by Kent Sterling
The Colts can open up a two-game lead on the Tennessee Titans and three games over the Houston Texans for supremacy in the AFC South. For the Chargers, a loss would drop them to 2-4 – a full four games back of two division rivals because the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos are the two remaining unbeaten teams in the NFL after six games.
Because the Colts are 4-1 while the Chargers are 2-3, it would stand to reason that the Colts should be favored, and they are, but by a very slim single point. Point spreads don’t necessarily reflect the quality of the two teams but find the equilibrium where the money is split between teams. Ryan Mathews has recovered sufficiently from concussion symptoms that he is expected to play tonight, and that means the Chargers will have a competent running game.
The Colts are the better team, but still aren’t getting national respect because no one has seen them yet. That will change tonight and Sunday night as they welcome Peyton Manning back to the stadium that his handiwork built.
That doesn’t mean tonight is going to be a walkover. The Chargers are very productive offensively under the right circumstances, and it will be the Colts job tonight to make sure those circumstances don’t exist tonight. There is talk about this being a trap game as it is sandwiched between important home games against previously unbeaten opponents. I’m not a fan of the trap game philosophy. The Colts know every game demands equal focus and respect, especially one played in front of the entire country – minus St. Louis and Los Angeles, whose citizens will be watching Game Three of the NLCS.
Here are the five keys for a Colts victory tonight:
- Keep Phillip Rivers from establishing rhythm – Given time, Rivers can be lethal in delivering the football on time and on target. He is very accurate when given time. With no pressure, Rivers has completed 77.9 of his passes this season. Under pressure, that percentage drops to 62.2%. Don’t think that more guys means more success in bringing pressure. When blitzed, Rivers QB rating is a stratospheric 124.4. The Chargers like to spread receivers all over the place, and that makes blitzing difficult. Sending five or six means that at least two receivers are singled, and that is exactly what Rivers loves. Sit back in a two deep zone, and Rivers picks a defense apart. Man up, send four, get pressure, and Rivers is a broken slot machine with endless payouts for the defense.
- Win chess match between Greg Manusky and Ken Whisenhunt – Whisenhunt was the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals when Kurt Warner led them to the Super Bowl XLIII. Rivers is a poor man’s Warner, and Whisenhunt, now the offensive coordinator of the Chargers, knows plenty about how to put Rivers in a position to succeed. Manusky is the defensive coordinator of the Colts, and in 2011 he filled that same role as the DC for the Chargers. He practiced against Rivers every single day for a year before accepting the same job with the Colts. The winner of this matchup will have a lot to do with who wins the game.
- Save a DB for Danny Woodhead – Part of what the Chargers like to do is put athlete Danny Woodhead in a position where a linebacker has the responsibility of covering him one-on-one, and that’s usually a win for Woodhead. Against the Cowboys two weeks ago, again and again Woodhead beat a linebacker in the seam for a gain that moved the chains. Colts coach Chuck Pagano described Trent Richardson as “a rolling ball of butcher knives,” and that works for Woodhead too. He’s little, quick, and easily underestimated. The Colts won’t, but he’s a very difficult matchup.
- Trent Richardson Explodes – The Chargers have allowed 4.9 yards per carry in the five games of the 2013 season. Opposing teams have run for 100 yards or more in four of five games. Virtually the entire defense grades poorly against the run, and despite having Andrew Luck behind center, the Colts like to grind when they can – and against the Chargers it appears they can.
- Hold onto the ball – The Chargers have only generated two turnovers the entire season, while the Colts have pried the ball loose or picked off a pass 10 times. Under duress, Rivers can make a bad decision or two while Luck has been very clean this season, throwing only two to the other guys. Luck should be able to stay clean with Dwight Freeney out for the season with a torn quad, and that means a potential long night for the Chargers.
Teams with a 2-3 record are very dangerous because the statistical probability of qualifying for the playoffs drops off a cliff for those with a 2-4 record. At 3-3, the deal can still be done. This is especially true for a team looking at two 6-0 teams in front of it. The Chargers would be four games in back of the Broncos and Chiefs, and digging out of that hole would be almost impossible for a team without an exceptional player and with a mediocre (at best) defense.
All that said, if I were a betting man, and I’m too high strung to enjoy that action, I would take the Colts -1 for big dollars. Looking at the comparative qualities of the teams, I would make the spread a touchdown in the Colts favor.
Prediction – Colts win 27-17