Chiefs v. Colts, and Things of that Nature (Week 5 Preview)

Looking at the Indianapolis Colts’ schedule during the off-season, it would have been easy to predict their week five match-up against the Kansas City Chiefs would feature an undefeated team.  Predicting that team would be the Chiefs, and not the Colts, would have required a Nostradamus-like premonition.

The Chiefs, considered to be one of the league’s doormat teams in recent years, enter the game as the league’s lone unbeaten team.  Their three wins have come courtesy of a common winning formula: solid defensive play, a ball-possession offense, and great special teams play.

On special teams, a pair of rookies, Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas, have combined to make the Kansas City return units dangerous.  They lead the league in punt return yards and are second in average return yards, at 15.4 yards per return.  Containing the Chiefs’ returners — preventing short fields and cheap scores — will be a big task, but one the Colts’ special teams units must be up to if they want to hand Kansas City its first loss.

The Chiefs’ offense is led by running backs Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles.  Jones, who is listed as the official starter on the team’s depth chart, is a solid, but unspectacular back, that will be the offense’s workhorse.   Charles, on the other hand, is a dynamic player and a threat to turn every play into a highlight reel run.  Preventing the big run from Charles, and forcing the Chiefs’ offense to make long, mistake free drives, will be the Colts’ number one priority on defense.

While the play of their special teams and offense has improved, the biggest turnaround for the Chiefs has come on the defensive side of the ball, where they’ve gone from the 30th ranked defense (26th in advanced stats) in 2009 to the 3rd ranked defense (5th in advanced stats) in 2010.  While improved talent and play from the defensive line and linebackers has contributed to this turnaround, it’s been the secondary, led by youngsters Eric Berry and Brandon Flowers, that has made the most improvement.

The Colts enter this game wounded and desperate.  Gone for the season are safety Melvin Bullitt and kick returner Devin Moore.  Out for this game are safety Bob Sanders and wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez.  They are likely to be joined on the inactive list by running backs Donald Brown and Mike Hart, and corner back Jacob Lacey.

Injuries cannot be an excuse, as the Colts desperately need a win to prevent themselves from falling farther behind in their division.  They are last in the AFC South and have already suffered two conference and divisional losses.  While it seems too early to be concerned with playoff tie breakers, the Colts cannot afford to take any more conference or divisional losses if they want to control their fate come December.

So how will the Colts deal with the visitors on Sunday?  Their ability to overcome the biggest advantage for Kansas City, special teams, may rest on the foot of their shaggy-haired punter, Pat McAfee.  If McAfee can force the Chiefs’ returners into touch backs and fair catches, something he excels at doing in the friendly confines of Lucas Oil Stadium, it will go a long way toward helping the Colts get a big win.

The Colts should be able to stack the box to contain the running game on defense, as Kansas City’s passing game has been largely ineffective through three weeks.  Chiefs’ quarterback Matt Cassel is near the bottom of the league in most key passing statistics: passing yards, completion percentage, and yards per attempt.  Though the Chiefs seem content to use the short passing game to compliment their dangerous rushing attack, Cassel may attempt a few deep balls to test Colts’ safety DaJuan Morgan, who will be filling in for the injured Bullitt and Sanders.

When it comes to containing the Chiefs’ running game, gap discipline will be key.  In both losses this year, the Colts’ defense failed to maintain their gap assignments, which allowed opposing running backs to use cutbacks and misdirection plays.  If that happens this week, Jamaal Charles has the speed to take it the distance.

On offense the Peyton Manning-led attack will attempt to spread out the talented, but inexperienced, Kansas City secondary.   This task will be made easier with the return of starting wide receiver and deep threat Pierre Garçon.  Once the Colts have established their passing game it should open up some room for running back Joseph Addai.   This will allow the play-action passing game to work at its maximum effectiveness, giving Manning every opportunity to exploit the Kansas City defense.

Red zone efficiency on both sides of the ball will also be a factor. In the Colts’ win against the Broncos, for example, the Colts were able to limit the Broncos to no touchdowns on their red zone trips. Against the Jaguars, however, they were unable to force a field goal attempt.   Limiting the Chiefs to field goals instead of touchdowns will make it difficult for a team lacking an explosive passing game to keep up.

In the end Pat McAfee’s leg will be strong enough to limit the damage done by the Chiefs’ return game.  The defense, which has fielded questions about its toughness all week, will play inspired, led by linebacker Clint Session, who should be close to full strength after his recent hamstring injury.   The offense will come out on fire, sparked by the return of Garçon, and move the ball against a Chiefs’ defense that has yet to face an offense as potent as the Colts.

According to sources, Peyton Manning has made it clear to the team that this game is a must win.   He knows the importance of keeping pace with the rest of the conference, and will do whatever it takes to make sure that happens.  The defense knows its to blame for the Colts’ two losses, and they will come out with a chip on their shoulder.

Or, as Nostradamus would say:

The Horseshoe, led by he with the arm of gold;
Will defeat the red-colored arrowhead;
In fashion similar to that of their toppling;
of the Giants from the apple-themed city.

Prediction: Chiefs – 13 Colts – 31

Author’s note: For the first four weeks of this “column” I’ve kept my prediction in step with my prediction on the Check it to Pancakes Podcast (check us out, we’re on iTunes!).  I never want to be the person that plays both sides of the fence so that I’m always right.   In this case, however, I really feel strong about changing my prediction (was 24-21 Chiefs on the podcast).

First, it seems as if Austin Collie WILL play, which I think, coupled with Garçon’s return, should be enough to overwhelm the Chiefs’ secondary.  Second, this team, specifically the defense, really rebounds well from poor performances. Finally, though I mentioned it on the podcast, I really believe that McAfee will be able to neutralize the Chiefs’ special teams more than I gave him credit for Thursday night.  All of those things combined, plus what I expect to be a great crowd, should lead to a Colts’ rout.

If not, this season could start looking bleak, fast.