By Josh Satler – www.profootball101.org
The nightcap on Wild Card Saturday features two teams that provided a classic in last year’s post season: the 12-4 Indianapolis Colts vs. the 8-8 San Diego Chargers. And both teams took drastically different paths to get here.
The Colts, perennial playoff participants, shook off an uncharacteristic 3-4 start to win its final nine games. A lot of their early struggles can be attributed to an assortment of injuries which hurt team continuity, but once they got all of their pieces back in place, the machine began to work as expected.
The Chargers, left for dead just four weeks ago at 4-8, put together a furious four game winning streak and received a lot of help from Denver who was putting together an equally impressive three game losing streak to blow the division.
As we head into this huge matchup on Saturday night, it’s important to note that of the few teams that have had Indy’s number over the past few years, San Diego has been one of them.
The 34 defense that San Diego employs has always given Peyton Manning fits—dating back to 2004—but this year, in a showdown about a month ago, Manning and Co. got the best of San Diego and pulled out the 23-20 win as the clock hit 0:00.
And a big reason for that might’ve been the loss of DE/LB Shawn Merriman, who always provided a consistent outside pass rush which is so important to this defensive attack.
So here’s how we see the game breaking down.
When Indianapolis has the ball, look for them to commit to the pass to set up the run. While their running game (Addai and Rhodes) can be very effective on the stretch running plays and misdirections, it’s the threat of Manning’s pinpoint passing game which keeps secondaries back and allows the upfront blocking to find holes for its backs to run through.
The Chargers must counter this by finding ways to pressure Manning. Even if they don’t sack him, a lot of pressure will throw off his rhythm and force him into errant throws. And if there’s one thing we all know about Peyton, it’s that he can be flustered into poor decisions when the stakes get higher.
His playoff track record, aside from Indy’s run in ’06 when the defense was the reason for the Super Bowl, has been hardly impressive.
If San Diego can’t pressure Manning, he will pick apart this secondary because in today’s NFL, it’s impossible for a corner to stay with a receiver for long periods of time. And he’ll do so through his usual targets: Wayne, Clark, Gonzalez and Harrison.
When the Chargers have the ball, they’ll want to focus on the running game in this one. Even though San Diego will enjoy a lot of success through the air, it’s first objective should be to sustain long drives that keep Manning and his offensive teammates on the sidelines. And in the process, they’ll wear down Indy’s defense, which is on the smaller side.
Indy will counter San Diego’s running game by placing All-Pro Safety Bob Sanders close to the line, and he being that eighth man in the box, will keep Tomlinson in check. And when they do so, Rivers must hit his plethora of receivers (Chambers, Gates and Jackson) and make Indy pay. The play-action deep to WR Vincent Jackson should be open on at least a few occasions.
Long, time-consuming drives will also neutralize DE Dwight Freeney and the defensive line and this will allow San Diego to keep their offense in rhythm throughout the night.