Saturday night's game between San Diego and Indianapolis pits two of the league's hottest teams against each other. Either one can win, and it's possible the winner will be traveling to Pittsburgh for the AFC Divisional round. If Baltimore defeats Miami on Sunday, the Steelers will host the winner of this game.
So which one will it be? It's going to be close. Here are some key match-ups to watch on this Steelers-less weekend.
Tony Dungy vs. Norv Turner
Tony Dungy's Colts have mastered the chess match of the game. It's rare you see a team with such an ineffective running game (79.6 yards per game, 31st in the NFL) have such a high rate of success on third down (50 percent, 1st in the NFL). League MVP Peyton Manning is a huge part of that, so much so he's taken arguably the least talented Colts team in its current run of dominance and made it the latest trendy lower-seeded choice for the conference championship.
For all the abuse Chargers coach Norv Turner has taken over the past two seasons, he has done a fantastic job of developing his quarterback, Phillip Rivers. How he doesn't make the Pro Bowl is beyond conventional logic, but the league's top-rated passer is doing much of what Manning is; he is leading one of the game's best third down teams without a running game. The Chargers have struggled mightily in getting former world beater LaDainian Tomlinson running downhill, but Rivers has been lights-out all year (except against Pittsburgh). The key match-up in this game is how each coach will use their elite passers to move the chains. Both teams have former Pro Bowl running backs, but their quarterbacks have clearly emerged as their team's main and only offensive weapon.
QB Peyton Manning vs. QB Phillip Rivers
On the flip side of the coaching match-up, it doesn't take an NFL analyst to see where the strengths of these teams are. The question becomes whether these teams pass for success out of choice or by necessity. Manning is the most disciplined passer in the game, and he's created his offense into a boa constrictor mentality; it's methodical but unrelenting. The Colts are fully capable of the big play, but will squeeze the life out of opposing defenses until they become frustrated. Then Manning will lead a drive with five straight third-down conversions, and a red zone touchdown (34-for-50 touchdowns in the red zone this year).
Rivers is cut from the same cloth. Despite throwing for 60 less yards per game (311.1 vs. 241.1), the Chargers had just as many touchdown passes as New Orleans, who lead the NFL is most passing statistics this year. Rivers makes the most of his opportunities, and is brutally efficient. He boasts a ridiculous 105.5 passer rating, and got three receivers (Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson and Tomlinson) 50+ catches this year.
Which of these two excellent quarterbacks will have the better game is a lock on deciding who will win, but Rivers could be without Gates and Tomlinson, they are both questionable for the game.
TE Dallas Clark vs. Chargers secondary
The Colts offensive success is predicated on the chemistry between Manning and Clark. Not that it takes a football mind like Manning's to see Clark is one of the most difficult match-ups in all of football. The Chargers are going to have a front row seat to their ability. Clark's too fast for San Diego's linebackers, too big for their safeties and Manning is smart enough to exploit their specialty packages (nickel and dime) with well-timed runs if the Chargers bring in a third cornerback to handle him.
The Chargers drafted CB Antoine Cason this past April and FS Eric Weddle the year before last with the intention of providing themselves the ability to cover lethal 3-WR sets like New England's. Now, they have the flexibility to counter a great passing threat like Manning/Clark/Reggie Wayne through different means. Look for Cason, Weddle and SS Clinton Hart to chip in on handling Clark. They have the tools to do it, and do it well.
FS Bob Sanders vs. RB Darren Sproles
Sanders is a terrific player against the pass and the run, but a knee injury has held him out of much of the season. He's expected to play against San Diego, and considering Sproles' game-breaking ability, it must be one of Sanders' most disciplined efforts.
San Diego is able to pound away at Indianapolis's weaker interior defensive line, but will likely mix in counters and misdirection runs with Sproles. He's the kind of runner who will break a long run if he's given even a bit of daylight, and that advantage will help the Chargers if the Colts try to match up with Jackson and Gates in the nickel. Sanders will have to be very wary of Sproles' cut-back ability as well as his - and Tomlinson's - receiving ability and movement in space.