Colts-Chargers: Wild Card Preview

Matthew GilmartinSenior Analyst IOctober 4, 2016

The Colts and Chargers will face off in the wild card round of the AFC playoffs in another round of a rivalry that has developed over the last few seasons.

Both teams are red-hot.  The Colts have won nine straight, the Chargers four in a row. 

QB Peyton Manning has been a major reason for the Colts' success this season, as is noted by the NFL MVP award he won this year for leading the Colts to the playoffs after it looked like they might not get into the postseason.

The Indianapolis icon has thrown for 2,248 yards and 17 touchdowns to only three interceptions in addition to completing 71 percent of his passes and earning a 111.1 quarterback rating during his team's winning streak.  That's a terrible match for a Chargers pass defense ranked 31st in the league that gives up 247.4 pass yards per game and is tied for third-worst in the league in passing touchdowns allowed (25).

San Diego either needs to get pressure on the NFL MVP, or force him to throw into small, minimal holes in zone coverage if they want to have a shot at shutting down the Colts.  But chances are that the Chargers will have to do their best to plug up passing lanes in zone coverage because they're a poor pass-rushing team.

San Diego should be able to drop as many as seven or eight defenders into pass coverage because their run defense is solid, but Indy's run offense is terrible.  The Colts should know that, so they have no reason to run to set up the pass.  Therefore, the Chargers shouldn't have to worry about the run, so it will be easier to start—and stay—in pass-coverage-heavy defense. 

Still, Manning is incredibly accurate when he's on—and for the last nine weeks (with the exception of the Browns game a few weeks ago) he's been hot.  Plus, Manning has four different reliable targets to throw to.  It will be tough for the Chargers to stop Manning no matter how many guys they drop into pass coverage.

The Chargers have a dangerous air attack of their own.  While QB Philip Rivers didn't make the Pro Bowl, he easily could have with his 4,009 pass yards, 34 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and 105.5 passer rating in the regular season. 

And he had his best year as a pro in an off year for RB LaDainian Tomlinson, who gained 1,110 yards and scored 11 times but averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, and without any truly elite receivers.  Nobody caught more than 60 passes, received for more than about 1,100 yards, or scored more than eight touchdowns. 

But Rivers distributed the ball evenly so that defenses never knew who he was going to throw to.  That's what made San Diego's pass offense so effective.

On paper the Colts' pass defense looks just as good as the Chargers' pass offense.  But the Colts haven't played many teams with good quarterbacks.  This is due, in large part, to the fact that the starting quarterbacks in their division (excluding Manning) are David Gerrard (Jaguars), Matt Shaub/Sage Rosenfels (Texans), and Kerry Collins/Vince Young (Titans).  That's not exactly an elite group of passers. 

Moreover, the only notable AFC South receiver that isn't a Colt is Houston's Andre Johnson.  Lastly, the Texans and Jaguars have poor pass-protecting offensive lines.

Combine incompetent quarterbacks with inadequate receivers and porous offensive lines, and you have an easy day for your pass defense. 

Look for the Chargers to light the Colts' pass defense up.

Also, expect the Bolts to have a relatively easy time running on the Colts.  LT and Darren Sproles came alive last week for San Diego against Denver's sieve of a run defense, combining for 211 yards and four touchdowns on just 28 carries.  Indianapolis' run defense is no better. 

The special teams battle should be just about even.  The teams are even on kickoffs, but the Colts own the punt return game because of their superior defense, whereas the Chargers have the edge in field goal kicking with a higher field goals made percentage. 

This game will be a shootout.  While Peyton Manning outplayed Philip Rivers when the teams met in the divisional round of the 2007 playoffs, the Chargers won because Rivers got more help from his running game.  This wild card matchup shapes up to tell the same tale.