WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Kansas City averaged an NFL-best 164.2 rushing yards per game during last year’s surprise march to an AFC West title, but that was with the dynamic Charles around for a full season. The 2011 Chiefs haven’t been nearly as potent in that area, with neither the declining Thomas Jones (111 rushing yards) nor diminutive Dexter McCluster (164 rushing yards, 17 receptions) providing much of a sustained spark. That’s forced Haley to have to rely more on the arm of Cassel (688 passing yards, 4 TD, 5 INT), who’s shaken off two poor performances to begin the season with a pair of good efforts in his last two. The 2010 Pro Bowl alternate has also been able to hit on more big plays as of late, with top target Dwayne Bowe (16 receptions, 292 yards, 2 TD) eclipsing the 100-yard mark in two of the team’s last three tests and offseason addition Steve Breaston (10 receptions) posting season bests of four catches and 91 receiving yards in the Minnesota win. Kansas City still needs to improve within the red zone, however, as the offense had all sorts of trouble crossing the goal line against the Vikings and has scored touchdowns on just 3-of-10 possessions inside the opponent’s 20-yard line to date.
Indianapolis enters this contest ranked a lowly 28th in both scoring defense (27.0 ppg) and against the run (133.0 ypg), and the team was gashed for 192 yards on the ground by the persistent Buccaneers on Monday. Injuries up front have been a contributing factor to that lack of success, as starting defensive tackle Fili Moala (ankle) has missed two straight games and rotational pieces Eric Foster (12 tackles) and Drake Nevis (16 tackles) were forced to exit this past week’s loss, with Foster suffering a season-ending dislocated ankle. Steady middle linebacker Gary Brackett is also done for the year, though young fill-in Pat Angerer (50 tackles) has performed ably in his place and weakside starter Kavell Conner (43 tackles) has been active in run support as well, with the fellow second-year pro notching 18 tackles against Tampa Bay. There have been few big plays produced by the secondary, however, therefore it’s critical that the excellent edge-rushing duo of ends Robert Mathis (8 tackles, 3 sacks) and Dwight Freeney (6 tackles, 2 sacks) can make their presence felt on Sunday. The all-star tandem has accumulated four sacks and forced a pair of fumbles over the last two weeks.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Though the Colts’ offense still didn’t come close to reaching Manning-esque standards in Monday’s setback, the insertion of Painter (341 passing yards, 2 TD) in place of Collins (481 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) did bring about some positive results. The 26-year-old did not commit a turnover against the Bucs and found the speedy Garcon (14 receptions, 295 yards, 2 TD) for touchdown strikes of 87 and 59 yards, while finishing the night with 281 passing yards. Painter did complete only 13 of his 30 attempts, however, and was sacked four times behind a shaky offensive line that will be without both promising left tackle Anthony Castonzo (ankle) and backup Ben Ijalana (knee, out for season) on Sunday. Veteran Ryan Diem, sidelined the past two weeks with an ankle sprain, is uncertain to play as well. With that in mind, Indianapolis may lean more heavily on the running-back pairing of Joseph Addai (230 rushing yards, 1 TD, 8 receptions) and rookie Delone Carter (103 rushing yards), while Painter’s passes to Garcon and mainstays Reggie Wayne (18 receptions, 255 yards, 1 TD) and Dallas Clark (13 receptions, 1 TD) may be of the shorter variety.
Painter will get to take his shots at a Kansas City stop unit that ranks just 25th in pass efficiency defense and has surrendered 10 touchdowns through the air thus far, tied for the most in the league. The Chiefs are also banged up in the secondary, with valued strong safety Eric Berry tearing his ACL in the opener and top cornerback Brandon Flowers (19 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PD) dealing with a sore ankle, though he was able to play effectively last week. Outside linebacker Tamba Hali (25 tackles) came through with a big day against the Vikings, with the 2010 Pro Bowl honoree amassing a pair of sacks and being credited with five quarterback pressures. He’s accounted for four of the team’s unimpressive season total of five sacks, and should draw plenty of attention from the Indianapolis blockers come Sunday. Inside linebackers Derrick Johnson (23 tackles, 4 PD) and Jovan Belcher (26 tackles) anchor a run defense that did permit 151 yards on the ground to Minnesota last week, but held the dangerous Adrian Peterson to a reasonable 80 yards on 23 attempts. The Chiefs still rank just 26th overall against the run (130.0 ypg) for the year, however.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Quarterback play. Neither of these teams possess much of a running game to speak of, therefore whomever wins the head-to-head battle between Cassel and Painter will most likely be celebrating a victory with his teammates on Sunday. Though Painter was an improvement over the slumping Collins in his starting debut, he’ll need to complete more than 43 percent of his passes to give the Colts their best shot, while Cassel needs to follow up last week’s strong showing with another for the Chiefs to make it back-to-back wins.
The pass rushers. There are game-changing defenders on both sides of this matchup in Indianapolis’ stellar combo of Mathis and Freeney and Kansas City’s one-man wrecking crew of Hali. In what should be a close contest, how successful each team is in neutralizing these impact rushers could go a long way towards determining the outcome.
Red-zone efficiency. Both the Colts and Chiefs have been among the league’s worst in producing touchdowns in the red zone, while Kansas City’s defense has been one of the poorest in preventing the opposition from crossing the goal line in those situations. Whichever team can come up with seven points instead of three on its drives stands the best chance of winning.
Prediction – Two teams in the midst of a bad season, but both had some good points a week ago, with the Chiefs winning their first game over the Vikings. The Colts played well on Monday night, but a late Bucs TD blew what was a good effort by Painter. The Colts should stick with Painter, and it’s a bad decision to go back to Kerry Collins. I think the Colts keep playing well, and at home they have a slight edge over the Chiefs. Indianapolis 16 Kansas City 12