by Kent Sterling
This is a weird game because in two weeks these two teams could be playing again in a playoff game in Indianapolis. Neither the Colts nor Chiefs will be holding anything back on Sunday, but it’s damn tough to beat a good team twice in 14 days. That means Sunday’s loser might have an advantage once the second season starts.
No doubt that logic is cockeyed, but my ability to craft bizarre arguments that justify losing was honed honestly during a lifetime as a Cubs fan.
And losing is the likely result this Sunday for the Colts as they matchup poorly on the road against the Chiefs. It’s not Jamaal Charles who should worry Colts fans, although he’s a dynamic player as evidenced by his monster 5 TD day last weekend against the Raiders. No, it’s quarterback Alex Smith that has a good chance to vex the Colts.
One day short of a full year ago, the Colts traveled to Kansas City to play a very different version of the Chiefs. In that bizarre game, the Colts triumphed 21-14 despite giving up 352 yards rushing (226 for Charles; 101 for Peyton Hillis). The game was tied until 4:12 to play when Andrew Luck hit Reggie Wayne for the final seven yards of a monster 13 play, six minute drive.
A big difference between that game and what we look forward to Sunday – Brady Quinn was the Chiefs starting quarterback. This time, it’s Smith.
Last Sunday, Smith put together the first perfect QB rating of his career, completing 17-20 passes for 287 yards and five touchdowns. While it’s true that a significant chunk of the 287 yards came as Charles ran away from the Raiders defenders, but he is a very similar thrower to Philip Rivers in that he gets rid of the ball before pressure gets to him, and Smith is much more mobile than Rivers.
To give you an idea of how nimble Smith is, this season he has run for 19 yards more than Andrew Luck.
Worse for the Colts than Smith’s agility has been his aversion to turning the ball over. He throws an interception once every 49 passes, but does allow himself to be sacked a couple of times per game – which is preferable for coach Andy Reid to throwing the ball too soon into coverage.
The Colts may also be dealing with a newly healthy Justin Houston, who was near the NFL lead with 11 sacks after 11 games before dislocating his elbow against San Diego. (Is it just me or does a dislocated elbow sound incredibly painful? It’s one of the few injuries that causes me to wince out loud.)
The tandem of Tamba Hali and Houston with 11 sacks each will be a great challenge for the Colts reconstituted offensive live, but this isn’t the first time they have been tested. Robert Quinn and Chris Long of the Rams, Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon of the Dolphins, and J.J. Watt of the Texans, and John Abraham and Calais Campbell of the Cardinals are elite pass rushers, and the Colts came through those tests with the following results – vs. Rams – 3 sacks, 5 turnovers; vs. Cardinals – 1 sack, 0 turnovers; vs. Dolphins – three sacks, one turnover; vs. Texans (first game) – 4 sacks, 0 turnovers; vs. Houston (game two0 – not statistically reliable because the Texans quit.
So what do the Colts need to do against the Chiefs to succeed? Here are the five answers:
1 – Win the turnover battle – The Chiefs are third in the league with 20 picks and #1 in forced fumbles. Oddly, the Chiefs lead the league the turnovers forced and are tied for the lead in least turnovers allowed. As you might guess, they lead in turnover margin with +21. If anyone asks you how the Chiefs have gone from 2-14 to 10-3 in one season, tell them their turnover margin was -24 in 2012 and +21 in 2013. Forty-five turnover turnarounds will bring a few extra wins. Good news for Colts fans is that the team the Chiefs are tied with for least giveaways is the Colts, but the Colts are in the middle of the pack with 21 forced turnovers.
2 – Get pressure to Smith He doesn’t beat himself very often. The Chiefs top in the NFL with only seven interceptions thrown, and are sixth in fumbles lost. Just because he isn’t going to beat you deep very often doesn’t mean he isn’t going to beat you. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Smith has the NFL’s lowest Average Depth of Target at 6.9 yards. Donnie Avery can get behind people, but Colts fans will remember his sub DHB hands. Let Smith pick you apart underneath, and the chains will move all day long.
3 – Keep Luck clean If Luck gets time, he makes good throws. Sunday’s weather forecast in Kansas City is for a high of 26 and winds or 17 mph. Luck doesn’t play in the cold and wind very often, but the Colts aren’t built as a finesse team that requires a precision passing game. Give Luck lanes to run and some time to find check downs, and he will be fine. Hali and Houston are hellraisers, and with a lot on the line, they will be on a mission. Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilous need to keep them out of Luck’s grill.
4 – Cover Dwayne Bowe, Dexter McCluster (who is expected back from injury), and Donnie Avery without help – If the Colts are going to succeed defensively, they need to focus their attention on Jamaal Charles as a rusher and receiver out of the backfield. That means the fewer resources needed to shadow Bowe, McCluster, and Avery, the better chance the Colts defense will have to minimize the space Charles needs to hit the turbo button. Charles has 1,836 yards from scrimmage this season which makes him priority one, two, and three, but if that leaves the other receivers wide open underneath, that’s target practice for Smith.
5 – Get Trent Richardson with ball with somewhere to go – Richardson looked pretty good last week with over 100 yards from scrimmage, and they need to open some holes for his Sunday, or utilize him as a receiver more regularly. Not sure whether the refitted offensive line or if the Texans’ docile defensive pursuit accounted for the improvement in Richardson’s stat line, but the Colts better hope the line is capable of moving guys because taking chances throwing into the secondary leads to turnovers (see number one). If Richardson is going to be productive, somebody needs to block Mike Devito who is excellent against the run.
Prediction – This game looks like a tough one for the Colts. Because everything lines up against the Colts, I’m picking them to find a way to win a squeaker 17-16. That’s my heart talking, and I’m almost always sorry I listen to my heart, but what they hell fun is it to pick a home favorite with a dink and dunk artist like Smith?