 30 Chargers 24.