AFC Wild Card Weekend Preview #2: Indianapolis Colts at San Diego Chargers

Looks like Senor ncoolong had the same idea as me previewing this game. Oh well. Considering that most of y'all think that Baltimore is going to win at Miami on Sunday, consider yourself extra preview-fied for the potential opponent heading to Heinz Field two Sundays from now. As I said, you can expect my eyes to be on the games for the most part until Pittsburgh is eliminated, so the more the merrier in terms of playoff coverage as far as I'm concerned, Steelers related or not.

Oh, and be sure to enjoy your weekend before getting your 2009 kicking for real as of Monday. Think long and hard about what you want, make a plan, and go get it this new year!  I say that as a non-family man and largely wayward and unrefined 26 year old (damn, I like the sound of 25 better), but only with the best intentions and wishes for each and every one of you this new year. I look forward to getting to know y'all even better and talking Steelers football year round in 2009. 

I've got some exciting Steelers and BTSC related news to share soon, so stay tuned.

Cheers.

- Blitz-

**************************

On to BTSC's Wild Card Weekend preview of the Indianapolis Colts at the San Diego Chargers. You can see my preview of the Miami Baltimore game here. Of all the games this weekend, this is probably going to be the marquee match up. I'll have an extremely close eye on the Miami-Baltimore game on Sunday, but in terms of talent and teams riding a wave of momentum into the playoffs, not to mention the recent history between these two teams, this Indy-SD showdown is as good as it gets for an opening round game in the playoffs.

HOW THEY GOT HERE:

Indy: The Colts enter the 2008 playoffs as the hottest team in the National Football League. After getting off to a shaky 3-4 start, the Colts have ripped off 9 in a row to enter the AFC playoffs as the top Wild Card and the #5 seed.Though they finished the year 12-4, four games clear of the Chargers, and technically ahead of the Steelers by virtue of their head-to-head victory in Pittsburgh, they must travel to Qualcomm Stadium in Southern California to take on the AFC West champion Chargers because they couldn't quite catch the Titans atop the AFC South standings.

That's a disadvantage but not crippling because when you have Peyton Manning QB'ing your team, you're not overly concerned about where you're playing if you're a Colts supporter.  The new Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy isn't all that great a home field advantage in the first place. But more importantly, Manning has seen it all and done it all in this league. Peyton Manning was announced the 2008 NFL MVP today in a landslide. With Drew Brees struggling in several critical moments down the stretch that cost the Saints playoff positioning, and Kurt Warner's Cardinals looking miserable in December, Manning became a clear cut favorite for the hardware. Manning joins Favre as the only other 3-time winner of the award.

Even though Manning has been rock solid for the most part, the team has hardly been the dominant force that the league has been used to encountering in recent years. As has been noted here by others, the Colts have been in a number of one possession games during their 9 game winning streak:

IND  18 - NE 15
IND  24 - PIT 20
IND  33 - HOU 27
IND  23 - SD 20
IND  10 - CLE 6
IND  35 - CIN 3
IND  31 - DET 21
IND  31 - JAX 24
IND  23 - TEN 0

So what does that mean? Those are some close games against a number of mediocre teams. Does that mean the Colts are vulnerable? Maybe, but to me, it means they're well coached and capable of doing what developing teams struggle to do: finish games. If San Diego's going to win this one, my money's on them doing so by more than one score. If it's close and Manning and the Colts have the ball last, look out. (I'm sick writing all this adulation..seriously).

San Diego: Like they have in recent years, the Chargers stumbled out of the gates slowly to start the 2008 campaign. The Chargers lost on the last play of the game in both Week 1 and Week 2. The Chargers leveled their record at 2-2, then at 3-3. At 4-5 after losing in London to the Chargers then beating KC, SD traveled to Pittsburgh in a game that seemed imperative at the time. They of course fell to us 11-10, then proceeded to drop their next two. At 4-8, they seemed all but out of it, but four wins later, including the division clinching W vs. Denver in SD and here they are still alive.

Phillip Rivers has been amazing lately. He entered the Pittsburgh game with fantastic numbers, then tailed off for a few games after getting thrown around like a rag doll t Heinz Field.. But over his last four, Rivers has thrown 11 TDs to just 1 INT, and over 1,050 yards. Very impressive. If the Chargers had won several of those games they lost on the final possession and finished the year with 10 or 11 wins, it wouldn't suprise me if he had given Manning a run for his money in the MVP voting. His numbers sure stood up. He finished the year with 4009 yards, 34 TDs, 11 INTs, and a QB rating of 105.5.  Those be MVP numbers, except if you only lead your team to 8 victories.

There's more.

 

The Last Time They Met:

IND 23 @ SD 20

Like so many of their recent contest, the 2008 regular season battle between the Colts and the Chargers was a tightly contested tight game. The Colts emerged victorious on an Adam Vinatieri 51 yard FG as time expire in SD. Just a year ago, Vinatieri botched a chip shot 29 yard FG that would have won it for Indy, but this time, he was true from long distance. Manning rebounded from a costly INT inside the Chargers redzone earlier in the game to throw for 250+ yards and 2 TDs. He was nearly flawless the remainder of the season since that pick. On the day, neither team rushed particularly well, yet both teams found enough success in the running game to compliment their high octaine aerial attacks. LT finished the game with 84 yards on 21 carries while Joseph Addai had 70 yards on just 16 totes. 

Keys To The Game:

For whatever reason, Peyton Manning has had trouble not turning the ball over against this Chargers defense in recent years. For all those who get impatient with Big Ben's costly turnovers, remember, just last year Peyton threw 6 INTs against the Chargers in the regular season, and 2 more in the playoffs against them. If he can limit those tomorrow evening, I think the Colts should win this game. Joseph Addai is finally running close to full strength, and as we saw when we played the Chargers, the SD secondary can be had. Bigtime. That's not good news going up against a Manning led Colts team whos confidence is sky high at the moment.

For the Chargers, they're going to need to milk the clock some in the running game. They can win a shootout with this Colts team, but it's not in their best interests to get in that type of game. Instead, LT would be well served running for 100+ yards, keeping Manning and the Colts offense off the field as much as possible. LT is dealing with a groin strain though, so we'll just have to wait and see how effective he is. That's multiple years in a row now that Tomlinson is entering the playoffs battered and bruised. He's a phenomenal player and bound for Canton one day, but I think it's safe to say his best days are long behind him. Is he young and fresh enough to lead a playoff charge?

Special teams are going to be huge as well. The shifty and speedy Darren Sproles has killed Indy in recent years. This year, he was held in check. That definitely was a key to Indy's victory. In their regular season meeting last year, Sproles  went off. He returned both a kickoff and a punt for a TD. Indy must keep him in check tomorrow evening to maximize their chances at victory. It's not just in the return game though that Sproles could make a difference. With LT ailing, Sproles could have his number called 8-12 times in the running game, and could be the recipient of several designed screen plays in the passing game. He's awfully shifty and explosive. My gut tells me he'll have to make multiple big plays for SD to win this one.

We'll see what happens. I don't think I'm going to make a prediction on this one. Both teams are playing too well, and both have enough firepower to play unbeatable football on their very best day. To me though, this one comes down to how Manning plays. If he protects the ball, the Colts win. If he turns it over two times or more, who knows.

Be sure to catch this one though if at all possible. Depending on what happens on Sunday between Miami and Baltimore, the winner of the Colts and Chargers could very well be headed east to Pittsburgh the following Sunday to take on a rested and ready Steelers team.

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