Eyes in the Backfield – Chargers (Playoff Edition)

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Don’t worry, Norv.  Just call a timeout and everything will be fine.

It’s playoff time.  When last these two teams met, the Colts came away with a clutch win in one of the best games of the year.  Now, they meet again with both teams blazingly hot.  The winner may well storm the gates of Tampa, Florida, while the loser will have massive questions to answer.  This week, keep an eye on:

1.  Antonio Gates.  In his last four games against Indy, here are his numbers:  3 for 28.  2 for 28. 3 for 26. 6 for 29. No touchdowns. The problem is that Gary Brackett played in all those games, but he won’t play this week.  His loss could prove fatal for the Colts.

2.  Watch the deep ball.  The Chargers run a vertical passing game that should fit right in
with Indy’s defense.  However in the November game, Rivers threw 2 (of
the six all year) TD passes against the Colts, and completed several
deep throws.  He has just the kind of accuracy that can tear up a
Cover-2.  This could be like Pennington in 2002.  Noodle armed, accurate
QBs with good timing can beat this defense, especially with tall WRs against the Colts smaller corners.

3.  Watch the MVP.  The award will be announced on Friday, and 18 is the likely winner.  Manning has never looked better than he has the last two (nine) weeks.  Peyton usually puts up huge numbers against the Chargers, and the Colts need him to be on his game. 

4. Watch to see he’s enough.  Before last January, we always had the comfort of knowing that if
Peyton played perfect, the Colts would win.  Last year’s playoff game
changed all that.  Manning played one of the great games of his life,
and everyone let him down.  He completed his first 14 passes in a row
that day.  Had two picks bounce of his targets’ hands, saw his #1 guy
fumble on a huge third down conversion, got no protection on the two
biggest plays of the game, and had his last past dropped by Dallas
Clark. We can’t go into this game knowing that Peyton will do something
to pull it out, because he tried last year, and no one would
cooperate.  Hell, he even threw a huge TD pass to give Indy the lead
with less than 10 minutes to play and the defense gave it up against
Billy Volek.

5.  Watch Jamal Williams.  The massive nose
tackle always gives the Colts fits, as Saturday needed help blocking
him before he got hurt.  With Justice in at center, Williams almost won
the game by himself.  If Indy doesn’t scheme better, Williams will disrupt the offense and end this season early.

6.  Watch the short week.  Both teams are down a day of prep time.  Whichever coaching staff can be more efficient in game planning this week will give their club a major lift. The fact that these teams have already met 3 times 13 months means they should be familiar with one another.  One would think this bodes will for the Colts.

7. Watch the emotion.  The Colts seem steely eyed and determined this season.  They fear nothing and don’t get too high or low.  The Chargers have to be in high spirits after their raucous win on Sunday night.  They seem like an emotionally fragile team that might come in over-confident.

8.  Watch for the last minute.  Both the Chargers and the Colts have played an overwhelming slate of close games this year.  Indy went 8-1 in games decided by a TD or less.  The Chargers were less successful going just 2-7.  With mistakes like Norv Turner’s horrible timeout call against Indy, the Chargers tend to come up short if the game is close…and it’s been close all year.

9.  Watch the run in the fourth quarter. Six times this season the Colts have had the ball with a chance to run out the clock on the other team and failed to do so.  Usually Indy was vaguely successful and put together some first downs, but always left the opposition with the ball.  Against the Chargers in November, they had a 10 point lead in fourth quarter, before letting Rivers tie the game.  Indy doesn’t have to run to take the lead, but they will need to run to keep it.

10.  Watch the powder blue.  For reasons too insane to fathom, the Chargers have decided to wear their powder blue unis on Saturday in effort to sell out the game.  Why a team has to wear girl jerseys to pump up their fan base is beyond us.  Apparently, the move is designed “generate added excitement”.  There is so much wrong with that that I don’t even know where to start.

11.  Watch for survival.  Four of the hottest teams in the league will play this weekend in the AFC Wild Card round.  To survive the melee the Colts will have to pull out all the stops.  In last season’s game the Colts went 2 for 4 on fourth down.  In November’s game Tony Dungy’s team was 2 for 2 on fourth down conversions.  Both conversions were critical to the victory.  Don’t rule out an extremely rare fake kick or punt from the Colts.       

12.  Watch for pass-catching backs.  Tom Moore has heavily featured passes to the running backs in each of the last two games against San Diego.  Addai and Rhodes combined for 12 passes in November, including a key touchdown.  In January’s game Addai and Keith combined for 11 catches, but Keith botched a pass in the red zone causing an interception.  Manning is at his best when he uses his backs to extend drives.   

13.  Watch the long-term implications.  Some analysts viewed last year’s one and done as the same old Colts.  We believe a deep playoff run on the road would kill the choker label forever.  It would give Tony Dungy’s Hall of Fame credentials a nice boost.  It would also help Bill Polian’s long-shot case. 

14.  Watch the kicker.  Nick Kaeding is a very respectable 27 for 32 on the season, but he is not without a chink in his armor.  He is just 3 for 8 from the range of 40 to 49 yards.  He only attempted one field goal of 50 yards or longer on the year.  This could work out nicely given the Colts bend, but don’t break style of defense.       

15.  Watch for a defensive statement.  The Colts defense has quietly cobbled together a good season despite critical injuries in the secondary and on the interior line.  Gary Brackett’s injury is the icing on the cake.  Through it all they’ve made the clutch plays and are seventh in the league, allowing 18.6 points per game.  The Chargers defense (21.7 ppg) has been less consistent, but has stepped up during their recent win streak.  They will have DE Luis Castillo who did not play in the last meeting.  But if the game comes down to getting one stop, we’ll take the team with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.     
16.  Watch for anything.  Unlike the Colts, San Diego is a hard team to figure out.  They lose close games, lose to bad teams, but find themselves in the playoffs with a searing hot quarterback.  After struggling to run the ball at times this season, they rushed for a franchise record 289 yards last week against the Broncos.  Are they peaking at the right time?  Or just a lucky mirage?  We really don’t know.       

17.  Watch 88.  We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that Saturday’s game might be Marvin Harrison’s last in blue and white.  Last season he had a very dissappointing playoff game (2 catches, 27 yards) against the Chargers, coming off his knee injury.  This year has been a struggle at times for Marvin to find his place in the offense.  We are not predicting it, but we’d love to see the type of performance that would make cutting Marvin very difficult to imagine.    

18.  Watch for self-preservation.  DZ loves this 2008 team so much, he can’t bear to pick them.  It’s psychotic, but years of fandom have conditioned him to expect defeat in the most painful ways.  Nothing this good lasts, and he sees the Chargers exploiting Brackett’s absence to the tune of a heart-breaking 27 – 21 loss.  Demond likes the Colts in a see-saw battle 30 – 27.  Recall that the scoring in January’s game went Colts-Chargers-Colts-Chargers-Colts-Chargers-Colts-Chargers.
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