The Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers are .500 in the early going of the 2013 NFL season, and two of last year's playoff teams face an early crossroads game of sorts on Sunday in Candlestick Park.
While the visiting Colts are coming off of a tough loss at home, the Niners were blown out for a second time in three regular-season games by the Seattle Seahawks. It will be interesting to see how each team responds to this early adversity.
In order to do that, this becomes essentially a must-win game. Check out this stat from ESPN's Trey Wingo, which implies this contest's loser's postseason chances decrease twofold:
1-1 teams, beware: Under current playoff format 2-1 teams have made the playoffs at a rate more than twice as high as 1-2 teams (54% to 24%)— trey wingo (@wingoz) September 19, 2013
Here is a look at the keys for each team to come away with a win in this marquee Week 3 showdown.
Keys for the Colts
Get Andrew Luck Outside the Pocket
As lethal as Luck can be sitting back and surveying the defense, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton should get his former Stanford signal-caller out of the pocket as much as possible.
The Niners can throw exotic looks at him and also take advantage of a suspect Colts offensive line in getting pressure from a four-man rush, courtesy of the unrelated tandem of Justin and Aldon Smith.
Luck's best way to circumvent them is to utilize his underrated speed and get out on the perimeter, where the field can be cut in half.
Hopefully for the Colts, they will be able to rely on newly acquired running back Trent Richardson to shoulder more of the load in the running game, but he's not guaranteed to be a huge contributor for this week specifically.
By extending plays with his legs and effectively using play-action, Luck won't have to worry as much about Luck getting lit up as many times when he drops back to pass.
Plus, the more time T.Y. Hilton—who leads the Colts in targets with 17, more than Reggie Wayne's 16—has to work in the slot against Nnamdi Asomugha, the more Indianapolis' big-play potential increases.
Get Physical in the Secondary
This shouldn't be too much of a problem for the Colts, but it remains to be seen if they can do it nearly as effectively as Seattle did last Sunday evening.
The reality is that the Niners' receiving corps is extremely thin beyond Anquan Boldin, who was held to just one catch against the Seahawks after a huge San Francisco debut.
Vontae Davis and Greg Toler are a formidable cornerback tandem and can help in that regard. However, safety LaRon Landry—who leads the NFL in tackles and is the embodiment of physicality—is out for Sunday's game:
THIS JUST IN: The leading tackler in the NFL, LaRon Landry, is out with an ankle injury against the 49ers.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) September 20, 2013
By bracketing coverage over to Boldin in double-teams and jamming the other inexperienced Niners receivers at the line of scrimmage, there is a chance for Indianapolis to disrupt the rhythm of the San Francisco passing game.
An effective pass rush would go a long way, but it's just as important to frustrate Kaepernick by creating tight coverage and limiting his receiving options.
Keys for the 49ers
Run, Kaepernick! Run!
B/R expert Matt Miller breaks down just how vulnerable the Colts are to the read-option on the edge with the likes of Erik Walden and an aging Robert Mathis at outside linebacker.
San Francisco must make its franchise quarterback comfortable after three interceptions and a career-worst 20.1 passer rating in facing the Seahawks' vaunted defense. It would probably help if Kaepernick could let his instincts take over as a ball-carrier instead of trying to beat the Colts solely as a passer.
Apparently the 25-year-old isn't rattled after the beatdown the Niners took, posting a self-motivating banner on his Instagram:
Kaepernick has not run the ball as willingly as last season from the pistol, but now might be a good time to roll it out in this monumental clash.
If the read-option can be set up by pounding Frank Gore between the tackles, whenever Mathis or Walden slip too far to the inside, there is no reason Kaepernick shouldn't be able to get to the edge for numerous big plays.
Look for the Niners to run this to Boldin's side of the field since he's such a physical presence and a strong stalk-blocker.
Shut Down T.Y. Hilton
This was touched on earlier, but doing this by any means necessary is a must for the Niners defense to be effective.
Hilton has the speed to change a game with one play and is becoming an increasingly prominent target. Since Asomugha is the No. 3 corner, he will likely draw many of the one-on-one matchups.
Which team is in the biggest must-win situation?
But this isn't the Asomugha of old, whose press coverage and hard-nosed style of play are no longer as evident in his regression in the past several seasons. Plus, the younger, fresher Hilton can beat Asomugha off the line with his quickness.
Even though the Colts lost 24-20 to the Miami Dolphins last week, there was a silver lining, as Hilton had a career day with 124 yards.
A big reason why the Dolphins won, though, was because Hilton had zero of those yards in the second half
Whether it's drifting Ahmad Brooks or Navarro Bowman out into coverage and chipping him on shallow crossing routes or reshuffling the defensive backfield, Hilton has to be a big priority for the Niners.
Wayne is typically going to get his numbers no matter what, but if both Hilton and Wayne have big games, San Francisco's shot at winning is significantly harmed.