12 Things to Watch in Sunday's Colts-49ers game
This Waterboy was devastating. How will the Colts' fare?
Last week, the Colts' bid to to pull out another thriller came up just short as they couldn't finish off the Miami Dolphins. This week, they take on the San Francisco 49ers in a true test of just how far the franchise has come. Here's what to be on the lookout for…
1. Watch for the litmus test. Over the next few weeks, the Colts will face three of the four best teams in football. Along with Seattle and Denver, the 49ers represent where the Colts want to be as a franchise. Forget point differential, DVOA and everything else for a moment. For fans of the good old-fashioned eyeball test, just watch the game. Do the Colts look like they are in the same league physically and talent-wise as San Francisco. Do they compete? Is the game close? Whether or not Indy sneaks into the playoffs with eight or nine wins or not, measure them against the best, and that should tell you how close they are to true contention.
2. Watch the Waterboy. Chuck Pagano said the Colts didn't bring Trent Richardson in to be the waterboy, ensuring that's his new nickname. My personal disdain for the Richardson trade aside, the biggest problem is that Indy is only getting 13-1/2 games out of him this year. Had they made this same deal two or three weeks ago, Richardson might have helped them win the Dolphins game and would be ready for the San Francisco game. Obviously, the trade wasn't "necessary" two weeks ago, but that's beside the point. How much Richardson plays in Week 3 is going to be a story. On one hand, he's in shape. On the other hand, he doesn't know the offense. No matter what he does, good or bad, this trade won't be decided this week. For now, watch his assimilation and hope he can do it all night long.
3. Watch the hole. Dwayne Allen creates holes when he's on the field, and now that he's missing from the offense, he creates a different kind of hole. The biggest problem with the Colts' efforts to be a smash-mouth run-first team is that they don't have the offensive line for it. Allen is a devastating blocker, and without him, there are serious questions as to whether Indy can open creases for the runners. This is another major problem with those expecting a rejuvenation from Trent Richardson: the Colts' line is much, much worse than the Browns'. Richardson may be a very good back, but it's entirely possible that without Allen (and Donald Thomas), we could spend all season not knowing as he gets swarmed under in the backfield.
4. Watch for the flashbacks. Eric Walden may well feel like a veteran returning to 'Nam this week. Last time he was in San Francisco, he was repeatedly humiliated by Colin Kaepernick. Walden never did figure out how to "set the edge", and the Packers got steam-rolled as a result. Two weeks into his Colts career, Walden has been a disaster. He is undisciplined and still struggles when quarterbacks get out of the pocket. If he can't hold the line on the corner, the Niners may well run Indianapolis off the field early in this one.
5. Watch the eyes get large. The most disturbing element of Andrew Luck's young career is that he has started holding the ball too long. What I loved about him early in 2012 was that he made quick reads and threw the ball. That's a skill that's quickly eroding, however. He takes far too many unnecessary sacks and hits caused by simply pounding the ball. Aldon Smith is waiting for him this week, and he won't have the luxury of scanning the field. Against Miami, Luck didn't look comfortable on the final two drives. His line is unlikely to help him out, so Luck will have to dictate his own protection by making quick, decisive throws. The best protection any quarterback has is his own ability to make quick reads and release the ball.
6. Watch for the big ol' family affair. The Colts-49ers game features more philosophical incest than a Skywalker family reunion in Kentucky. Obviously, Jim Harbaugh has a special place in Colts' history, and a weird place in the IU family as brother-in-law to Tom Crean. But he was also Andrew Luck's head coach and Pep Hamilton's boss. Then there's the fact that Luck told him to draft Kaepernick. And Vernon and Vontae Davis are actual brothers. Half the Colts defense cycled through San Francisco at some point, and Greg Manusky used to coach for the 49ers. In a startling discovery it will be revealed at halftime that Vic Fangio is his own grandpa.
7. Watch the bumps and bruises. You never want to see the following names on the injury report at the same time: T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne and Darius Heyward-Bey. The last two have been on full participation, but that's also just one side of the ball. Both safeties also missed practice on Thursday. Indy has lost three offensive starters in the past week alone, so it's getting pretty crowded on the sidelines. Indy isn't a deep roster to begin with, so if they lose anyone else, they may end up needing the actual water boy to suit up. I feel like there is a "water carrier" joke to be made here, but as the Indy press is so vigilant and critical of the current regime, I decided it just wouldn't be fair.
8. Watch the rebound. Indy is getting San Francisco at the worst possible moment. Having been waxed on the road at the hands of division-rival Seattle, the 49ers need a win against the Colts. Had they beaten the Seahawks, perhaps you could have made the case that this was a trap game. After all, they play another division rival in just four days. After a terrible showing in prime-time, however, there's just no way San Francisco overlooks the Colts. A big showing against the NFC champs will be all the more impressive because Indy will get the best shot San Francisco has to offer.
9. Watch a tradition unlike any other. The Colts get their first dose of Jim Nantz and Phil Sims this year. One of the overlooked aspects of sliding down the NFL pecking order is avoiding Sims' commentary on a near-weekly basis. Easily the most bland of the major broadcast teams, it's still remarkable how often Sims is just…wrong about things. He gets rules wrong, analysis wrong, strategy wrong. He's the Matt Millen of broadcasting. Except that now Matt Millen is a broadcaster too, so that means there's someone even worse out there. Geeze, even at being the worst, Sims is bad.
10. Watch the rarity. The Colts have won one game in San Francisco since 1968. That was the 28-3 win in 2005. That might be discouraging for Indy, except they've only played in San Francisco three times since 1972. In the Indianapolis era, the Colts are 1-2 when visiting the 49ers. With the current cycle of games, Indy won't play there again until 2021. So enjoy that authentic Rice-a-Roni while you can, Colts fans. It's a rare and heady dish.
11. Watch for redemption. Coby Fleener took a big step forward last week in his quest to get in the good graces of Colts fans. With a nice day that should have been better (he scored a potential game-winning touchdown that was nullified by penalty), he got out of the dog house. Now with all the wideouts ailing and Allen on the shelf for good, it's time for Fleener's impact to be felt regularly in the passing game. The only problem is that the 49ers have been very good against tight ends. They've finished no lower than 7th in DVOA versus tight ends since 2008. They are fourth this year. With outstanding linebackers, San Francisco is poised to take away what Indy needs to thrive. A big game by Fleener would speak volumes about his ability to make an impact for the Colts.
12. Watch for a rout. It's time for honesty. I don't think the the Colts are very good. I don't like the roster construction. I don't think they are built to win in today's NFL. I think they can still make the playoffs thanks to a weak AFC, but don't expect them to be competitive against the elite teams. The most likely outcome on Sunday is that they go to San Francisco and get run over. 49ers 35 Colts 17.