12 Things to Watch in Sunday's Colts-Bengals Game
The Bengals are trying hang on for their first division title since 2009, and their third since 1990.
When last we met, the Colts were on the verge of public humiliation at the talons of the Arizona Cardinals. They did bounce back the next week against Tennessee, but now find themselves into a fight to the death with the Cincinnati Bengals. It's not actually a fight to the death, or really a fight of any kind, but it sounds dramatic, so we'll go with it. Anyway, here's what to watch for…
1. Watch for the vast majority of the marbles. It's silly to say that any game is for all the marbles in the regular season, but the Colts and Bengals are duking it out for control of the third seed in the AFC and a chance for more. Both teams have been inconsistent this year and posted some great wins and bad losses. The one who wins will be seen as a primary contender in the AFC (seriously) and the one that loses will have a long, hard road to the Super Bowl that will probably involve a road trip to Denver.
2. Watch the clone. Andy Dalton has become Flacco 2.0. He has spurts of fantastic play, but then looks like a complete fraud other weeks. To wit, Dalton has four games this year with a passer rating over 95. He also has four games with a passer rating under 65. When he's good, the Bengals are 3-1. When he's bad, they are 1-3. The only actual advantage the Colts have in this game is at the quarterback position. While that is the most important advantage you can have in football, Dalton can mitigate it by being "Good Andy". He's the Flacco-iest Flacco in Flaccoville.
3. Watch for The Defense. By "The Defense" I mean Robert Mathis. Mathis is about the only thing the Colts have going for them defensively. Even their good performance against the Titans was largely a mirage thanks to some terrible throws by Ryan Fitzpatrick. Mathis has more than half the Indy sacks on the season. All the other Indy pass rushers and linemen combined have just 9.5 sacks. If you wanted to make a list of all the Colts playing well on defense it would be comprised of Mathis and Cory Redding. Jean-Francois was playing well enough, but now he's hurt. So there's that.
4. Watch for the strangest Colt of all. Donald Brown's career is weird. In five seasons, he's started just 16 games despite a career average of 4.3 yards per carry. He hasn't been below 3.9 yards per carry in any season since his rookie year. Even going back to last year, fans fell in love with Vick Ballard, even though Brown was putting the same rushing numbers, but better receiving numbers. He's never been a great blocker, but ProFootballFocus numbers show he's basically identical to Ballard and Richardson in pass blocking efficiency. How many first round backs ever averaged over four yards a tote but started fewer than 20 games in five year? The answer is just four in the last 30 years. Jonathan Stewart of the Panthers is in the same boat, but you have to go back to the early '90s to find another back who was highly drafted, effective but just couldn't crack the starting lineup.
5. Watch Da'Rick. Fine. You are going to anyway so go ahead. Fans are all fired up about Da'Rick Rodgers getting playing time. My express opinion is this: if he was any good at all, he would still be on the Bills right now. I've been told that he looked great in Tennessee before behavior issues moved him along. I've heard he was a "second-round talent(!!)". I don't get excited about undrafted wideouts. Since 1980, only 15 undrafted wideouts have gone on to 1,000 yard receiving seasons. I will grant you that nine of those guys started after 2004. I get that Heyward-Bey is terrible, but to me, that should cause depression, not excitement over Rodgers. I hope I'm wrong, but I think it's far more likely that Rodgers is actually worse than DHB than an improvement. I'm much more interested in seeing LaVon Brazill get regular snaps.
6. Watch the road warriors. Tickets for this game sold out early in the week, so pay attention to how many Colts fans show up. Southern Indiana is solid Colts country, thanks in part to just how bad the Bengals have been for the better part of the last 30 years. If there was ever a road game that didn't feel like a road game, this would be the one. If not for the recent slide by the Colts, there would probably be even more fans. I personally considered heading down for the game as recently as a few weeks ago, but decided I was unwilling to spend any more money on this team this year. Other than, you know, shelling out $1,000 for my playoff ticket order. Ugh.
7. Watch the shift. The Bengals best lineman is Andrew Whitworth. Early in the Chargers' game, he moved from left tackle to guard and proceeded to dominate as the Bengals rammed the ball down San Diego's throat. Cincy has excellent tackles overall and can play three deep at the position. Against a Colts team that can't stop the run or rush the passer, they can afford to keep Whitworth inside if they choose. Or, they could move back outside if Mathis is causing too many issues. That kind of flexibility and depth is astounding.
8. Watch the wall. Michael Johnson is fairly awesome for the Bengals, especially against the run. He only has three sacks on the year, but he's an absolutely force in closing down the run game. The Bengals are very good all along the defensive front, and they have the ability drastically limit opposing runners. Donald Brown and Richardson will be banging their heads against these guys all afternoon. It's going to be incumbent upon Anthony Castonzo to win his matchup against a good run stopper if Indy hopes to get anything on the ground. And you KNOW Indy hopes to get gains on the ground!
9. Watch for the memories. Remember that classic Colts-Bengals game of the 2011 preseason? It was almost the only game Indy won all year. Oh and you know the Colts are still smarting from the 27-10 whipping the Thunder Cats put on them this past August. I know I'll never forget how Z.Robinson threw incomplete to V.Hazelton (defended by M.Harvey) with just 1:55 to play back in 2011. That sealed a huge preseason win for the Colts. Nothing compares to the immortal combination of Brandstater to White, though. Electric, baby. Absolutely. Electric.
10. Watch for the T-Shirt. It's coming.
Oh yes. It is. Imagine a number 12 on the back with Colts Authority on the nameplate. Just. In. Time. For. Christmas. Details coming soon. That reminds me to watch for Stanley Havili out of the backfield. He has an 83% catch rate and a DVOA of 8.9%. I only mention it because Trent Richardson's receiving DVOA is almost the worst in football at -26.1%. Anyway, watch for the T-shirts. They are coming soon. UPDATE: THEY ARE OUT!!!!
11. Watch the coming storm. I'm not talking about the snow and wind, though that will be interesting. No, I'm referring to the rumors that Pep Hamilton is in trouble. I'm not in love with everything Pep is doing with the offense, but to hold him accountable for the weird philosophy of his superiors is unfair. The Colts built the wrong kind of team and offense. We've been hammering that for months. Now it's not working because injuries and its natural limitations are showing and Pep is to blame? Did Pep take Bjoren Werner in the first round instead of a wideout? Did Pep sign DHB? If Indy doesn't right the ship offensively, Hamilton will take the fall, but the real blame should go up the chain.
12. Watch for the malaise. With this Colts team it's coming down to what they do well. Right now, the answer is nothing. I don't have a bad gut feeling about this game, but I just can't justify taking Indy. They can win, but for the life of me I can't imagine what they'll do well enough to do so. Bengals 28 Colts 17.