12 Things to Watch for in Sunday's Colts-Cardinals Game
Bruce is back, baby.
Last week, the Colts played twice in the span of five days. While they didn't cloak themselves in glory, they did manage to out-suck the rest of the AFC South, and all but tied up a playoff spot. Now with the second seed in the AFC on the line, they travel to Arizona to take on Bruce Arians and the Cardinals. Here's what to watch for…
1. Watch the comparison. Bruce Arians won Coach of the Year for his work with the Colts last year, and his follow-up album is proving his success was no fluke. Despite going into battle each week with the desiccated corpse of Carson Palmer at quarterback, Arians has the Cardinals at 6-4 and in real contention for the playoffs. Chuck Pagano has likewise followed up his miracle season with a 7-3 record, which for all its flaws is still better than anyone could have hoped. It's still not clear which of the two men is the better coach in the long run, but the winner will get his share of friendly bragging rights.
2. Watch the first quarter. Watch it, but be prepared to cringe. There's no need to go over the litany of stats about how bad Indy has been in the first half of games recently. It's so bad Pagano doesn't even want to talk about it any more. There are all kinds of theories as to why the Colts start so slowly. They range from everything from bad game plans to an insistence on running the football to a lack of focus. Most of the finger pointing centers around the coaching, but it's possible the Colts just aren't a great team. They are given fits and spurts and don't have much more talent than the teams they play. They rely on their quarterback to get hot, and he needs some time to get comfortable. If they could ever just play even in the first half, you get the sense all will be well.
3. Watch the insanity. Rashard Mendenhall has a DVOA of -18.0 percent. He averages 2.9 yards per carry. Andre Ellington averages 6.3 YPC and 23.4% DVOA. He has 46 fewer carries than Mendenhall. What team would possibly be so stupid as to give more carries to a back who is clearly terrible when they have a more explosive back on the roster? I mean one guy around six YPC and another under three? Really? I mean, who would do that?
4. Watch for the big play. Through the first five games of the year, the Indy defense had forced an average of 2 turnovers a game. Over the last five, that number has been cut to just one a game. Not surprisingly, the defense went from 15.8 ppg in the first five to 28.2 ppg over the last five games. The Colts' defense hasn't played well since Week Four against the Jaguars, and really has only had one impressive outing all year (the 49ers win). They've stopped forcing turnovers, and stopped, well stopping anyone.
5. Watch the impressive youngster. You may not have Michael Floyd on your radar yet, but you should. A first-round pick in the 2012 draft, Floyd is already set to obliterate his rookie numbers and has more receiving yards than the great Larry Fitzgerald. His yards per catch is great and his advanced metrics are fantastic. Indy has struggled in pass coverage recently so the combination of Fitzgerald and Floyd will be difficult to handle.
6. Watch the pace. Robert Mathis has fallen off the pace for the sack record and is now trending toward 21.5 sacks. After picking up 9.5 in the first five games, he's "down" to just four in his last five. That's still a great rate, and he's the only legitimate pass rush option the Colts have, but he's slowed down to a "He's having a career year" pace instead of a "Greatest Season Ever" rate.
7. Watch for the knee. Did you know eight teams have a worse kick off return DVOA than the Colts? How is this even possible? I know the Titans had a safety on their first kick return of the season, and that's admittedly worse, but how are there eight teams in football who manage to get less out of their return team than the Colts? Indy fans actively cheer touchbacks at this point. David Reed is 9th in kickoff return yardage. He must have returned approximately 10,000,000 kicks to accumulate that.
8. Watch the swap. The Cardinals and Colts effectively swapped oft-injured corners this year. Jerraud Powers has played every game for the Cardinals and been mediocre. Greg Toler has missed three games with injury and also been essentially mediocre. He'll likely miss this game as well. He was signed for 3-years $14.25 million with $5 million guaranteed. Powers got a 3-year $10.5 million deal with $3 million guaranteed. So the Cardinals won that swap on money. Ryan Grigson shelled out for the free agent and got burned when it would have cost him less to retain his own player. Swell.
9. Watch for the pining. Stanley Havili is likely to miss Sunday's game with a concussion having not practiced all week. That soft weeping you hear in the corner is from Pep Hamilton who is too overcome with grief to bother game planning this week. Without Havili, who will split wide on key third downs? Who take handoffs in front of Trent Richardson? Who will remind me of the sweet, succulent taste of wild boar? Who will be only player in the NFL named Stanley? And no, Stansly Mponga doesn't count, sicko. What's wrong with you?
10. Watch the dog fight. This game is a great test for the Colts. They've struggled to go 2-1 against teams a combined 10-20 the last few weeks. Now they get a bonifiede playoff contender, albeit a weak one. Want the Colts to compete at Kansas City and Cincinnati on the road against teams with great defenses, suspect offenses and iffy QB play? Better hope they show up against the Cardinals. Indy has a viable chance to land the second seed in the AFC, and they likely will if they can 4-2 to finish the year. That means sweeping the three home games (which if they don't do, they don't deserve a bye) and winning one of the three road games. They can get that win this weekend. The Cardinals have to figure 11 wins is necessary to go to the post season. That means a 5-1 finish. Their easiest game is either the Titans on the road or the Rams at home. Yeah, Indy can tell you how easy those games are. Arizona needs this one.
11. Watch the pace, part two. T.Y. Hilton is on pace for 1,131 yards receiving on 74 catches with eight scores. His catch rate is right on par with last year at 56%. His DVOA is down slightly, which is to be expected with more use. Hilton's play since Wayne has gone out has been strong, racking up 19 catches for 295 yards. That's easily the best three-game stretch of his career. Skill-wise Hilton looks to be about the same, but it's a comfort to know that as his use increases, his effectiveness hasn't dropped off. He's on pace for a nice second-season to follow up his fantastic rookie year. For the record, the most catches in the first two years of a career in Indianapolis belong to Marvin Harrison (137, 1,702, 14 TDs). Hilton has an outside shot of getting there. Bill Brooks has the yardage record (1,853) and Austin Collie the touchdown mark with 15. Hilton is on pace for 124/1,992/15.
12. Watch for a set back. The Cards are playing amazing defense and are desperate for a win. Every game is a playoff contest for them at this point. Indy hasn't played really good football for more than a few minutes at a time in a month now, and that won't be enough on the road against a determined opponent. Cardinals 23 Colts 17