It seems like it was only four months ago the season started. And just like that, it could all be coming to an end this weekend.
The Colts and Chiefs will kick off the 2013-2014 NFL Playoffs in Indianapolis Saturday afternoon. A rematch from two weeks ago, it's an intriguing contest between teams with identical records but vastly different stories.
The 2013 Colts are like a delicious Oreo Cookie™: a dominant start and a dominant finish are the cookies while their disastrous mid-season performance is the gooey hydrogenated-fat-center. Will the Colts twist-and-dunk on Saturday? Or … I have no clue how to continue this analogy. Sorry.
For the Chiefs, the story is this: they are lucky the season is only 17 weeks/16 games long. Kansas City started out strong, winning their first-nine games of the season, but finished with a dismal 2-5 record to close out the season. While one of those losses came courtesy of their backups, the point remains: the Chiefs 9-0 record told us more about who the Chiefs played those first nine games than it told us about the Chiefs.
Will the Colts be able to beat a team they dominated just two weeks ago? Or will Alex Smith and the Chiefs learn from their mistakes and put an end to Andrew Luck's season? We'll find out Saturday on NBC! (Or you could just read the rest of this article and find out now, I guess)
Tale of the tape
How do the Colts and Chiefs measure up against each other on offense and defense? Let us take a look. NFL.com conventional rankings are listed first, with FootballOutsiders.com advanced stats (DVOA) in parenthesis.
Kansas City Chiefs
|Passing||17th (17th)||13th (13th)||24th (18th)||25th (7th)|
|Rushing||20th (11th)||26th (22nd)||10th (2nd)||22nd (15th)|
|Total||15th (13th)||20th (16th)||21st (15th)||24th (9th)|
When the Colts have the ball
|Indianapolis Colts Offense||Kansas City Chiefs Defense|
|13 WR TY Hilton||94 DE T. Jackson|
|80 TE C. Fleener||92 DT D. Poe|
|74 LT A. Castonzo||70 DE D. DeVito|
|69 LG H. Thornton||50 OLB J. Houston|
|64 C S. Satele||55 ILB A. Jordan|
|72 RG J. Linkenbach||56 ILB D. Johnson|
|78 RT G. Cherilus||91 OLB T. Hali|
|81 WR D. Heyward-Bey||24 CB B. Flowers|
|12 QB A. Luck||29 SS E. Berry|
|39 FB S. Havili||23 FS K. Lewis|
|31 RB D. Brown||27 CB S. Smith|
It was the best of offenses, it was the worst of offenses. It was the age of passing, it was the age of running. It was the epoch of evolution, it was the epoch of stubbornness. It was the season of scoring, it was the season of will imposing. It was the Winter of Luck, it was the Fall of Richardson. We had greatness before us, we had ineptitude before us. We were all going direct to the Super Bowl, we were all going direct to the draft.
But over the last 3 weeks, we've seen the evolution of Pep Hamilton. Whether it came from above, whether it was just him learning what did and did not work in the Faster, Bigger, Stronger™ NFL, the Colts offense over the past 3 weeks (at least when the games were in question) has been a thing of beauty (for the most part).
What I'm watching for, offense:
1. What can Brown do for you? - I've used this before. I'm running out of cliches. I'll call the coach, he has an endless supply. For now, you're stuck with this one.
The Trent Richardson trade is over. It's in the past. For the next 1 to 4 weeks it does not matter what you gave up. It doesn't matter who won or lost the trade. All that matters is winning every game you play for the rest of the season. The Colts would do well to forget why they brought Richardson to Indianapolis, to forget what they wanted him to do. He is who he is this season and he's not going to change. The best scenario for this team, for the rest of this season, is for Donald Brown to be the "starting" running back and for Trent Richardson to be more of a short yardage guy. Maybe Richardson is better next year after a full off-season with the team. But that's next season. Leaning on Donald Brown THIS season gives the Colts their best chance at winning.
2. Turnstyles of Bad and Hapless – It's funny (and maybe ironic), for a team that wanted to "run the ball and stop the run," its two weakest units are, in my mind, the offensive and defensive line. I wrote going into the season (and last season, I believe) that the only thing preventing the offense from becoming a top-10 unit was the play of the OL. Now, this isn't me patting myself on the back, because I was unable to foresee the injuries to Donald Thomas, Dwayne Allen, Vick Ballard, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Reggie Wayne, as well as the questionable decision making by Pep Hamilton, but the point is still mostly valid: the Colts OL is bad and it should feel bad.
Sure, OTs Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus combine to form one of the better duos in the league, but the entire trio of Thornton, Satele and McGlynn (or Linkenbach, if he happens to be there) is among the worst interiors in the league.
The good news is Chuck Pagano and his staff seem to have recognized the problem and have been searching for the best possible combination given the available players. The bad news is that injuries, especially to Joe Reitz, have hindered their search.
On Saturday, they OL will be tasked with stopping the pass rushing duo of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, one of the better pairs in the league. If the OL can contain them, it will be a major step towards securing a victory. If not, the Chiefs defense may provide its offense with enough chances to pull out the victory.
3. The Education of Andy – Andrew Luck was hailed as "the best draft prospect in 20 years!" when he left Stanford and entered the 2012 draft. Never before have so many nice words been written about someone who would end up on the Indianapolis Colts' roster.
I didn't watch much of Stanford prior to Manning's injury: west coast team, PAC-whatever, I just wasn't all that interested. And besides, it wasn't like we had any need for Andrew Luck. After the injury (and as it became clear that the Colts would be drafting him), I watched some of his games. He was… good. I mean, I wasn't convinced he was going to be the greatest thing since Orange Soda, but he was good.
And then I watched him with the Colts (duh).
I have never been more amazed with the first two seasons of a professional athlete than I have been with Andrew Luck. Whether it's adapting to Bruce Arians' Body Count™ Offense, dealing with injuries to 75% of his offensive skilled players, or overcoming an offensive line dead set on collecting an insurance check, Luck has proven that he is one of the most malleable players in the NFL. If he has to be a pocket QB, he can be one of the best. If he has to scramble, he can be one of the best. If he needs to roll out, he can do that. If he needs to audible, he can do that. If he needs to run the no huddle, he can do that.
There is nothing he can't do.
He has every physical tool a quarterback could possibly have. He has the brain to process and quickly adapt to his surroundings. He has gained a level of patience and maturity that Peyton Manning didn't achieve until his 6th season. Win or lose on Saturday, the Colts future is as bright as they want it to be. The only limits Andrew Luck has are the ones you put on him.
When the Chiefs have the ball
|Indianapolis Colts Defense||Kansas City Chiefs Offense|
|90 DE C. Redding||17 WR D. Avery|
|97 NT A. Franklin||76 LT B. Albert|
|99 DT R. Jean Francois||71 LG J. Allen|
|93 OLB E. Walden||61 C R. Hudson|
|52 ILB K. Sheppard||73 RG J. Asamoah|
|50 ILB J. Freeman||72 RT E. Fisher|
|98 OLB R. Mathis||80 TE A. Fasano|
|28 CB G. Toler||82 WR D. Bowe|
|30 FS L. Landry||11 QB A. Smith|
|41 SS A. Bethea||42 FB A. Sherman|
|23 CB V. Davis||25 RB J. Charles|
Like the offense, the Colts defense is very Jekyll and Hyde. Unlike the offense, this inconsistency isn't self-inflicted. When the Colts are able to get into and execute their man-press schemes, they put up the kind of performances that allow them to dominate the 49ers, Texans (part 2), Chiefs, and Jaguars (parts 1 and 2). When they aren't in man-press (or simply fail to execute), the result is the train wrecks against Arizona, St. Louis, the Bengals, etc…
Part of the solution to this problem is getting CBs Vontae Davis and Greg Toler healthy and on the field. For all of their warts – and there are plenty, especially with Toler – these two are far-and-away the best CBs on the team and the only two capable of properly executing Greg Manusky's vision. When either of them is out, Cassius Vaughn's promotion to the starting rotation is all the opposing offense needs to open the flood gates.
This is what we should be looking for Saturday when the Chiefs decide to throw the ball. Tight press coverage on the outside, throwing off the timing/routes of QB Alex Smith and his receivers, while Robert Mathis, Erik Walden and Jerrell Freeman pressure him into making decisions quicker than he'd like.
Mathis and Freeman in particular have been huge down the stretch, and both men dominated the Kansas City offense (both rushing the passer and in coverage) in the week 16 game. They'll have to duplicate that performance on Saturday if the Colts defense is going to help lead this team to the second round.
Of course, the problem is that Alex Smith, Dwayne Bowe, and Donnie Avery aren't the Chiefs' biggest threat(s). That title belongs to RB Jamaal Charles. In the week 16 tilt, Charles ran for 8.2ypc. That number, without context, looks terrifying. And let's be honest: even with context it's still a little scary. But the reality of the situation is this: you can't win a game on the run alone. Charles gained 106 yards on 13 carries. That's fantastic. But without the support of an average-or-better passing game, it's not going to win any games.
And here's the reality about this Colts defense: yes, it has a tendency to look like one of the 5-worst defenses of all time. But when they are able to play press-man-coverage on the outside and able to focus on the running back with their front seven, that's when the defense really shines. And with an average QB and average receivers, the Colts' LBs and DL should be in a position to do just that.
There's a lot of concern when you play a team twice in a span of three weeks. That concern usually magnifies when you dominated the match-up the first time around. The Colts should feel nervous, they should be concerned. But the blue print worked two weeks ago for a reason: the Chiefs lack the explosive outside threat that can beat the Colts coverage schemes. They lack a QB good enough to exploit their glaring weaknesses. And when they are faced with that kind of passing game, the Colts are capable of containing any rushing attack.
If they enter this week's game with the same intensity and focus as that week 16 game, they should be able to repeat their performance.
What I'm watching for, defense:
1. Start the Presses – Greg Toler isn't a great cornerback, but he's easily the Colts' second best CB, and the difference between him and everyone behind him is dramatic. Having him back in the lineup has allowed DC Greg Manusky to go back to his preferred style of attack: jamming opposing WRs at the line and attacking the QB with LBs Mathis, Walden, and Freeman. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense (to me, anyhow) that one average CB can be so important to the defense, but watch the Colts pre-Toler injury, post-Toler injury, and then again after he comes back. The Toler Effect is real, and it's spectacular.
2. DPoY – The rest of the football world is currently busy making up reasons why Robert Mathis shouldn't be the Defensive Player of the Year. Those people are what I like to call wrong. Robert Mathis is the DPoY. If you were to take a vote (of sane, correct people), Mathis would finish second in MVP voting for the Colts. In the proper context – specifically who is and isn't around him – Robert Mathis' 2013 campaign is not only dominant, but it was also desperately needed. If you remove Mathis' contributions from the team, the defense – which was already shaky at times – would plummet into one of the two worst units in the league. Without Mathis, there is no pass rush, there is no masking the holes at linebacker and in the secondary. There's no covering for a largely one-dimensional defensive line. Robert Mathis allows every other player on the defense to function properly. If he doesn't win DPOY, it's because people literally hate Indianapolis.
Keys to the game (Besides outscoring your opponent)
1. Protect Luck (For the seventeenth-consecutive week!) - Andrew Luck has been sacked just 3 times over the last 4 weeks. That's much better than the 412 (approximate) times he was sacked over the first 8 weeks of the season. The Colts offensive line is still a work in progress – and look, there's no help coming until the off-season – but the benching of either McGlynn or Satele (depending on health) has done wonders for the line.
The Chiefs have two very good pass rushers in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, but neither got to Luck in week 16 (he was sacked once, by LB Derrick Johnson) and Luck was able to have an efficient day. That sounds like an insult, but it's not. The Colts offense doesn't have to be explosive against the Chiefs, it just has to be efficient enough to out-pace Alex Smith. Luck can do that if he's not "chasing downs." But if he's getting pressured or sacked, the Colts offense is going to struggle to find a rhythm. That starts in the trenches.
Honestly, outside of play-calling, this is the one area I look at and wonder, "is it good enough to win four-straight games?" I'm not sure. Saturday will be a good test.
2. Protect the Ball - This sort of goes hand-in-hand with the last one. Luck has had a remarkable season, turning the ball over only 11 times (9 INT, 2 fumbles) down from 23 (18/5) last year. Part of that is because of Pep Hamilton's "No Down-field Passing" offense, but most of the credit goes to Luck, who has not only developed a sense of patience and awareness far-beyond his years, but has also embraced the check down much earlier in his career than many of his contemporaries (other than Jason Campbell, he embraced the check down in his mother's womb).
As Colts fans, we need only remember back to the early stages of Peyton Manning's career. Sure, he was often undone by a shaky defense and horrendous special teams, but if there was one knock on the QB, it was his refusal to take what the defense was giving him. Every ball had to be pushed down field.
You admire that kind of aggressiveness, but you also have to understand that modern defenses are designed to take it away. So you have to be smart. You have to find those RBs and TEs underneath. Luck has done that this year. His learning curve is remarkable.
The Colts will need that patience and maturity not just on Saturday, but for the entire playoffs, if the Colts are going to make a deep run this post-season.
3. Be Yourself (unless yourself is running the ball 42 times, then be someone else) – The first thing people usually hear when they ask, "what's the key to success?" is: "be yourself." This is generally sound advice: when you're yourself, there's no extra thinking or acting. You can just behave naturally, instinctively. 99% of the time, this advice works every time.
For example, Greg Manusky and the Colts defense should absolutely "be itself" on Saturday. Be that aggressive, attacking defense. Press the receivers on the outside, jam them, get physical with them, throw off the timing. Attack with Walden and Mathis and Werner, blitz with Freeman. Get after the quarterback. That's who you are, and when you were that defense, that's when you were at your best.
On the other hand, if you're a cheese ball who walks around with spiky hair, sunglasses, and a Hawaiian shirt and your dialect consists entirely of quotes from corny 80s movies, you're in the 1% who should never be yourself, ever.
And when I think of corny quotes from the 80s, I think of Chuck Pagano and Pep Hamilton's power rushing attack.
Over the past 4 weeks (starting with the Bengals loss, ending with the Jaguars win), we've seen glimpses of an amazing offense. Different route combinations, quick passes designed to give the WR a chance to make one defender miss and then pick up big yardage after the catch, seam routes for Fleener, running your receivers deep and throwing it to the RB underneath. The running game, in these stretches, was used as a complement, not the key cog.
In those four weeks, Stanley Havili saw his usage fall from ~50% of all snaps to ~20%.
Not only was the Colts power running philosophy out-dated, they simply don't have the personnel (especially along the OL) to make it work.
If the Colts run the offense they've run in the first half of their games over the last month, they will surprise a lot of people. If they fall into old habits, if they try to prove their way is the best way and showcase Trent Richardson 2.9 yards at a time? They'll be preparing for free agency and the draft Sunday morning.
4. Turn "McAfee'd" into a Verb – Every Colts fan knows what it means to be Scifres'd. As the Colts get ready to take on the Chiefs and the #1 Special Teams Unit (according to DVOA), it's time to embrace turning punters into verbs. When the Colts are at their best, they are a "three unit team." The offense is having effective drives (not necessarily scoring points in bunches), the defense is making stops (though not necessarily 3-and-outs) and the special teams are forcing offenses to go on long drives.
The Colts' defense is middle of the road on 3rd downs (opposing offenses convert 3rd downs 37.6% of the time, 15th in the NFL), but when McAfee is forcing drives of 80+ yards, it's okay.
If the Colts special teams can force the Chiefs to go 80+ yards on every drive on Sunday, I don't think Alex Smith will be up to the task. McAfee is playing for a contract, I think he'll earn it here.
The injury reports
NOTE: This guide comes out Thursdays, official injury statuses are not released until Friday, the Probable or Questionable designation in these reports is based on Wed/Thur participation only.
|Sergio Brown||GROIN (PROBABLE)|
|Darius Butler||QUAD (PROBABLE)|
|Vontae Davis||GROIN (PROBABLE)|
|Aubrayo Franklin||KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)|
|WR Darrius Heyward-Bey||HAMSTRING (QUESTIONABLE)|
|Ricky Jean Francois||FOOT (PROBABLE)|
|Robert Mathis||REST (PROBABLE)|
|Mike McGlynn||ELBOW (PROBABLE)|
|Fili Moala||KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)|
|Cory Redding||SHOULDER (PROBABLE)|
|TOLER ISLAND||GROIN (PROBABLE)|
|Bjoern Werner||ANKLE (PROBABLE)|
Kansas City Chiefs
|LT Branden Albert||KNEE (PROBABLE)|
|WR Dwane Bowe||CONCUSSION (PROBABLE)|
|RT Eric Fisher||GROIN/SHOULDER (QUESTIONABLE)|
|LB Tamba Hali||KNEE (QUESTIONABLE)|
|LB Justin Houston||ELBOW (PROBABLE)|
|OL Eric Kush||ANKLE (PROBABLE)|
|DB Ron Parker||FINGER/ANKLE (PROBABLE)|
Series note and a video
- The Colts and the Chiefs have met 20 times in the regular season, with the Colts holding a 12-8 edge. They've also met 3 times in the playoffs, where the Colts have won all 3 match-ups.
A video from one of the most exciting playoff games ever! Not a great memory, but you can use it to remind you why Pat McAfee is so awesome:
Identifying the coverage
Who(Visually): Dan Hicks, Mike Mayock
Who(Audio): Bob Lamey and Jim Sorgi
Is the Game on in your area? Yep
Officiating Crew: Walt Anderson
Colts – 27, Chiefs – 13