by Kent Sterling
The Colts all but won the AFC South when they beat Tennessee in a game where they rebounded from a terrible first half, and because of a hotly debated pass interference non-call in the Patriots vs. Panthers game, the Colts have a very tenuous hold on the #2 seed in the AFC.
This weekend, the Colts travel to Arizona to battle the resurgent Cardinals, who have won three straight. Granted, those three games were against the worst in the NFL, but a win is a win whether it’s against the Seahawks, Texans, Falcons, or Jaguars. Guess which of those four the Cardinals didn’t beat during the last three weeks.
These aren’t the doormat Cardinals that have battled the Rams for the bottom of the NFC West over the last decade. They are 6-4 and have some very talented players, and some very mediocre players.
The defense is capable of stout play with DT Calais Campbell and DBs Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. All three are elite players, who give the Colts matchup problems.
Conversely, the Colts have some match ups that will cause mayhem for the Cardinals.
Here are the five keys for the Colts to beat the Arizona Cardinals:
Get to Carson Palmer – Under duress, Palmer is no Andrew Luck. He’s been sacked 27 times this season, and before last Sunday’s game in Jacksonville, he had thrown at least one interception in every game this season. Oddly, Palmer threw one pick in the first two games of the season, then two picks in the next two games, then one game with three, followed by two games with two, two games with one pick, and finally none in the game vs. the Jags. Without pressure, Palmer’s passer rating is 103.6. With pressure, it’s 40.0. For comparison sake, Luck boasts a 94.2 rating with no pressure, and a 73.2 with pressure. Minus Daryn Colledge, the offense line is average to very poor. LT Bradley Sowell, RG Paul Fanaika, and RT Eric Winston are like bad bar bouncers who let people pass without even a pat down, and Robert Mathis should be like Carl in “Sling Blade” right now sharpening his tools in preparation for a big day.
The Cardinals are second in the NFL in turnover percentage with 16.7%, meaning that one in every six Cardinals offensive drives end in a turnover. The Colts are 28th at 8.8% – or roughly half. Get to Palmer, force turnovers, win the game.
Limit the run – The Cardinals do a pretty good job limiting their own ability to run by playing Rashard Mendenhall rather than Andre Ellington. The callers to Phoenix sportstalk radio stations are wondering why coach Bruce Arians continues to use Mendenhall in the same way fans in Indy want to know why Trent Richardson gets carries at the expense of Donald Brown. Mendenhall has 117 carries for 337 yards – an average of 2.88 yards. For the Colts, Richardson has 96 carries for 272 yards – 2.83 yards per carry. The “back-ups” are rolling. Ellington has 63 carries for 391 yards, an average of 6.2 yards, and Brown has 55 carries for 323 yards – 5.9 yards per carry. In that respect, these teams are battling a very similar problem.
Forcing the Cardinals to rely upon the occasionally flaky Palmer will open opportunities for sacks, turnovers, and game changing chaos.
Punt away from Patrick Peterson – I was in the press box at University of Phoenix Stadium when Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo decided to tempt fate by kicking to Peterson. The first punt was returned a net 37 yards including a 15 yard personal foul on the Rams. That put the Cards in field goal range leading to a 3-0 lead. The last punt – in overtime – was caught by at the Cards one yard line. Ninety-nine yards later, we headed for the bus, and Spags called a moving company. Peterson is a game changer, and why should the Colts hand the Cardinals bullets they can use to shoot back?
Games like this for a team like the Colts are as much about eliminating the ways to lose as adding to the ways it can win. Punting away from Peterson, regardless of his statistics this season – 6.7 yards per return without a TD – removes a game-changing menace.
Protect the franchise – Colts fans, Indianapolis media, Colts coaches, and anyone with functional eyes and a passing interest in football knows that as Andrew Luck goes, so go the Colts. Remember all the speculation over the years about how bad the Colts would be without Peyton Manning? The 2011 season proved that we were 100% right to assume a collapse, and we don’t need a refresher course. Calais Campbell has a knack for hitting QBs, and he spends a lot of time lined up against guards. That matches him up with the interior of the Colts offensive line, which is um, well, a group of guys who try real hard. The Cardinals like to trick things up with creative blitzes, so Richardson or Brown need to be ready to read correctly.
Other guys need to step up – Patrick Peterson is a shut down corner who will matchup against T.Y. Hilton. That means that Darrius Heyward-Bey, Coby Fleener, and LaVon Brazill need to step up and make catches. Fleener had a great game against the Titans. Let’s see if he can do it again. DHB has had five drops in the last four games, and that needs to stop.
A significant advantage could exist for the Colts in that they beat the Titans on Thursday night, which gave the coaches a bonus 72 hours to game plan for the Cardinals. Arians is a well known quantity among the Colts staff, and if there is a game left on the schedule where the coaches can step up and steal one, it’s comes this Sunday.
If the Colts can get to 8-3 this weekend, they will have three of their last five games at home against their AFC South brethren. They will also travel to Cincinnati and Kansas City. If you want to do the math about a first round bye, go ahead. I’ll wait until it takes no more than adding and subtracting, instead of plotting a series of Venn Diagrams. This much I know, win and the Colts are guaranteed no worse than #2.
The line is Arizona -1. I’ll take the Colts 23-20. As you know, I don’t bet because needing to win 55% of the time to break even is an unfair threshold. In sports gambling, only the house wins.