The Colts play host to the San Diego Chargers in a prime time Sunday night game in Indianapolis. It is well known that Indy is on the top of its game in these situations — and it will need to be to knock off the Chargers who are elusively talented and competitive, even though they struggle to start almost every season.
The importance of the outcome in this game is not only a 12-win season streak and a potential playoff berth, it could determine seeding for division winners. As things are today, there is a strong likelihood that if the Colts win out the season they will win the AFC South and enter the playoffs with the three-seed. The Patriots or Jets are on pace to enter the playoffs with the one-seed, while the other will be the top rated wild card team. This would allow the Colts to not face the Jets or Patriots until the AFC Championship Game, while also reducing the likelihood that the Colts would have to travel to Foxborough or the New Meadowlands Stadium for a harsh winter game outdoors. To call this a big game would be an understatement, the Colts need this one.
In order to pull it off, the Colts will have to keep Peyton Manning protected against a defense that has generated more sacks than any other team in the league. It is a rare occasion to face a team that has the top-rated offense and defense after 10 weeks, and even rarer for that team to only have a .500 record. Still, this defense will relentlessly attack Manning, test the offensive line, and has held opponents to the lowest average passing yards per game of any other NFL team.
Should the offensive line struggle in the face of pressure from San Diego’s pass rush, the Colts will need to take advantage by producing on the ground. This will mean Donald Brown, Javarris James, and possibly Mike Hart will need to find holes provided by the offensive line to put the rush back on its heels and allow Manning time, and give his receivers an opportunity to get into their routes. The running game has been inconsistent at best to this point in the season but if the running game fails and the offensive line allows pressure, it will be a long game and a lot will be required of the defense to keep it low scoring.
Of course, this effort will also not be easy as the defense will have to stop Phillip Rivers and a newly returned Vincent Jackson. Mike Tolbert is a bruising running back who runs with a similar style to Benjarvus Green-Ellis who had his way against the Colts a week ago. His counterpart, Darren Sproles, is also similar to Danny Woodhead and has a history of striking big blows to the Colts in close games.
Not unlike the Colts, San Diego is reeling from offensive injuries to receivers Patrick Crayton, Malcolm Floyd, and tight end Antonio Gates. None of the key pass catchers is likely to play, and if they do could be limited, which could aid the Colts defense. Freeney and Mathis will need to rattle Rivers, the linebackers will need to keep San Diego’s running game in check, and the gaping holes in Indy’s zone from a week ago will need to close.
The biggest weakness for the Chargers team is on special teams. Their return game and coverage units have struggled greatly this season. Brandon James and the Colts return unit will have its first opportunity to find its legs and affect the outcome of a game. Unfortunately, the Colts have also struggled to be consistent in coverage and have done little to threaten during returns, so the team will have to play out of character to take advantage.
Expect this game to be as close and competitive as the teams recent match-ups have been. It is true, the Colts and Chargers rivalry is quickly beginning to reach the same level as Indianapolis’s yearly bout with the Patriots. There is a lot riding on this one, Peyton Manning is frustrated and not in a mood to take crap from members of San Diego media, this is his chance to set the record straight on the field. Will he do it? If he does, the Colts could make the most of their run to the post-season and have it pay dividends as they attempt to return to the Super Bowl.
Though the game will be close, the Colts should take advantage of a friendly environment, an active twelfth man, a fast field, and controlled environment to win 24-27.